Avoiding Doctor Strange Syndrome, or: Creating Tension-filled Magic Systems.

I recently had the chance to review Ferrett Steinmetz’s new novel Flex (You can see that review here.) Among the things I really enjoyed about the novel, I drew particular attention to the magic system. I’m a bit of a connoisseur of magic systems, and I especially love systems which make logical sense, and have rules that stay in force all the time. After my review was published, I was contacted by the fine folks at Angry Robot about whether we’d like to do a guest piece with Ferrett, and after sending off a few ideas, he came back with pretty much exactly what I would have wanted him to do if I could have picked. So without more rambling by me, I present Ferrett Steinmetz on the reason why internally consistent magic systems are so important. Enjoy.

By: Ferrett Steinmetz, Intro by Dan Ruffolo

You ever love something that you realize kind of sucks? That’s how I feel about Doctor Strange.

Now, if you’re not familiar, Doctor Strange is Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme, and he sports the coolest cape and 1970s pornstache you could hope to have. And when Doctor Strange bellows “BY THE EYE OF AGAMOTTO!” and hog-ties an Elder Thing with the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, it is the coolest thing possible.

But a floppy magical system ultimately bogs down the good Doctor’s adventures.

Look, one of the most critical things to any action sequence is understanding what threat level the protagonist is facing. If a mugger pulls a knife on me, a pudgy heart patient with no visible martial arts expertise, then you know I’m in trouble. If a Terminator jumps out at me, you know I’m screwed. But replace “pudgy heart patient” with Bruce Lee, and suddenly you don’t worry that much about the dude with the knife, but you wonder how a world-class martial artist is going to deal with the Terminator. Replace Bruce Lee with The Hulk, and you know both the mugger and the Terminator are toast.

Note that the villains here haven’t changed: we merely have an idea what the hero can do. And we have a visceral reaction of oh boy, that’s bad when we see Bruce Lee facing off against the Terminator. We know Bruce Lee can karate-chop and jeet kune do any fleshy opponents – but is he clever enough to fight a titanium-plated robot? That gut-level terror of “he’s in trouble” immerses your reader in the narrative, because once they know what the hero’s capable of, they start cataloguing all the ways he could get out of this, and they know without you having to tell them that the odds aren’t good.

But when you have a flabby magical system, you don’t know what the hero can do.

Doctor Strange can do pretty much anything or nothing, depending on the writer. Sometimes he can erase all the memories of everyone in the world and rewrite history – other days he has problems summoning a cab. He’s got a lot of cool-looking spells, but what exactly are the limitations of the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak? What can (or can’t) the Eye of Agamotto see? Well, the answer slips around depending on whoever’s defined it, so sometimes the Crimson Bands can BDSM up Cthulhu and sometimes they’re something a low-level mook with a script-kiddie spell can bust out of.

And so when you read Doctor Strange comics, you’ll see a lot of exposition where the Doctor clumsily explains his troubles. “THE AZURE INCANTATION OF EBULON! I can’t possibly escape that!” Which means his tales are stuffed with padding where, no matter how deadly the threat, the good Doctor has to take the time to outline just why this is bad and what he might do to get out of it.

Wouldn’t it be better to have the reader know? Wouldn’t it be better for the reader to feel that pants-wetting terror of going “Oh crap, he is so screwed,” rather than waiting around for a paragraph of exposition to deliver the news on how they should be feeling?

That’s what I tried to do with my novel Flex.

Now, when I started writing Flex, I knew that I wanted to have a magic system based on obsession. I wanted something where the crazy cat ladies could, if they were sufficiently devoted to their tattered army of felines, start wearing holes in the laws of physics to do Crazy Cat Lady magic. There would be videogamemancers with crackling X-Box controllers, Lucasmancers wielding lightsabers, bureaucromancers who rode the power of paperwork.

But why aren’t these ‘mancers ruling the world?

See, whenever I create a magical system, the first question I ask myself is, “If people have access to this magic, why haven’t they taken over?” Because honestly, if magic is a) a free lunch, and b) super-powerful, than wizards would supplant ordinary human beings quicker than Homo Sapiens would have out-evolved the Neanderthals. (Which is fine if “a world full of wizards” is your story, but it’s not the case in most tales.) So why wouldn’t the ‘mancers in Flex be kingmakers?

Fortunately, the obsession aspect answered that question. Sure, if that felimancer adores her foster cats enough then she’ll unlock her magic potential – but she won’t want to rule the world! All her magic will be kitty-related, spells to protect her cats and rain down kitty litter and create pocket dimensions for her cat-centered empire.

That settled, how can this magic system clue us in to when the character is in danger? Part of that came, again, from the inherent flavor of the obsession – for example, the protagonist of Flex is Paul Tsabo, a man who worked at an insurance company long enough for his dreams of paperwork to catch fire. Now he’s a full-fledged bureaucromancer.

The thing is, we’d have a good idea what a given obsession can do. We know that bureaucromancer who has mastered the art of the DMV can, say, drop a legally-valid warrant onto a cop’s desk to call a SWAT team crashing through the door of his enemies. He’d be good at conjuring up free leasing agreements. But a guy who’s good with paperwork is probably not going to be great in a straight-up fight, nor particularly good at anything that’s going to involve working speedily. Conversely, his buddy Valentine, a videogamemancer, is super-good at mayhem - in fact her ability to go Grand Theft Auto is downright terrifying – but she’s not particularly good at creating anything that lasts, for pretty much anything she makes flickers out of existence when she stops paying attention to it.

That helps give people an inherent idea of what someone’s strengths are, and it’s a good start – but someone sufficiently creative could get around any limitation of their obsession. Now, on one level that allows for the joy of discovery; for example, it’s a really fun power when Paul discovers he can “backdate” orders to have things delivered to him whenever he needs them! All he has to do is create an Amazon order placed last Thursday, and wham! A new prosthetic leg on his doorstep delivered minutes after he’s worked his magic. But that flexibility also dilutes the danger a bit; there’s nothing in the system that prevents videogame Valentine from learning to play, say, Minecraft and imagine up a “Save” button.

So what’s the break limit here?

I started to wonder what would happen if the universe didn’t particularly like magic. What happened if the universe demanded compensation for breaking its rules? What if whenever you cast a spell that shattered the laws of physics, you’d eventually have to pay most of that back with a series of Final Destination-level bad luck? That way, someone could cast a huge spell, and maybe juggle the odds for a bit, but eventually something terrible would have to happen to them. Cast a big enough spell, you might have a gas main blow up in your apartment and you’d be burned to death.

That sealed the deal. This magic system now had everything I needed: rough limits and hard guidelines. And I gave myself a test:

Paul Tsabo, bureaucromancer. Able to work miracles with paperwork. Except his apartment is now on fire, his living room in flames, his daughter is burning to death in her bedroom and he has no earthly way to reach her. He’s got to find a way to use his bureaucratic powers to get to her, but if he does too much ‘mancy, maybe the resultant bad luck will lightning-strike his kid.

Is he in over his head? Probably.

But like Bruce Lee with the Terminator, he’s got a chance.

Dan Ruffolo

Dan Ruffolo

When Dan isn’t reading far too much genre fiction, or spending too much time playing games, reading forums and other highly nerdy pursuits, he lives the dream of owning his own book and game store. With his background in Philosophy and History, he takes his fantasy world-building and story cohesion very seriously. He hopes to one day return to school for a Masters Degree in Library Science and take up books as a full-time career. He joined The Speculative Post in 2013 because the only thing better than reading books is sharing and discussing them with like-minded people. He hopes that The Speculative Post is able to bring together as awesome a community of speculative fiction lovers as he knows it can.

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