Spoiler Notice: Middlegame, Magic For Liars
1. A Bewildered Audience
The first problem you’ll run into with poorly thought-out magic is pure and utter confusion. Magic, by definition, isn’t real, so your audience must depend entirely on your explanation and their own trope-savviness to understand how it works. If that understanding doesn’t click, your beta readers will leave countless comments that amount to “huh?” in your manuscript. If by some chance the story makes it to publication, readers will either abandon the inscrutable text or come away with the wrong idea entirely.
Confusing magic systems have been with us for as long as spec fic has existed. In the venerable space fantasy of Dune, Frank Herbert often goes on for paragraphs about supernatural effects that are never properly explained. The Bene Gesserit can somehow see the future, or maybe the past, but only the female half, and it’s all described as being part of something called “race memory” or “race consciousnesses.” I think by “race,” Herbert means all of humanity, but I honestly don’t know because it’s so confusing.
Published just a year later, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 has similar problems. There’s a special language in the book that makes you really good at cryptography and tactics, and also kung fu for some reason. The only downside is that if you learn it, you can’t have a sense of self because it also stops you from understanding first-person pronouns???* While you’re trying to figure that out, you also have to absorb a bizarre spaceflight system where ships are piloted by ghosts and everyone talks about the vacuum like it’s filled with some kind of substance. Sure.
A more recent example is Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. The magic of this urban fantasy novel is called alchemy, but very little of it is recognizable as such. The main plot is about trying to control something called the Doctrine, which is apparently all powerful and contains everything, but can be split into language and math. This is somehow connected to an Improbable Road, which leads to the Impossible City. I say “somehow” because Chris and I both read the book and neither of us could figure out what the connection was supposed to be, or what the Impossible City is, for that matter. Then the book adds in a four-element system and also a system of consensual reality that is demonstrated exclusively through competing children’s books.
If your magic system is that confusing, there’s a good chance that other aspects of the story won’t even matter. The best plotting and deepest characters can’t do their jobs when your audience doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.
2. Unsatisfying Plot Points
Assuming your readers can grok your magic system well enough to understand what’s happening, you’ll run into a subtler but still highly damaging problem: magical plot points that lack coherent rules of cause and effect.
Outside of intentionally sanctioned mysteries, fiction works best when the audience can tell what caused each event in the story. When your protagonist gets into a car, their next action will probably be putting on a seatbelt or starting the engine rather than urging their giraffe to a gallop. This is fairly easy to understand when it comes to mundane actions that real humans can perform, but it gets really messy once magic enters the picture.
Since magic comes entirely from our imaginations, there are technically no rules for how it works. You can make a wizard who gets in a car before urging a giraffe to a gallop and no one can say you are factually incorrect. However, readers will still expect a cause-and-effect relationship that they can follow, so unless you’ve specifically set up a world where cars are perched on top of mighty transport giraffes, you’re going to have a problem.
A fun and also somewhat gross example of this problem can be found in Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars. In this magic school mystery, our hero is investigating the rogue use of a complex and difficult surgery spell, which she believes is responsible for a murder. Toward the end, one of the suspects is put in a stressful situation, which causes her to instinctively use this surgery spell to disassemble her classmate into a floating cloud of tissue globs. Don’t worry, they put him back together later, but that’s not important for this post.
The reason Gailey has the suspect use this spell is that it’s the one she’s spent a bunch of time building up as important, so she wants it to play a major role in this tense scene. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to imagine that in a moment of panicked stress, this suspect would reach for a complicated and difficult surgery spell to defend herself. You’d expect something simpler, like a bolt of lightning or possibly a charm spell, as the character in question is established to be good at those. This leaves the reader wondering about spell choices when they should be concerned about the floating cloud of tissue globs that used to be a student.
If you want a more visual example, check out Doctor Strange in the MCU film Infinity War. Before the big battle with Thanos, he scans through over fourteen million possible futures, and only sees one where the heroes win. That sounds tense and menacing, but also, what? Just in that next battle, our heroes are on the very edge of defeating Thanos, but then Starlord messes things up by attacking Thanos too early. In fourteen million timelines, is there not a single scenario in which they stop Starlord from ruining the plan? I’m no Starlord fan, but even I don’t think he’s that incompetent.
The purpose of this exchange is to justify why Doctor Strange later saves Tony Stark’s life by giving Thanos the Time Stone. Tony needs to be alive so he can sacrifice himself in the next movie, you see. That’s what we in the biz call a plot contrivance. The writers were so devoted to the specific result they wanted, they didn’t stop to consider if their magic system would support it, which robs the moment of satisfaction. Or maybe they did consider it, but then didn’t care.
If a setting element works one way the first time it’s introduced, your audience will expect it to work the same way the next time unless you clearly show why it’s different. This can be a real problem with magic, since the authors themselves often don’t seem to know how a given spell, ability, or device works. The longer a series goes on, the more of a risk this becomes.
Do you remember that odd-looking superspeed that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan use in The Phantom Menace to escape from some droids? Weird that they never use such a powerful ability again, especially later in the movie when Qui-Gon dies because Obi-Wan couldn’t run through a set of closing force fields fast enough. And speaking of that scene, isn’t it strange how Obi-Wan seems to use his anger to kill Darth Maul, and everyone lauds him as a hero for it? In Return of the Jedi, killing an enemy in anger was a path to the dark side. Granted, it had been a while since Return of the Jedi was released, but I bet George Lucas could have found someone to lend him a copy.
A more long-running example is on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is so inconsistent that I could spend the rest of the post focused on it and not run out of examples. Instead, let’s look at just one inconsistent aspect: whether magic is addictive. For most of the show, the answer is obviously no. Several characters perform magic spells with no sign of negative effects. Willow and Tara even perform some pretty dramatic effects like throwing a vending machine with their minds, and everything’s fine.
At the end of season five, Willow learns a few attack spells that the show insists are “dark,” though it’s not clear why throwing a lightning bolt would change your spot on the alignment chart. But still, she shows no signs of addiction. Then, in season six, all the magic Willow does is addictive because this is the drug metaphor season. Tara is fine, so I guess she’s a functional drug user or something. Then, in the season finale, Giles shows up loaded with magic, but no one seems concerned that he might get hooked. By the end of season seven, this problem has completely disappeared. Willow even does a huge spell to awaken all the potential slayers at once, and it’s like no one remembers the previous season at all.*
If the audience can’t trust that your magic or technology will work consistently, they have no reason to invest in your conflicts. Any problem can be solved at any time when magic doesn’t follow any kind of pattern. Likewise, the hero’s plans can also fail for any reason, so it’s hard to get excited when they do something.
4. Overpowered Abilities
Overpowered characters come in all shapes and sizes, but poorly thought-out magic is one of the most common reasons for it. When you don’t consider how strong a given magical effect is or the different applications it might have, you end up with a character who’s way stronger than they should be. This means either the character’s challenges are way too easy or you have to come up with a contrived reason that this super powerful ability can’t save the day.
This type of problem is most common in high action adventure stories. Circling back to Dune, Paul has the vaguely described “weirding way” that lets him win every fight with ease, even though it’s not clear what the weirding way actually does.* But this issue isn’t limited to physical conflicts, oh no. He and his Bene Gesserit mother can also tell what other characters are thinking with their supernatural cold-reading. However, when Herbert doesn’t want them to know, they can’t.
The Wheel of Time has a similar situation, though with much flashier magic. At the end of book three, protagonist Rand gets his hands on Callandor, an artifact that greatly amplifies his magical powers. Rand was already pretty powerful, and with Callandor he can vanquish most of the villains with ease, or even destroy entire armies. That’s a problem, considering the series goes on for 11 more books. So how does author Robert Jordan keep Rand from running roughshod over the bad guys? In book four, Rand decides to leave Callandor in his fortress, which he claims is a reminder that he’ll be back so that everyone will stay loyal. Yeah, sure. Hey, Rand, you know what would make everyone stay loyal? If you had a magic artifact that gave you godlike powers!
I expect overpowered magic in action-heavy epic fantasy, but it shows up in all types of stories. My absolute favorite example has to be the writing magic from Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. In this story, January has the ability to make anything happen by writing it down and then willing it into existence. If there is any limit to what she can do, the book never establishes it. The only cost is that she feels tired after altering the very fabric of the universe with her magic. Meanwhile, January’s enemies in this story are a group of racist old men, most of whom depend on hired goons. A few have comparatively minor magical powers, all of which depend on being in the same room as their target.
You can imagine how this creates a power imbalance. At first, Harrow tries to paper over the problem by claiming that January doesn’t know about her powers. This immediately fails as January uses her powers multiple times and then supposedly forgets about them. Yeah, being a master of creation sounds like the sort of thing you forget in a hurry. Later on, the book occasionally relies on contrived reasons that January can’t get hold of a pen, but in the last third or so Harrow seemingly gives up and just has January not use her powers for no reason at all. She could easily solve her problems, but she doesn’t. She even refuses to solve her friends’ problems. Then, in the falling action, January is back to using her powers as if nothing happened.
Whether your story is full of exciting battles or contemplative philosophy, overpowered magic creates the same problem: it trivializes conflict. If your hero can solve their issues too easily, the story will be boring. If they could do that but then don’t, the story will be contrived. This is why you need to think through the implications of what your magic can do rather than just slapping on every power that sounds neat.
5. Theming Clashes
Theming your setting is a critical stage of worldbuilding. A well-themed world feels cohesive and whole, while a poorly themed one feels like a mess of ideas cobbled together at the last minute. Since magic and tech are major aspects of most spec fic settings, they have a big influence on the theming. But when storytellers are overeager to give their heroes exciting new powers, theming gets left by the wayside.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most intense example of this problem I have ever seen. As a superhero world, there’s an assumption that each hero will have a power or suite of powers that’s unique to them. That’s enough of a problem when dealing with inborn powers like Thor’s lightning magic, Spider-Man’s enhanced senses, or Captain America’s super strength.* Those powers are self-contained, even if they come from radically different sources. So, with just those three, this is a setting with Norse gods, radioactive mutations, and ’40s pulp super science. Most novels would already have been laughed out the door by this point.
Then you get into more transferable powers like Doctor Strange’s magic. This doesn’t seem to require any inherent talent, and while it might be a pain to learn, the benefits are so extreme that there’d be no shortage of volunteers. There’s a flimsy masquerade in place, but even that crumbles once Doctor Strange joins the Avengers. At the very least, you’d think some of the other superheroes would want to learn magic so they have more options for protecting Earth from the seemingly endless threats to its existence. But Marvel can’t have that, because each hero has to do their own thing. Spider-Man can’t go to wizard school – how would the branding department handle it?
But all of that pales in comparison to characters who get their power from easily replicable sources. Tech heroes are the obvious problem here. Iron Man in particular could be outfitting the entire MCU team with super powerful tech, but he doesn’t because… he’s stingy? That must be why he left Spider-Man an entire fleet of high-tech assassin drones. Black Panther has a similar issue. His power comes from the heart-shaped herb,* of which there are many. Unlike the other heroes, Black Panther has a country to lead, so it’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to hand out those herbs like candy, but when Wakanda’s existence is at stake, you figure he might at least offer them to his close allies. Give Shuri some herb powers, is what I’m saying.
I haven’t been able to find a novel with theming problems even half as bad as the MCU. A big reason is that Marvel’s film juggernauts didn’t start as cohesive stories, but as separate comics that eventually joined together into a giant tangle of crossovers. Another reason is that Marvel has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on the most charismatic actors and the latest special effects. Audiences will forgive a lot under those circumstances.
If you try something like that in a novel, you’ll quickly discover the downside of not having a huge pile of money to throw at your creative project. Fortunately, planning your magic system so it doesn’t conflict with your story’s theming doesn’t cost any money at all. It does cost time and effort, but so does every other aspect of storytelling.
6. Babble Instead of Turning Points
The turning point is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of storytelling. It’s the part in a conflict where the hero goes from losing to winning, or winning to losing if you’re writing a tragedy. Without a turning point, the conflict has no satisfaction. The hero just walks away triumphant because they’re the hero. There are numerous types of turning points, but the one we’re concerned with today is the clever deduction. This is when a character puts the pieces together at just the right moment, allowing them to see some path to victory that they didn’t see before.
A clever deduction requires proper setup. The audience has to be aware of the various pieces before they click into place; otherwise it feels like the author just pulled a solution out of thin air. If your hero wins the day by cleverly deducing a weakness in the big bad’s fighting style, then the audience has to understand how that fighting style works in order for the victory to be satisfying. This is where poorly thought-out magic systems become a problem. If you don’t understand how your magic works, how are you going to explain it to the audience?
Star Trek is infamous for this in the form of technobabble. When the ship is in danger, the solution is all too often a string of meaningless jargon that has nothing to do with the story. Words like “tachyon” and “depolarize” are common. This is a problem in every Trek show, but it’s especially bad on Voyager, where things get really out of hand. My favorite is the infamous episode Threshold, where the characters technobabble their way into creating a ship that travels at infinite speed, then have a technobabble problem where two of them transform into giant newts, then create a technobabble solution to turn them back. That’s an extreme example, but it’s a problem throughout the entire series. The more recent Trek shows haven’t escaped it either, though on Discovery they tend toward fungus-related technobabble, which is a new wrinkle.
Don’t worry, this can happen with fantasy as well as scifi. Remember Middlegame and how confusing it was? Well, that gets even worse once the characters have to start solving major problems in the last fourth or so of the book. In one sequence, they have to find a special magical location in order to perform an important ritual, which is pitched as a major problem. This location could be anywhere, so how will they find it? By spouting magic babble, of course! This happens largely in the form of one character doing magical math formulas until they arrive at the answer: the Sutro Baths. What’s that, you haven’t heard of the Sutro Baths?* Neither had I, but the book still acted like it was supposed to mean something.
Not only had the Baths not been established previously in the book, but the criteria they claim to use in finding it could apply to hundreds, possibly thousands of sites in just the United States. They say the location has to be somewhere with a connection to both fire and water, which the Sutro Baths does have, but I can think of half a dozen places with similar connections just here in Seattle. With criteria that useless, we just have to trust that the magical math formulas somehow found the right place. Since we have no idea how these formulas work, there’s no satisfaction in the result, just like there isn’t when the Enterprise crew solves their problem by shunting reverse polarity tachyons through the main deflector dish.*
The hard truth of worldbuilding is that even a well-thought-out magic system doesn’t make you immune to these problems. Brandon Sanderson clearly put lots of work in the magic of his Mistborn books, and yet there are serious theming issues with which metals grant which magical powers.* The Broken Earth has incredibly detailed magic, and yet the main character is still way overpowered.* But if you don’t put serious thought into how the supernatural works in your story, these issues go from possibilities to guarantees. You might even get consequence combos, like a spell that summons invincible ghost knights, which are way too powerful and also don’t fit in your 1920s cosmic horror setting. Don’t let this happen to you. Start thinking about your magic system today!
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