Monday, February 4, 2013

Systems and specifics

Sorry there was no update yesterday - I'm just getting back to my dayjob after my car accident, so there's a little bit of adjusting I need to do.

Today I want to talk about systems and specifics. I'm going to talk about magic systems in particular, but there should (hopefully) be some lessons in here that you can apply to other systems in your books.

So. Magic. In most fantasy, magic systems fall into one of two categories: Grand and mystical, where things happen often for no apparent reason and the specifics of how and why things work are left unknown, and detailed and rule-based, like something from a D&D manual. Spells per day, different levels of ability, numbered things, stuff you the reader can learn and understand.

There's two authors I'm going to use as examples here, and I'm sorry if you haven't read them. The first is Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. In these books, magic is gigantic and strange. Most of the characters have very little understanding of how it all works, and you the reader are generally left guessing as to how magic works and why it works the way it does. That's on purpose. Robert Jordan wants the magic to be mystical. He wants it to be something beyond comprehension. He wants it to be... magic. You're never quite sure what the extent of his magic's powers are. For all the reader knows, someone could literally cast a spell and create a new star and slam it down into the earth. Why not? You don't know!

The other author is Brandon Sanderson. His Mistborn series is full of specifics. Reading his novels you feel as though you could personally perform the magics involved. In the Way of Kings, the first character (in the prologue, no less!) you see spends probably 1500 words explaining his three basic magical abilities in particular detail. You know the extent of what he can do, to the letter of the law. It takes a way a little bit of the mystery, but at the same time, allows you to fall into the flow of the action more readily. You're not expecting any surprises, and you look at the scenes as a "how will he use X to solve this?" By creating laws, Sanderson is creating a structure, a skeleton, for the reader to latch onto, and thus more deeply immerse themselves in the book.

So what are the pros and cons of each?

Really, this could take forever, so I'm just going to list a couple thoughts.

The grand magic is great for throwing something new things at your reader. There's never something you cant do. The downside to this is that your readers will often question why some great magic wasn't used to solve a particular problem, or if you do something really out of whack with what your normal magics have been, it could ruin immersion. It's a problem of scale - you need to maintain a proper power scale or else your story will get thrown apart. If your characters are only doing cantrips and then suddenly perform a great sorcery that saves a kingdom, that will make people question how and why. And if you can't answer that to their satisfaction, they'll lose immersion and might actually stop reading, depending on how much they care. That won't be everyone, but it will definitely be more than a few people.

The specific magic is different. There, you know all the rules. You know as well as the characters what is possible, and how, and how much it costs. The game for the reader now is not guessing what might come next and what cool new ability will be shown, but how the characters will use the suite of abilities they have to solve problems. You know their limits, so when they are given a situation that you know is beyond their means, it provides automatic tension. With grand magic, you're never quite sure what is beyond the character's means. Which is its own kind of tension, and has its own merits.

The problem with specific systems is that if explained poorly, can literally shut you off immediately. I read a blog post (again, can't quite remember where) where the writer said that if within the first five pages of a book she was given a long description of how the magic in the world works, she would just put it down. (much like the orphan post I wrote) But if that was the case, she would have put down Way of Kings, which I have to tell you, would be a serious mistake.

Sometimes though you just hit people's pet peeves. You can't control that. Some people need to know the specifics of your magic. Some people don't want to know any specifics. It's all up to you to what you prefer. No matter what you do you'll push away some writers, and draw in others.

Or, you can just be Patrick Rothfuss, and put in multiple magic systems, and use both the grand and the specific. Then you'll either push everyone away, or draw everyone in. You just never know.

Which do you prefer? What strengths or weaknesses do you think each has? Do you prefer leaving things up to mystery, or showing the reader all the cards and still wowing them?


  1. With the big and mysterious system, it can be difficult to not pull off a dues ex machina ending or fix every little obstacle with magic because, why not? The magic is undefined and powerful (Though now I have a mental image of the magic refusing do stuff. "Clean up a milk spill? Uh, no. Get off your butt and get a towel.") On the other hand, if you're not careful with how you build up a detailed magic system, you can paint yourself into a corner plot-wise and that's...bad.

    I prefer detailed magic systems for my own peace of mind and it's easier to trick the reader. They think they know everything and then you pull a plot twist, exploiting a loophole or an unknown aspect of the system, though you run the risk of ruining the reader's immersion if it's too out-of-the-blue.

    1. But as long as it's a natural extension of your system, it works. I love finding out some wonderful new thing that I didn't know was possible but now makes sense knowing the already established rules. Makes you feel smart after the fact, even if you didn't see it coming.

      I feel like the grand system is great for just wowing people, but the specific systems are for giving readers a sense of participation. More possibilities for puzzles.