I’ve been long overdue for a blog post like this, because it’s one of the main things that I either get questions about or hear people struggle with. The questions are usually in the form of “how do you come up with this stuff” or “where do you get your ideas from”, while the struggles are more in the form of “I don’t know what to write” or “I can’t think of anything interesting”. The bad news that I have to give is that to some extent, I think there is an element of natural aptitude. The good news is that I think there’s a mindset that you can cultivate, and different kinds of One Weird Trick that can help make you better.
A Brief Digression on How It’s All Magic Systems, Actually
I tend to take a broad view of things, and in my view, many things can be reduced to “magic system” or fit in that category in some way. This post (I hesitate to call it an essay) will largely focus on “magic systems”, but there’s a reason for this.
The term “magic system” as typically applied means a set of rules, principles, or procedures governing how magic behaves. I like that, because it’s quite broad, and can include things which you’d normally consider to be definitely not magic systems, like cell phones. There was a post somewhere, maybe Tumblr, I’m not going to look it up, which made fun of the way that certain exposition works. It went a bit like this:
Peter got out his cellular phone, which could connect to a cell tower and allowed him to communicate with other people, as well as to tell the time, do math, and check his electronic mail.
Now, this is clearly bad exposition but if you were introducing the audience to something that Peter knows but which they do not, you kind of need it, especially if you’re setting up for later, and you don’t want the audience to think “but wait, why didn’t he use his cellular phone?” or “wait, his phone can just do math as the plot demands?” The only reason you’d never find that in anything but an avant garde piece is that everyone knows what a cell phone is, and doesn’t need their capabilities and limitations announced.
In terms of speculative fiction, and to a lesser extent, non-speculative fiction, you need these systems, at least to the extent that you want “magic” to act in service of the reader and/or the plot, rather than being a hindrance. If it’s vital to your story that the reader understand that a gun with the clip removed can still have a bullet in the chamber, you need to introduce this to them, so you’re not leaving a portion of the audience confused.
In that context, everything can be thought of as a magic system, or just a system, if “magic” scares you off. Superpowers use magic systems: it is established that Captain America can throw his shield with great precision and bounce it around somehow. It’s established that Iron Man has thrusters and cannons. It’s established that the Hulk changes into an invincible rage monster when he’s angry. For the most part, when it comes to “normal” superheroes, these are singular, but I would argue this is the only thing that separates them from being a normal magic system, and that further, lots of magic systems also work that way, especially if they involve legendary items or powers.
In fact, most superhero stories do scale up beyond singular, but they do this only for enemies. The enemies have invisibility, but only in certain conditions, defeatable in certain ways. There’s always some clan or group or gang that’s got some kind of power, because you can milk the mooks for more interesting fight scenes that way. Or if not that, then the enemy has the same power as the hero, which allows them to operate on the same magic system, allowing exposition to be saved.
The main difference, when scaling from a single person to a group, or a group to a whole society, is how much it needs to be thought about to not fall apart in a puff of logic. If you have one person with the power to punch through steel plate, then you’re more or less fine just thinking about what they would do. If you’ve got ten percent of the population that can do that, then you have serious legwork to do, because society has to be rearranged, laws need to be rewritten, and overall, it’s just going to be a complete mess, maybe even one that’s terminal to the world.
But one of the interesting things that happens when you think about these systems, whether you’re going with singular or society-wide, is that you find things along the way. You find conflicts and tensions and correspondences and mirrors, and you end up making something that’s more than the sum of its parts.
I’ll be focusing on the magic-building part of this, and especially the magic item building subset, but I think it’s bigger than that. I think that its applicability, at least when it comes to idea generation, goes to characters, to worlds, and all kinds of other places. Where I think it’s worthy of note, I might point out how the process is different for (or can be adapted to) characters, or plots, or things of that nature which map only loosely to magic systems.
I take from everywhere. I never worry about doing something that someone has done before, or even something that I’ve done before, and there are a couple of reasons for that.
- I’m confident in my ability to have my own spin on things. Even I were doing something that had been done to death, I would find a way to make it my own, or to say something with it, or to use it in combination with something else that it hasn’t been paired with before. An example might be time loop stories: there have been tons of movies and even more books, but this isn’t a problem, it just means that you need to execute well and pick out something in particular to say.
- Not everyone sees everything, and contrarily, you haven’t seen everything, as much as you might have tried. You cannot have, as a central draw to your work, the idea of doing something truly unique and original. That’s a recipe for getting scooped, and it’s overall a shallow approach. The draw of “original” should be secondary or tertiary. Especially when it comes to magic or powers, someone will always compare what you’ve come up with to One Piece, or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, or Worm, or some D-list Marvel hero. And so what? I see people get discouraged because “someone already had my idea” and my general feeling is always “so what?”. I maybe get not wanting to follow in someone’s footsteps, or have people think you’re riding a wave, or something like that, but do you really not have your own things to say? Do you think that you can’t execute better?
So when I watch movies or read books or play games, and I find myself enraptured by something, I write whatever it was down, not the specifics, but the core of the idea. Alternately, when I find myself wishing that the plot had gone a different direction, or some possibility had been explored, or especially when I think a concept or idea was wasted, I definitely write that down. Some of my ideas doc is “what if [X], but good, actually?”
So, steal! Take things from different places, do your own spin on them, mine out things that the original didn’t mine out, mix and mash, all that kind of thing. It’s quite effective. It’s more effective if you become a student of media and media criticism, because then you’ll have a better grasp on what works and what doesn’t, and better able to extract what’s worthwhile from what’s not.
Most of this post isn’t about stealing from other places, but it’s one of the most effective methods, and I think I’m obligated to put the most effective tactics first.
(As an aside, inspiration can come from everywhere, and some it isn’t existing media properties. Sometimes it’s a dream, or a thought that stumbles in from stage left, or a misheard word, or misunderstood concept. Sometimes it’s non-fiction. I think these are all great things to draw on, and if you find a funny or interesting thought occurring to you, write it down and save it away for later.)
There is a way of looking at the world in which everything is a noun with a collection of adjectives attached to it, and I find this lens to be at least somewhat helpful in terms of idea generation. Slap random adjectives onto random nouns, and I think that can at least suggest a coherent whole, in the same way that a collection of stars suggests a shape, which becomes a constellation. There are loads of random generators floating around online, and they can be used for this, but I have yet to find one that really satisfies me, because in theory, it should have broad categories that include only things which are conceptually elemental, rather than attempts at being exhaustive about nouns or adjectives. This is a method where you generate a bunch of things, then throw out the crap, or rather, only pull the diamonds out of the muck.
How to identify the diamonds then? Well, I’ll talk a bit later about tension and why it’s so good, but that’s definitely a start. Mostly, you’re looking for something that sparks the imagination, something that suggests a plot, or a setting, or brings a particular image into your head. I think as far as mindset training goes, one good way to start is to think “what makes this neat?” about totally random stuff. Look at the random stuff, and think “what would this do at the climax of my book?”.
- Infamous + Scissors = A pair of scissors which make the wielder magically infamous. The natural intersection of infamy and scissors is probably fashion, so the logical mechanism would be making clothes that provide a bad reputation. The other conceptual direction to go with scissors is that of cutting, and being able to cut things that aren’t fabric or paper might be neat. Cutting fame? Cutting connections? Or perhaps cutting infamy itself, or memories.
- Coordinated + Rubber Stamp = Can I just say how neat a magical rubber stamp is? This is one of the joys of this approach, because it gets you things that you simply don’t see. Stamping, to me, suggests either marking or duplication. Mind control that lasts until the stamp rubs off? Stamps which make multiple pieces of paper show the same text? Taking coordination a bit less literally, maybe the stamp allows a psychic communication between people.
- Weary + Pepper Shaker = I think the obvious direction for this is a pepper shaker that you use to dose someone’s food, but … it’s not great as far as ideas go, for the obvious reason that there’s basically no connection between the two parts. If you had a pepper shaker like that, you’d want it to be something conceptually “spicy”, or at least related to sneezing. This is still a good example of a combination to not spend too much time on! Some of them are nothing!
So you may be asking yourself “but how does this relate to characters and plot then?” and I think that’s a perfectly fine question. The answer is that your pairings need to be a little bit more focused, and a little bit tighter.
Joseph is … an accountant who … collects … knives. I didn’t have a random generator for that, but those are the first things that popped into my head, and by themselves there’s nothing immediately compelling. But still, the process is the same, where I look for connections between these things, and the interesting ways that they might bind to one another. There’s obviously some tension (more on that later) between accountancy, a notoriously boring job, and knives, which are inherently cool and dangerous. But there’s also some compatibility between accountancy and collecting, especially in the sense of being boring. More than that, they’re the same kind of boring, which I think suggests something. And there are questions that naturally arise when we have that (poor) germ of an idea, like what got this guy into accountancy or knife collecting. Was it a way of trying to be closer with his father? A way of feeling masculine? The leavings of a path not followed? This isn’t normally how I build characters, but I definitely do the same process of finding interesting pairings, either for their contrast, their tension, or the way they reflect and feed into each other.
I think the same applies to societies and places, which make up worlds, but perhaps slightly less directly, and I don’t think that I’ve ever made a society by pairing up two random things and see what fell out.
I wouldn’t suggest using this method to think up plots, but it does work for thinking about how two things can be in tension with one another, and tension leads to conflict, which leads to plot.
We’ll lead with the example on this one. Consider a knife. What do you do with it? You cut things! Now, in the context of making magic systems (especially the singular case of magic items), what does “a knife cuts things” leave out? What implied limitations are there, and what might be think up if we start removing them or adding them in?
- A knife cuts things when you hold it. Remove that limit, and you have a magical knife that can cut things for you even when it’s not held (and we could naturally think up several mechanisms for this). Contrarily, you can add a limit in that same vein, so that the knife only cuts things when you hold it.
- A knife cuts things that the blade is pressed against. Remove that limit, and you’re cutting things at a distance (and we could naturally think up several mechanisms for this). Contrarily, you can add a limit in that same vein, so that it will refuse to cut certain things.
- A knife cuts things limited by its sharpness and the hardness of the object. Remove this limit, and the obvious thing is that we have a super sharp knife. But that’s been done! And it’s been done enough that if you do it, you risk being called basic. Here, I think, is an important aspect of being creative and coming up with good, interesting ideas. Think about all aspects. You know what’s way more interesting than removing the limit? Inverting it. A knife which cuts things better the more resistant to cuts they normally are. Isn’t that neat? A knife that could go through steel like butter, but go through butter like steel?
- A knife cuts one thing at a time. Remove this limit, and … well, we can think of lots of meanings, which might have lots of mechanisms. Maybe the knife “cuts twice” or produces parallel cuts or can make a copy of itself for dual-wielding or whatever. The point is that “a” knife has a limit of just being “a” knife, and this limit can produce ideas when you prod it and think about what a violation of those limits might be.
- A knife cuts things in normal chronological time. Remove this limit, and you have knives that can cut people before they come in contact with them, or after they come in contact with this. This is a weird one. Be careful about messing with time travel, because it can cause narrative headaches.
- A knife stays the same while cutting things. Remove this limit and you can get a knife that changes shape in some way, becoming longer, shorter, with different materials, etc. And if you read that and thought “ah, a knife that changes shape, that’s kind of lame”, then shame on you, because we’re talking about limits. A knife that just flatly changes shape is neat, but you can make it more neat by adding limits to it, or playing with the assumptions. A knife that gets longer with every person it kills. A knife whose form changes with every cut. A knife whose material is composed of the last metal it touched.
I could definitely keep going, but I hope that’s sufficient to prove the point.
The key here is to think about what a thing does and then think about what implicit limits exist. The other option that I find bears the most fruit is to think about what a thing is and then think about how much of that we can change or make malleable.
I find that this one is most helpful for building societies, at least to start off with. Think about what’s true about a society (it doesn’t have to be your own), then think about what it is or what it does and how it might be different. Since societies are conceptually big, it might be best to drill down into one particular area that tickles your fancy: law, justice, civil service, elected officials, media, childcare, religion, technology, etc. What do we take for granted about these things? What is implied when we talk about them? How might we make something interesting by playing with those rules or definitions?
Finding Tensions and Connections
The above all works well enough for generating novel, interesting things, but I don’t think these will necessarily be the most compelling. For that, we need to look at what a thing is and go further to see how it works and what we might either put alongside it, to enhance it, or to contrast it with, to put it in tension. For a lot of use cases, especially characters, this becomes an internal tension. And for a lot of plots, tension is where we start down the road to conflict.
The simplest version of finding connections is simply through duplication with minor changes. Let’s say that we have an existing character who has issues with his father. If we want to say something about that character, a very basic way might be to create a second character who also has issues with his father. By the laws of conservation of characters, either the man would also have issues with his son, or his father would have issues with his grandfather. I think this is a particularly lazy method of storytelling, but I also think that it works really well, so long as your additional characters are all unique in their own ways, and explore different aspects of whatever it is you’re trying to get at. This is the very basic way of thinking up new things from a set of existing things.
Tension, on the other hand, most easily comes from taking the existing thing and reversing it, or taking a single part of a dialectic and amplifying it the high heavens.
An example of this technique in action:
- Capillia is our basic superhero, who has hair-related powers. She can … I don’t know, move her hair around and stuff, grow it super fast, sense with it, use it as a prosthetic, hair as strong as steel, etc. Beyond her power, she’s got a shy alter-ego and a keen interest in protecting the downtrodden. Capillia’s “Rogue’s Gallery” can now be created duplicating her and making minor changes to obfuscate that duplication, or heightening some aspect of her.
- Crinis is a villain who is just like Capillia in terms of her power, but rather than protecting the downtrodden, only looks out for herself, which includes a fair bit of crime. They get in hair fights. There’s a bit of “there but for the grace of God” here.
- Tergum is a villain who, rather than being able to control his hair, has supernatural control of his skin. This is played for horror, and conflicts with Tergum bring up Capillia’s own uncomfortability with the body horror aspects.
- Recluse is a villain who, rather than being able to control his hair, spins spider’s webs. Most of his plotlines revolve around being quite shy and wanting to stay away from others and/or be left alone.
- Saeta has the same powerset, but unlike Capillia, works for a large corporation involved in the exploitation of both her power, and the same downtrodden that Capillia so often seeks to save or help.
- Hairball is a crass antihero with the same powers who does basically what Capillia does, but whose disrespect for the law and problems with authority offer a lenses through which to view Capillia. Again there’s a bit of “there but for the grace of God”.
If this were something that I was actually planning on writing, I would take a lot more time here, especially with Capillia herself, who is the template from which all of the rogues are being drawn, and who presumably is going to be the one who most of the story is spent on. I’ve been imagining her as a teenager thus far, so she should probably have some teenage problems, and one of the ways in which tension/connection/reflection is most helpful is being able to hit some story element from another direction. At least some of this comes down to execution though: if you make it too obvious that the B-plot is just a reflection of the A-plot, the audience will get bored with it. But as with many tropes, I think this one exists for a reason, and this method of generating characters is time-worn and tested. This is probably how most actual comic rogues’ galleries were created, and for the most part it works, because two characters who are tugging at the same string will naturally illuminate something about that string.
Bringing this to magic systems (whether that be magic items or full-blown magical practices), the idea is then to 1) look at what your “core idea” is and then 2) look at tensions or complements to it. I find this useful as both a method of power generation, and as a way to flesh out a magic system in terms of what it can do and where its limits lie.
So let’s take a “base” power, like teleportation, the movement from one place to another without crossing the intervening distance. There are tons of base powers, most of them well-worn, and part of making magic items, or full magic systems, is reworking the old and drab into something new, like a tailor changing the hem of a dress so that it can fit in with the latest fashions.
If we were doing the “finding limits” approach to teleportation, we would think about what it means to teleport and how we might change the assumptions. If we were doing the “pairings” approach we would start throwing other concepts against teleportation and seeing what sticks. Here, we’re going to look at what teleportation is, and what connections we might want to draw with it, or what tensions we might want to magnify or bring into being. To start with, we’ll define teleportation, which is the instantaneous movement from one place to another. It’s from that definition that we’ll draw our connections and tensions.
The fastest way to go between two places is a straight line … unless you’re a teleporter. That imagined straight line gives me ideas though.
- Perhaps the straight line is one of destruction, as though a force was applied along it. The teleporter goes from one place to another, and everything in between blows up, or at least is knocked around.
- Perhaps the teleporter, in moving through a space, gains information on what was there, a straight line of looking in on things that are along it, a “teleporter’s surveillance”.
- Perhaps the teleporter thinks in terms of those lines, or has to arrange a teleportation via them, plotting out some kind of vector rather than picturing where she wants to go.
Or we might play with the idea of departure or arrival inherent in teleportation:
- Arriving at the destination creates some kind of effect to “announce” the arrival, like a blinding flash of light, or some direct manipulation of memories, or a sudden burst of something.
- Departure removes your presence from the memories of everyone there, going back five minutes, or leaves behind a corpse of you, or squirts ink.
I think the key to drawing connections is to think both about the mechanics of the “core” (whether that’s prehensile hair or sand manipulations) and then to think about more conceptual associations. If you want to make a magic that “sings”, or is cool, it’s best to look closely at what might naturally act as a trigger for something else, and how they might build up a connection or highlight something.
Teleportation doesn’t really have internal tensions to work with, but:
- Teleportation is, by definition, fast, so it might be interesting to contrast that fastness somehow, like e.g. having it take a ton of subjective time for the teleporter.
- Teleportation is movement between two disparate places, so it might be interesting to have some aspect of co-location, the departure and arrival sites blending with each other, or snapping into similar configurations
I’ve tried in those above examples to not add in other adjectives or magic, to make it so that it explicitly plays on only the core of the thing, in a way that helps make it more focused, and to do this without resorting to adding in other magic or exploring the limitations. This isn’t normally how I build magic though, because I’m thinking about all these approaches at once.
A lot of what I do when I’m thinking up new things is based of feel, allowing the neurons to connect to one another and hoping that something will bounce out of that process. These are one part tricks that I use in pursuit of new things, and one part an attempt to tear down what’s actually going on in my brain. I do hope that it’s of help, if you’re one of those people who feels “uncreative” when it comes to thinking up things, but I think that as a mindset, it’s also something that needs to be cultivated.