SPS-317: Crafting a Believable Magic System – with C.R. Rowenson
A magic system, like any world-building in a novel, requires rules and structure so that readers aren’t taken out of the story by confusion or a lack of logic. CR Rowenson talks to James about his love for helping authors create and design magic systems that enhance the stories being told.
- On James’ revision strategy for his work-in-progress
- How taking away a character’s struggle can make them less interesting
- Helping authors understand the magic systems in their books
- What are the seven stages of building a magic system?
- How the stages of building a magic system can apply to video games or screenplays
- Does the story come first, or the magic?
- What happens when an author makes changes to a magic system?
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MAGIC WORKSHEET: Click here to download Clark’s worksheet for setting up a magic system
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-317: Crafting a Believable Magic System - with C.R. Rowenson
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
C R Rowenson: It doesn't necessarily need to be tied to the plot. It doesn't need to be essential to the theme or the setting or the characters, but it should be connected to one of those things. And that's where alignment is important. To make sure that you have found a way to make your magic matter to your story.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson. And hopefully this week, no dog vomiting behind me. That's the plan.
James Blatch: No. We got an outtake from last week, we might surface it at the end of the year.
Mark Dawson: No, let's not do that.
James Blatch: Christmas episode.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: If you're watching on YouTube, I'm in very harsh sunlight today, so it doesn't look great. I didn't realise this until you start doing video production. And if you do your own content creation with a video camera, particularly on TikTok, outside, those days where you have thin white cloud are perfect. You get this view beautiful even light. And you see in studios, those big lights they have over film sets, that's trying to... That even, no shadows lights.
And when you have harsh sunlight, it's fine if you're recording, making a feature film in Southern California. But this is what happens to us content creators. I'm big on TikTok now. I've got 2,500 followers, and 59,000 views on my most watched video. And I've picked up a couple of friends, Mark, people who are better than I am at TikTok. Been there longer, with bigger accounts, who've latched onto me.
One guy's very, very good. He private messages me and said, "Look, I'm going to do a top-five British aircraft. I want you to respond to it." So that's what we do, and it all happens publicly. And the comments, loads of people get engaged in this. And I've done a little controversial one this week. He's a flying instructor. I've criticised the aircraft that he flies in.
Mark Dawson: Is it a Cessna?
James Blatch: Yes it is.
Mark Dawson: I saw it. Yes, I saw that. I mean, it is incredibly geeky-
James Blatch: Yes it is. But-
Mark Dawson: ... As you know.
James Blatch: But look how quickly the comments and things go up.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: So, it's fun.
Mark Dawson: Oh yeah. We fun with Simon here yesterday. We had two F-15s fly over.
James Blatch: Oh, that would've been from here then.
Mark Dawson: It was. I think it was the 80th anniversary of the USAF in the UK, I think it was.
James Blatch: Was that yesterday, was it. I tell you what, because I did see-
Mark Dawson: Two days ago.
James Blatch: Ah, yeah. Well, I saw them as well. I think there were four in fact.
Mark Dawson: There were. It wasn't just F-15s, it was... God, this is boring for everybody else. I think there were eight different aircraft.
James Blatch: So I know exactly what happened. I'm quite geeky like this. So I'll be sitting at my desk and every now and again, I'll hear something in... So I'll get flight radar up. Flight Radar 24. And I have a look. And on this day, I don't know what I was looking at the time, it might be a Chanute nearby. But I saw that F-15 formation coming from the west country.
I tracked it, carried on working of course diligently, but that the appropriate time I went out, with my binoculars and all four of them were strung out in a kind of box formation going across back to Lake and Heath, which is only 25 miles from here. So that is geeky. But I did a presentation last night for the Quill writers conference. Which is historical fiction writers. You can imagine that's quite a broad brush.
So you end up with people writing mediaeval fiction or World War II, in my case, cold war. But one of the things I said to them at the beginning is first of all getting your book right, for a historical fiction genre book right, is the same principles as getting a romance or a modern day fiction book right.
But I think there's an advantage to historical fiction because we always say, don't we, that nonfiction is in many ways, easier to market than fiction. If you're a romance writer, you've got to find romance readers. But if you write World War II literature, actually you can find you've got a non-fiction element there, haven't you? So you can find people interested in World War II, that crossover of people who read novels, potentially readers for you.
I certainly find that with cold war aviation. I find people who like cold war aviation, of which there are many people in the world, lots of them happily on the internet. And I use it in targeting, in Facebook and overlap with people who are interested in KDP. So I thought that was quite an interesting starting point for people doing historical fiction, to think about the non-fiction element, to help you find your audience. It'd certainly been working for me on TikTok so far. And for free, not even having to pay for ads on TikTok, although that will come.
Mark Dawson: Someone actually posted the other day that Mark's not very busy on TikTok. And I can definitely see the potential and I've seen more than enough people doing very well now.
James Blatch: I tell you who we have had. We've had Amy Dawes interviewed her. Megan Quinn, brilliant interviews, love them. We've had Lucy Score recently as well. And all three of them were one, two and three in the charts. And Amy and Megan, I think I'm right in saying Megan, but certainly Amy 100% said, TikTok is the reason I got to number one. And we know that from Suzanne Valenti and Caroline Peckham, they said the same. So we are seeing books hitting the top of the charts.
Mark Dawson: I'm getting, and the seller's making an issue of it now as well. So even in the WH Smiths in Salisbury, so the book shop we have here. There is a table now of Book Tok reads. So it's definitely cutting through, but the reason I don't do it too much is because I just don't have time.
If I did have time and I was in a genre that I thought was very hot on TikTok, I would be all over it. And we'll see, maybe when we do... The course is out soon. So as this goes out, we've closed ads for authors, but we are quite close. In fact, as this goes out, we may even have published the extended TikTok module that we've put together. And I'll have a look at that. And maybe see about posting some others, certainly from my kids' book. I think that's got some potential as well. We'll see. But yeah, definitely working well.
James Blatch: Talking of books, this is a manuscript. So this is the working title.
Mark Dawson: For those listening on the podcast, James is holding up his new book, which says Redneck, which won't be saying that for very much longer.
James Blatch: No. So I finished the draft, printed it out, which I know is a bit of a waste of paper, but it's how I prefer to revise. Read it with a pen in hand, making notes, going through. And so that's basically the revision stage for me. And this is using the traffic like method that Jenny had on. I'm really pleased to say, I don't know whether I should say this out loud because I'm almost all the way through my first revision, "Oh, is this any good? It's rubbish."
And I read it. So I thought maybe it is okay. This book, I kind of feel I've got much closer to being. And so they're not massive changes. One of the characters needs to be not a friendly person, a more unfriendly person. So it's a bit of a rewrite there, and there's a middle section needs probably another 10,000 words added.
And then lots of sentences that have red marks on them that need a little tweak all the way through. So that's my next stage to go through in, I've got a month to do that, hopefully, and then hand it over to Andrew Lowe. But I need a title Mark.
I was going to call it Redneck. The main character's called Red. There is a hillbilly, Mississippi farmer type guy who was a Korean war pilot that's been dragged back out because of his expertise in the area to help with a secret anti-communist project if you like at Edward's air force base. And Redneck worked on that level, but it was one of those clever titles that worked better after you'd finished the book. Think, "Oh yeah, that's a clever title."
Not really going to help sell it, and could be confusing. And a lot of people say, "I keep being told by people that we don't understand what that means. It's quite pejorative." But I think it means hillbilly. Redneck, that's what I think it means.
Mark Dawson: It does. But if you're being told that by Americans, I think you have to take that into account, that it probably is pejorative. It is pejorative. And I know that. I don't think it's particularly super offensive.
James Blatch: And it's 1960s. It's the kind of language they used. But anyway, I parked it. It's not going to happen. Should you be interested in this, there's a thread on our Facebook community, where I've had about 200 responses and people have given me their ideas. Some really good names in there, I've got a kind of short list from that. I do like Covert Strike, actually. Covert Strike is sort of what it does. It's one of those titles that says what the genre is, which is the most important thing I think a title and cover need to do. But it does depart from The Final Flight.
Mark Dawson: I think you have to depart from that. I was going to say, as I said before you should mention this on the podcast, if you are going to write any more books you are going to have... And then if you had The Final Flight and then let's say The Dangerous Flight or whatever.
James Blatch: I'm going to run out.
Mark Dawson: You are limiting yourself for the book three, becomes even more difficult than book two is. Because you are just forcing yourself. And I think it could be really boring. I've had some experience with that. With the Isabella books, the first ones called... That's a good question. The first one is called The Angel. Her code name is Angel. So The Angel, then it's The Asset, The Agent, The Avenger. So obviously it's the proper noun capital A, something.
And this one, the book I'm working on at the moment begins to get quite difficult. Because, okay, what word beginning with A, after four beginning with A can I still make sense. And I think I found one, but if there was a book six, I'm going to struggle. Because the dictionary is running out of words beginning with A.
So I think with you, if it's 'the something flight', it will become very difficult. I would advise you to steer away from that, something else. Covert Strike sounds okay. The only issue I'd have with that and it could be just me is it just feels a bit unsophisticated. But maybe it doesn't need to be, I think it's not bad actually. What would Craig Thomas say? He did Firefox Down didn't he?
James Blatch: Yeah. Craig Thomas is another one, isn't he? Yeah, so I had a look at those titles. Interesting, there's a set of cold war books by John Windgate that are being marketed by an indie publishing company. And they're doing really well. They're sort of down in the 1,200 level in the UK store and they're really simple covers. So he's got three in the cold war series.
One's about an aircraft carrier, one's about a frigate and one's about a submarine and it's called Carrier, Frigate, Submarine with this kind of grey, dark weather, ocean pictures, and a big picture of a frigate, big picture of an aircraft carrier. You don't have to be sophisticated when the job of cover is for someone to look at it and think, "Oh, I like... That's the sort of book I read." That's what your cover and title need to say to somebody.
Mark Dawson: Oh, I see. Yeah. I'm looking at it now.
James Blatch: I'm reading Carrier.
Mark Dawson: No surprise there. Because of aeroplanes .
James Blatch: At the moment, but I have a feeling, I'm not sure, but reading it now, I have a feeling this book may have been written in the 80s and has been repurposed as a historical fiction by, I don't even...
Mark Dawson: Sphere Books.
James Blatch: Yeah. I think they're small publishers. So I've got my eyes on them because they're in my wheelhouse, both Fuse Books wise and my own writing. And they're doing well with that. And obviously pushing it with ads.
I think also the covers do a really good job with that series for the people who like those sort of books. It does the number one thing. So I'll just reiterate again, I talked about this last night in the Quill conference. What's your cover supposed to do? Your cover's supposed to tell people, this is the sort of book you like reading. And it can only do that if it fits really firmly into the genre expectations.
Mark Dawson: I'm just looking at some of their books, now they've got quite a lot of books. But yeah, they are Target Risk, Go Deep, Last Ditch.
James Blatch: Oh, they do romance as well then?
Mark Dawson: Thank you James, sorry everybody.
James Blatch: Deep Impact.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Cold Strike, Penetration.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Carry on. Just looking at Sphere books now. Anyways, I'll do this later. We don't have time on the podcast.
James Blatch: Anyway, sorry. So you go down these sidelines. Look, we've been chatting enough. We've had a very busy time with our course and I've still got a lot of course to edit, lots of stuff going on. So I think it's time for our interview and Mark, are you ready for a bit of magic?
Mark Dawson: Oh yes. I certainly am.
James Blatch: Can you sing? Could it be magic?
Mark Dawson: No, I can't sing and neither can you so we won't be doing that.
James Blatch: We're going to speak to C R Rowenson, Clark Rowenson who's going to talk to us magic systems. This sounds quite niche, but it's a really entertaining interview. And actually it pertains to quite a wide variety of genres. It's not simply fantasy books, but it's anything set not in the real world will have to have some elements of what we loosely call magic. And you have to have some rules about that. Some consistency, or you may choose not to have consistency, but you need to do that with your eyes open.
Clark Rowenson is your man. He is the geekiest of geek people when it comes to magic systems. Now he writes about it and he speaks about it very well. So let's hear it from Clark.
Clark Rowenson then welcome to The Self Publishing Show. Lovely to have you here. We're going to be talking magic, which I don't think we've ever talked about before. We've talked a bit about world building and within sci-fi and fantasy, not making mistakes and contradictions and keeping on top of everything. But I think specifically we talk about magic systems, which is quite an exciting prospect. But I would like to start by learning a bit about you and your writing, Clark.
C R Rowenson: Absolutely. What do you want to know?
James Blatch: Let's start with when you became a writer. At what point? Was that an early aspiration of yours or is this later in life?
C R Rowenson: It definitely came later and it was one of those things that I was very self conscious about. Because a lot of people do write very early. And been reading my whole life. But where things really kicked in was I was actually in school getting my degree in engineering and chemistry and I read Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. And that was the point where I realised that some people might actually like the types of magic systems that I would like to build.
So I started building a bunch of them and talking about them with my friends and eventually they said, "Clark, please shut up and just write it down and we'll read it." And I did. And they didn't. So I thought I was being clever deciding to put it into a story because then they would want all of the gritty details. That's how I got into writing fiction.
James Blatch: What was the fiction? You talk about magic, so it can be a bit of a broad term that appears in lots of different types of fantasy books in particular, but what did you specifically write?
C R Rowenson: I started with contemporary secondary world fantasy. Because I was really interested in doing superpowers that were tied intimately with the actual scientific principles of our world. That was just my engineering brain going nuts. So dealing with telekinesis that has force vectors and pressure and all of that kind of stuff while dealing with air compression for pneumatics and all of that, everything that I could cram in there, I was cramming in there.
I ended up with a world that had something like 34, 37 different different powers that I was lining like this. And that's where my first story really unfolded was in that world kind of following through some of that. And that was the first book that I really got to, I think acceptable levels. I still haven't published it yet. Because I ended up shifting over to focusing on the nonfiction rather than the fiction. But that's where I started was basically scientific superpowers.
James Blatch: So you like the idea of the magic or fantastical elements. And this I think would apply to science fiction. I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. Being closely tied to reality in inverted commas. In other words, having some credibility.
A bit like Arthur C. Clarke in the 1930s and 40s who wrote science fiction, but knew what he was talking about as it turned out, ended up predicting things that happened.
C R Rowenson: That's certainly where I started. I really liked the highly rational magic systems. And as I've been exploring that, and as I started doing more and more writing, especially when I started helping people with magic systems, I realised my love of magic systems has been there my whole life. And it doesn't have to be that way. You can have the rational magic systems. You can have the soft, irrational magic systems like we see in Lord of the Rings.
They all have different roles to play. I really nerd out about PO abilities and individualization and morphing things to meet specific needs. And magic is an incredible tool that we can put in our story, no matter what story we have and you can make it mesh. If you want to do hard sci-fi...
So this will upset some people I'm sure. But to me, as far as storytellers, there is no difference between technology and magic. We can approach it the same, because they're all fantastic elements in our story. How closely they have to be tied to reality. Depends on the genre you're writing, the sub-genre, you're writing and the exact function you want the magic to play. But there's no single quadrant. It's all useful. And there's all different pros and cons of the different things you can do.
James Blatch: Yeah. Sort of what I'm getting at here. I like the fact that there's limitations on the fantastic elements in and I kind of yawn and roll my eyes a bit when suddenly they can do this or that made that easy didn't it. I prefer to see a character because we know they can... I think Star Wars did this actually. Star Wars started off really well. It was really hard to use the force. It took all the effort.
And these people became wizened and 900 years old and barely alive having devoted their life to it. And by the prequels you could look at something and make it fly across the room or throw somebody, or force run and all that stuff. All that stuff is nonsense because... Well, it felt to me, it took away the believability, credibility of the...
Watching the character struggle with limitations, when you take those limitations where it doesn't become as interesting to me.
C R Rowenson: I would agree. It makes the magic itself less interesting. And this is part of my favourite answer to pretty much everything is it depends because it really depends on what you're trying to do. But yeah, the limitations are incredibly valuable for exactly what you talked about. I think it was Angelina Trevino, she was the one who did the world building episode with you guys.
James Blatch: Yeah.
C R Rowenson: She was talking about that there too with consistency and it making sense, especially if that's what you're going for. You really need to stick to that. And without the conflict, you don't really have a story. But here's where it depends is if your main point of interest and your main point of conflict is not the magic system it can still be a very interesting and compelling story.
One of the things I've actually been working on a number of people with lately is matching up the conflict to the deficiencies of their magic system. There's so much to learn from studying Star Wars, both on what to do right and what to do wrong over the course of a series. I love the Star Wars universe. I have played so many of the games, but that's a whole side thing. Is matching up the conflict to the deficiencies of your magic system.
If we look at Superman, I was never very interested in Superman. Superman bored me. Because the superheroes were mostly about physical conflict and grim peril. And he wasn't ever really in that much danger. Now, if you took Superman and put him into Pride and Prejudice situation where he had to get married, and yet he is the superpowered uber person who can easily break everything around him. While that is not necessarily my cup of tea, that is definitely interesting.
James Blatch: That book hasn't been written, has it?
C R Rowenson: I don't know. Somebody should do that.
James Blatch: Yeah, they should definitely do that. So we're touching on the fundamentals and the principles that can make magic work for you or not work for you.
You teach people about magic systems. How do you go about doing that?
C R Rowenson: Part of it is I do one-on-one coaching for one and I really do like working with people individually on that front to figure out exactly what they need and what it is they're trying to do. I like helping people in general, so I like doing writing coaching in general, helping people sidestep their problems.
That's where I started was honestly just helping my friends and people in my critique group. There's a lot of stuff in the world, especially where the field has been around for a while, where the experts are doing things automatically, because they have honed their instincts and they have up the experience on what works and what doesn't.
What I really try and focus on doing is taking that information and codifying it, trying to come up with actual terms and explanations that capture these things that a lot of people are already doing so that we can better analyse it and see what the process is.
That's really what I get into. I've spent a lot of time looking into what I call like the stages of building a magic system. There's a number of stages I think pretty much everybody goes through. I haven't seen anybody actually skip one of the stages. I recently published my second nonfiction book, which is The Magic System Blueprint, which is a tool that focuses in on specific characteristics that are universal to all magic systems, to help you get an understanding of how your system functions as an entity. And that tell you a lot about the implications it'll have in your world building, how you can fit it in your story. That's the stuff I really like to do is trying to condense things and explain part of what we already know and options. I love exploring options.
James Blatch: Let's talk about the phases then. Stages of magic system building, do you want to take us through then so we know we're not skipping them.
C R Rowenson: Absolutely. Seven stages and this has changed over time as I am like continually refining things and learning things. But it breaks down fairly simple.
First stage is finding inspiration. Because it's just like with the story, if you haven't hit on that idea that excites you yet, it's really hard to fill in all the other pieces. Once you have your point of inspiration, which as a side thing, I call that a seed crystal. I can tell you why in a minute, if we want to get into that.
Stage two is idea generation, and this is really important. And something that sometimes gets overlooked. It was Thomas Edison who said, if you want to have great ideas, have a lot of them. Anybody who's familiar with this design thinking, it's really important to have the divergent thinking and generate tonnes and tonnes of ideas so you can really pick the best.
Then stage three is alignment where you look at all the options you have and you start matching it up to what you need. Figuring out what you need and figuring out what will and won't meet those needs.
Then you have definition where you start narrowing down into what your magic system actually does. And that is definitely influenced by your idea generation and your alignment.
Then the next stage is restrictions where you really look into what your magic system can't do, where you want the limits to be and where you want it to function and the areas you don't want it to touch.
After that you have testing, which you're just stress testing it, putting it through different scenarios like there's contextual testing and then more mechanical thing.
And then last, after you have done all the tests, you have found the breaks what your system could be, what it needs to be, what it is and what it isn't then the final stage is iteration. Because you go back to the beginning and start again. And you don't have to go through the same order. You don't have to go through all the same stages. At this point it's good for you to focus in on exactly what you need and iterate that.
So for example, if you were testing and you found a major break in your plot or it would cause a major break in your plot, you can go through the seven stages specifically trying to find a solution to that.
James Blatch: Okay, well let's talk about some examples then. So different levels of magic suit different genres, I guess. And if somebody's in an urban fantasy environment, it might be these select individuals who walk among us who have a certain magic and the rest of us don't. And it's kind of the thing, isn't it, about urban fantasy. It's real world, but with magic there.
So in that environment, applying your rules, you've got to work out in advance. First of all, have lots of ideas and then pick the best one. So what are we going to say? There's traditional ones with vampire. But I suppose telekinesis is quite an interesting one, isn't it? There's this group of people who have the ability to read your thoughts, which is a very interesting concept.
C R Rowenson: Yeah, telepathy. Yeah.
James Blatch: So let's think about telepathy. How would you then apply the stages to something like that?
C R Rowenson: Where I would start is figuring out again what your point of inspiration is and what your seed crystal is. And that can be literally anything. I tend to focus on high level magic system concepts. So I will say things like, I want a virus based magic system. I want a jewellery based magic system. I want to do a polymer based magic system.
James Blatch: What do you mean by that? Explain what a virus based magic system is?
C R Rowenson: So this is one that I built and I actually talk about in my book, I use it as an example in my book, but there are magical viruses that they are what carry the magical properties. And you have to get infected by them and your magical powers are at their strongest when the disease is at its height. Since the viral particles carry the magic, the more of them there are in your body, the stronger, the magical effect. But the side effect is you feel awful when you are most magically potent.
James Blatch: So you get ill and magic at the same time. With peak illness and peak magic, and then it wanes and you lose it. So you might immediately start to think some people are going to get ill deliberately.
C R Rowenson: Yes, yes, exactly. That was my seed crystal. That's where all sorts of ideas started exploding. So then with idea generation I was looking into different of kinds of magical effects, how I wanted it to tie to viruses. What kinds of viruses were out there. All of that kind of stuff.
If you wanted to use telepathy as your seed crystal, then you could do something similar. Start coming up with all of the nuanced applications of telepathy, different ways that the telepathy might manifest, different ways it might be channelled between characters. And all of these little factors.
I developed these little quotes and sayings because they helped me deal with my own hangups and my own mental health problems that I run into. One of them that I use a lot and I found has helped other people is that creativity is in combinations and distinction is into details.
So just like with our stories at a high level, they all seem pretty much the same. And they're all fairly generic. Magic systems are the same. So you can start with the seed crystal of telepathy and end up with some wildly different stuff based on how you develop your idea generation. It could be telepathy that is based off of, I don't know, food. Food would be interesting. If you have telepathic connections with whoever it was, you shared a meal with last. And that might be an idea that then takes things in an entire direction as to why do the meals do that? How would that affect your culture? Because feasts would be a very interesting thing.
James Blatch: And dates. I'm going to guess your first few dates are going to be walks, before you commit to having a meal with somebody who's got that ability.
C R Rowenson: That actually that would be very interesting custom if you don't actually eat a meal together until you're married.
James Blatch: Oh no, now and then I've seen inside your head. It's all off. So what stage are you at now? You've done your seeding at the beginning, your concept, if you like. And then remind me again because there were seven of them.
How do you work this out?
C R Rowenson: So seed crystal. And I'll walk through basically what I did with the viral magic because that's done.
James Blatch: Yeah, let's do that.
C R Rowenson: And then we can do this stuff for telepathy.
James Blatch: And the viral magic by the way is brilliant. I'm trying to think what special property any of us got from COVID. But so far not smelling eggs is about it.
C R Rowenson: In my defence, I started working on that a couple years before COVID. And kind like how Angelina just finished her destroying the world book right as COVID hit. I finished posting an entire series of blog posts about how I built the system. I finished it like right at the beginning of 2020. So I'm not saying I caused it, but if anybody gets super powers, you're welcome.
So you have the seed crystal, which would be the viral magic or the telepathy. Come up with a bunch of ideas, variety of effects. And then it was alignment. So this is where it's important to look at the story you want to tell. And if you have anybody who's listening, who's not just a writer. If you are a screenplay writer or even a game developer, same things apply.
It's about looking a little bit at the experience that you want to craft and understanding how the magic can tie into that. With the viral magic one of the other nuggets of inspiration I had is I... Part of this, came from the idea that I wanted a magic system where being immunocompromised was an advantage. And the idea there was that if you're immunocompromised, the viruses will actually linger in your system longer. So that's part of where that started. If you have a compromised immune system, the virus will linger in your system longer and you then have access to the magic longer than anybody else, which could work to your advantage.
Alignment, I had that. I also was playing around with the idea of the story that I want to tell with that out magic system or one of the stories I came up with centred around a chess master type character who got themselves captured and taken prisoner and interrogated so that they could actually gather information on their interrogators. And they timed it because of how the viral magic work... And that was one of the key things I wanted with the story.
I was able to tie the viral magic in by connecting it with various things. So one of the big things about viruses is the incubation period. So what this prisoner is going to do is they basically get... They inject themselves with the viruses and get themselves caught immediately. At which point they essentially have a ticking clock where before their powers manifest.
So they have it set up. I have four days to capture this stuff, I have four days to get this information before they know that I have one of the viruses at which point I need to use the virus to escape. So with that, it told me a lot of things about my magic. I needed to make sure that it was rational enough that somebody could plan ahead. I needed to really tie it into the viral. There were going to be people who knew about how it worked. So there would also be some level of subterfuge. So that told me a lot about specifically what I needed to align it with my story.
James Blatch: Okay. And you've created the story from the magic in, some senses.
C R Rowenson: I usually do. Not everybody does. And this partially goes back to the seed crystal. Most of the time, everything for me flows from the magic system. I start with the magic system that gives me story ideas. And then from the story, I'll get character ideas or I'll get character ideas from the magic system. But I usually end up starting with the magic system, not everybody does. And that's why the seed crystal's really important.
I've worked with people where their seed crystal was their plot. They needed to know their basic plot before they could come up with the magic system. Other people need bits of their world developed. Some people just need a picture or even a phrase, or just like a character moment. They say, I want this person to be betrayed by the person that they love because of the magic for some reason. So for me, it usually flows from the magic.
James Blatch: That's an interesting area, I think because almost every book, whether it's magical, fantastical or completely realistic does have that same kind of... It's usually a, what if at the beginning, isn't it? So what if, yes, a woman's husband was secretly a serial killer. What if when our child died 20 years ago, it was my wife who... If you do go slightly sinister, well what if we grew children to donate organs when they were adults, which is a great book a few years ago.
And then the fantastical books or what if the dead walk among us? Or what if aliens came on next Thursday? So that's the seed crystal, isn't it? But it's not simply starting to write a book with that. It's having some planning and structure. And then I think really like what you've done is say, well, this is it. So what's going to be the interesting story that could potentially revolve around that.
C R Rowenson: And the story you align your magic system to, doesn't have to be the story you write. It can be a really quick thing that you generate just to help you get a feel for how you want the magic system to function. Because it can function in a lot of ways. I see magic as an incredibly powerful storytelling tool that has been underappreciated or at least under underutilised so far.
Because it's just like our world building or just like our characters, we can use it to augment the theme, demonstrate the theme, act as a foil to the of characters, act as a counterpoint to the theme. It can even just be a side interesting point or even a red herring if you're doing a mystery. Pretty much anything we do in storytelling, you can use your magic to do that. And that's where the alignment comes in. And obviously I just love talking about this stuff and I can just keep going.
James Blatch: Yeah. And getting that balance right so that you don't end up getting carried away, I guess with the... Because ultimately whether you're writing a police procedural or an epic fantasy, it's the story and character development that's going to hook somebody. So it's using the magic to allow that to happen. Not simply, it's just going to get a bit boring isn't it if every day is a discovery of new magic powers.
C R Rowenson: Yeah. And the really important part of alignment is making sure that your magic is connected to something in your story. That's one of my frustrations. I'm sure we have all read those stories where the tech or the magic, or even some of the character just feel tacked on just because the author had a cool idea. And then it doesn't really have any bearing on anything.
You want to avoid that. It doesn't necessarily need to be tied to the plot. It doesn't need to be essential to the theme or the setting or the characters, but it should be connected to one of those things. And the that's where alignment is important. To make sure that you have found a way to make your magic matter to your story.
James Blatch: And if you get this right, high concept level, the whole book could be geared around... I think an example has popped into my head is Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife. Where the what if, what if time travel was an affliction, an illness rather than a gift. And it was a love story based around that. And that's all, it was really.
There was not much more to it than that. You didn't go into lot, much detail about the time traveller. We knew it was an illness, it was rare. But that was doing what you are doing at the beginning of the process. And it was completely tied to the story. The story was built around the fact that he travelled in time. The love relationship at the beginning through to, I don't want to spoil it. But what happens at the end.
It's a really good example of how this works in practise.
C R Rowenson: Everything we do can be tied into that. So for example, a man versus environment type plot, Brandon Sanderson in his debut novel Elantris did that. It was man versus environment. But in this case it was magical environment. This book has been out for a while. So if you haven't read it spoiler, sorry. But due to the nature of the magic, something changed in the environment. There was an earthquake and it changed the terrain which broke the magic.
And that was a huge part of the plot was this thing that was a blessing had turned into a curse, and them trying to live with that and eventually figuring out what had happened and fixing it. So you can take all of the standard story structure and story types, and just weave your magic into that if you want.
You can also keep it as an ancillary thing. That's just cool. But if you do that, you just need to pay attention to how much emphasis and how many words you are dedicating to the magic system. It's a screen time thing. If it's not actually important to something, don't spend half of your movie on this thing that doesn't actually matter.
James Blatch: Make it part of the furniture, part of the landscape without dwelling on it. And getting it wrong. You talked about Star Wars as a good example of getting it right and wrong. And dare mentioned the midichlorians, which was a kind of groan out loud moment for Star Wars fans. When it suddenly turned out that the force was the blood disease and it could be measured. Which raised all sorts of questions that weren't there when it was a monk like, far Eastern philosophy, religion. That was such a disappointing moment. So I guess that's where they haven't really... And the prequels and sequels, I think, did this to one extent or another.. They didn't really respect the early rules that were laid down.
C R Rowenson: I would agree they didn't respect the tone. And another part of it is they tried to change some of the fundamental attributes of the magic system. They tried to take it from something that was very nebulous and irrational and turn it into something that was more rational. And the problem there with the midichlorians is that was a very poor attempt at doing that. Because it actually introduced more logical fallacies and broke the fabric of the universe more than anything.
Because until that point we could kind of assume I don't understand it, but there's some kind of science going on here, but with midichlorians a single organism that lives inside all or organisms across the universe, let alone in inorganic matter. That's obviously not going to work. And also trying to change it from a more irrational system that was monastic and meditative and into something more scientific and rational when the viewers didn't want that. They liked it how it was. And if you're going to change something like that, you need to make sure that what you change it into is at least equally as exciting.
James Blatch: And that example, I mean, I can imagine examples where you started with something and you do want there to be a change for good reasons. There was no good reason for the midichlorian. They could have done tests on the little boy and said the forces strong with him. That would've been enough for all of us. Nobody had to say, "Oh, we've done a blood test."
C R Rowenson: It wasn't necessary.
James Blatch: It was completely unnecessary.
But there are going to be occasions, I guess when you do want to shift in the magic for good reason. To get people off world or whatever it is for the story.
C R Rowenson: Yeah. And here is where, because I can just talk for hours. Do you want to talk about how to change it or do you want to deviate back to the seven stages? Because I'm good either way. We're talking about writing and magic. My favourite things. So I don't care.
James Blatch: Well, let's talk about how to change it. Because, before we finish, I want to go through the PDF that you've kindly offered everyone. Which I think will need some explanation to go along with because it's quite detailed, isn't it? So just talk about change...
Just answer that one question if you don't mind about changing the system. You are allowed to do that. You are God right in your world.
C R Rowenson: Absolutely. You're allowed to change your magic system. The main thing I would say about it is it probably needs to be a big deal. The bigger deal, the magic is in your story, a fundamental change in how it works, needs to be a point of concern. Even if it's not a point of the plot, it needs to have heavy impact in the world around it.
So even if it would've worked better in reverse where if they had identified Luke through midichlorians. Maybe that could have been an advancement that had come over the decades since the fall of the Jedi council of them trying to rebuild in secret saying, "We have to find a better way to find these people." That would make more sense. And there could be all kinds of repercussions of that.
And that would've been a subtle change that wouldn't really have impacted the story. So you can make these changes. Sometimes you need to make these changes and you can use these changes as massive turning points and massive plot points in your story. Which is actually something I recommend for some people. If you're ever really stuck and you really don't know what happens, people will say like kick down the door. Have a bomb be under the table or whatever. You can do that with your magic where all of a sudden a metaphorical bomb goes off with the magic system and everybody's reeling, trying to figure out what happened.
But the important thing is that it wouldn't matter. It would be just like introducing a new disruptive technology in our world or if suddenly there's an entire... Well, the book series, isn't about it. There's a book series that starts with this where the laws of combustion change and they're suddenly less effective. And that collapses all of civilization because we can't get most of our mechanical energy the way we did before. That would be my big thing. Is that it's probably going to be a big deal.
James Blatch: Yeah. Not a quip by Liam Neeson. And if you haven't watched Star Wars and it completely bores you, I do apologise. But I often use it as an example because I'm just that age.
Let's talk about this PDF. You put together, something looks brilliant and detailed called a magic system blueprint starters guide. But it looks to me like it might need a little bit of explanation to help us use it.
C R Rowenson: Yes. So this is what I was talking about a little earlier. This is one of the tools that I built up. This focuses on some of those attributes that I find to be universal across all magic systems. It's about understanding what those variables and settings are and what changing them mean.
The blueprint itself is basically, it's a soundboard, it's a worksheet. So that you can go in and you can move the dials and sliders to exactly the settings you want for your magic system. And where you set those will tell you an enormous amount about how your magic functions and what you're going to be able to do with it.
James Blatch: Can I just ask a couple questions about some of the terminology you've used? So in one of the grids you've got hard and soft, up and down, and irrational and rational, left and right. And somewhere in that square, you marked your place. Can you define those terms so hard and soft?
C R Rowenson: Yeah, absolutely. And if you want, we can just go through the glossary real quick.
James Blatch: Sure.
C R Rowenson: It's also going to be part of the PDF and I'm just going to throw this out there now, if anybody has questions on this. I do talk about this more in my YouTube channel. You can contact me and let me know. The book goes to all of this in great length. So the glossary is mostly one sentence summary. Two types of magic.
My version of hard and soft magic is slightly different from what most people are familiar with. Most people are familiar with the Sanderson version, which if you look at my chart, the Sanderson version of hard and soft basically runs on diagonal from the top right corner to the bottom left corner. And I've just kind of broken that out. Because there were parts that didn't quite make sense to me.
It didn't make sense to me that Mistborn was a hard magic system, but so was Superman. They felt fundamentally different. And for a long time, I couldn't figure out why. And it's because I think there's the two axes. One is hard and soft, which is purely about the percentage of the magic system that is known, explained or understood. So the more of the magic system the harder a magic system, it is. The less the softer it is.
Urban fantasy tends to be softer because even if we know in great detail, what the main character can do, it's part and parcel of the genre that there's a wide supernatural world that we don't know most of what's out there. That's part of the point. A hard magic system we're going to know all of the details of what it can do. So hard sci-fi is both hard and rational, but it's a hard system because they usually in on a very specific thing and we learn everything about that thing.
We know everything it can do and how it can be used and all of that kind of stuff. We know that entire system. So that's hard and soft. Then you have the rational, irrational, which is entirely about whether you can use logic to extrapolate and predict unseen portions of the system. In some places I say nebulous magic, that was just some terminology shift, because it... Anyway, nebulous is irrational and it's all about that extrapolation and logically being able to continue forward.
So any of the scientific stuff, anything you want to feel scientific needs to be rational. It needs to be, I see that A plus B equals C therefore B plus C should equal D. I need to be able to do that logic and I need to be able to trust my logic. And that's part of where other systems run into problems, they try and build it very rational and then they break their pattern. You have just shaken my entire ability to rationalise the magic system. And it looks like a mistake rather than a feature of the system.
James Blatch: So even if it's potions and spells like a computer game would be a rational magic system because you knew that if you collected these three pots, you can do X. And that's predictable.
C R Rowenson: They often are. Yes. In summary. Mistborn is the best example of a rational mad system. Because he shows you the magic does this. And because it does this, therefore it should work in all of these ways. And any assumptions you have about the nature of physics and all of that is all born out. It's all true. And it's just figuring out how to apply it. On the other hand that's why Mistborn is, or allomancy specifically is hard, rational. We know everything about it and it's incredibly rational. We can predict other uses based on what we know about the system.
Then you look at superheroes specifically, Marvel. Marvel is hard irrational. Which is interesting because each individual hero is fairly rational. We know what they can do and we can extrapolate from that.
But it is a system of individual points. And what we know about one point we can't rationalise from that to another point. We can't use what we know about Iron Man to rationalise how Thor's powers work. And then just real quick, some examples that I talked through. I think most of them are in this PDF. You also have Lord of the Rings, which is soft, irrational. We don't know what the magic can do. We don't know how it works. We can't rationalise. We can't say we saw Gandalf break the bridge of Khazad Dum. So therefore he should be able to bring down the wall of a city. We can't say that. We don't know.
Then you have soft, rational. And that's where a lot of your sci-fi tech falls in. Because it's big and it's expansive. So we don't know the extent of the system, but the pieces they show us, they try and keep rational. So it feels like technology. So those are the types of magic in a nutshell.
James Blatch: Okay. And another thought occurs is about having a magic system that doesn't exist. And I don't mean this is not criticism of religion. That's not what I mean, but religion is not provable. The whole point about religions, it relies on faith. But you could have a magic system, couldn't you, in the world. And actually the force was a bit like this again in the early Star Wars films where people didn't really believe in it. It's a hokey religion, I think Han Solo said. I've travelled from one end of the galaxy to the other, I've never seen anything like that. You could have a magic system in a world couldn't you, that has its rules, which followers follow and believe in, but actually might not really exist as well.
C R Rowenson: Yes.
James Blatch: It's probably important to have those rules, in the same way that if you want to have a religion, you have rules.
C R Rowenson: Yes. And anybody who's listening, doesn't get to see just my giant grin when we get into this. Because this is the amazing nuance. I do want to say I'm a massive, massive nerd about this. I just want to say anybody building a magic system, you don't have to get into all of these details if it's not useful for you. Do what you need to do and no more. Me, I love this. So this is what I do.
Because what you're talking about there, James is, one of the other things on there is perspective. And that's one of the hardest things that has come up when talking about magic systems. We try and define these attributes and the nature of the system and people will ask well, but what about, I want my reader to see it differently.
Like it's going to look different to them. They're not going to know everything. What if my character doesn't know everything? What if my character knows more than my reader does? That's perspective. It's you stepping to a specific point of view, to understand how the magic system looks from that point of view. So for what you're talking about, from the reader and even from the reader and even the character point of view, it may seem like a soft, irrational magic system where we only know what works because we have seen it work.
But you, as the creator may have built out a complex series of rules and patterns and logic behind it that nobody else sees. So to you, it is an extremely hard, rational system. There's so much to play here with that. And it's one of the important things is making sure you do map it out from your audience perspective at some point.
James Blatch: That is a new nuance, but it's a really genuine one that does exist. That a system and religion's the great example. It can be rational and hard for one person and irrational and nebulous to another person. But it's the same system with the same rules.
C R Rowenson: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay. I think we could both nerd out about this. Well, look, we've gone on... I think we've had like 40 minutes now, so I will need to draw it to a close. The PDF, I mean, it's given us a taster for this. And I know that you've got a YouTube channel. There's places people will find you. You better tell us about that.
Well, first of all, let me give out a URL for this PDF. We're going to say selfpublishingformula.com/magic. There you goes. Perfect URL for that. It's a really good PDF. Really interesting, even if you are not writing in fantasy, I would say it's an interesting thing to look at and read. So go and have a look at that.
Where can people find you Clark?
C R Rowenson: You can find me CRRowenson.com or you can find me on YouTube as TheMagicEngineer, all one word. And those are the best places to reach out to me, leave a comment in one of the videos, you can contact me through my website. Those are the best places to reliably find me.
James Blatch: And if people want to go a bit further than the PDF allows, you mentioned you've got some non-fiction books available on the subject.
C R Rowenson: I do. They are both available on Amazon and ebook format. I'm going through the process of figuring out how to get a physical book on Amazon. But the first one is Restrictions May Apply, which is a workbook specifically for identifying and building limitations for your magic system. There's 15 exercises in there to help you figure out where you need limitations and what they could be.
The most recent one is The Magic System Blueprint, where it talks through the template that you see here in the book. There's chapters for each of those items. And it goes into detail about what it means, how it can affect your story, ways you can change it, ways it can impact the other variables on your blueprint, because it's interconnected, and goes through examples. The main examples I use are allomancy, Lord of the Rings, Stargate and Marvel. And there's those plus a couple other good examples in the starter's guide that is through the link that James mentioned.
James Blatch: Superb. Well, look, Clark I've had lots of fun today and we were quite nerdy.
C R Rowenson: Me too, thank you so much.
James Blatch: It's been really good. Thank you so much for coming on.
C R Rowenson: Thank you so much for having me.
James Blatch: There you go. You can tell Clark and I probably could have talked for a couple of hours about this. And like I said at the beginning of the interview, it wasn't just about pure fantasy books, Lord of the Rings. Any sort of sci-fi book has a system probably beyond the realms of normal physics.
You have to decide quite early on how you are going to govern that and where those restrictions are. Now my own taste in these things is that those restrictions you put in, those limitations create the story. They create character, because they give characters struggles and conflicts and so on.
I don't like it in films when they suddenly open up and they can, oh right, you can do that. Which is what the Star Wars films do. The force was quite hard to control and monk-like, Eastern philosophy. And then suddenly by the later things, they were doing force running and force breathing and throwing it at will. And that kind of ruined it for me, which is why someone like Clark is important for him to say, well, this is how you set up a magic system and you govern it and give it consistency. Not an issue, I suppose, for your man with his Walther PPK or whatever he carries. Which is not magic.
Mark Dawson: Not really, but it's world building, isn't it. At the end of the day it's setting rules that make your world feel consistent and credible. So there are things that you can learn from magic and add science in a far future science fiction novel that are just as applicable for a small town that you're building for your romance, or for the world that I build in the Group 15 books. So there are lessons that we can draw from that conversation that aren't just restricted to those who are writing fantasy and science fiction.
James Blatch: It was great fun chatting to Clark. And there is a giveaway with that, we mentioned it in the interview. If you go to selfpublishingformula.com/magic, you'll get that Blueprint for the Magic Systems and you can check him out if you want to go a bit deeper into that. Great.
That's it Mark, sun's shining. It was raining this morning. So I think I might go play golf. Is that all right? It's Friday boss. Can I go and play golf? It's my birthday as well soon.
Mark Dawson: Well, you've got one thing to do, first of all. Yes, I think it's allowed. Yes.
James Blatch: Yes. I've got more than one thing to do, but there's never just one thing to do before I go anywhere, but yeah. Excellent. Great. Look, have a good weekend, chaps. All that remains for me to say, is it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Good bye.
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