Fabrication: An Introduction

So you may have noticed I’ve been posting a lot about magic systems recently. Well of course you have, you follow me, you’re probably all like “Why am I getting these emails about this blog I might have started reading like four years ago and forgot about two years ago?” But whatever, that’s not the point. The point is I’ve been thinking a lot about writing magic because I’ve been working on developing set of magic systems for a novel. Because of course I am.

I’m so concerned about this set of systems primarily because I’ve taken the lessons of Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic to heart. I very much intend the characters to solve problems with magic, so the systems have to be on the hard side of the spectrum.

The primary solutions I need to have accessible to the characters:

      1. Shapeshifting
      2. Cloning (proper cloning, that is; creating body doubles)
      3. Manipulation of clouds and fog (controlling movement and generating fog)
      4. Dehumidification – basically, the opposite of fog generation
      5. Causing a volcanic eruption (or, better yet, three of them at the same time)

I believe in order to encompass all the applications I need for the plot, I need a set of magic systems: one to deal with manipulation of the body, and another one or more to deal with manipulation of the natural world.

The first system, then, is Corporofabrication, or just Fabrication. This system focuses on body manipulation, covering such ground as shapeshifting, cloning, and miscellaneous medical uses. This is an External system – as I wrote here, this covers systems that rely on some kind of device to function.

For the purpose of shapeshifting, I have created an overview of a device. This device is made of four parts: the input, the output, the connection, and the power source.

The output is, naturally, the body of that person to be shapeshifted. The body is placed in a tub and dissolved, in much the way a caterpillar is dissolved in its cocoon. Through the function of this device, this solution is then transformed into the form designated by the device.

The input consists of the material that determines what the body will shapeshift into. The material acts as a kind of template to reorganize the dissolved tissue of the subject body. Eight essences are required for this template: blood, muscle, bone, fat, skin, cranial fluid, gametes, and bile. Optimally, these all come from the same source, save for cranial fluid, which comes from the subject in order to preserve the subject’s memories.

The connection is the main body of the machine, bringing together the input and the output. It’s supposed to work as a sort of computer, with the information from the essence input being transferred electrically (or in a way similar to electricity) to the solution output.

Finally, the machine requires a power source, possibly electrical, but that could change as I work on it.

If you have any thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to comment! I’ve posted this primarily to get some input. I’ll also continue to post concerning this system, specifying functions and quirks that either I’ve already come up with or will come up with.

Writing Magic: Power Sources

This topic contrasts with my essay on the Source (that is, where magic itself comes from), in that this focuses on where the energy necessary to break the standard laws of physics come from.

There are three archetypes of power I will use to categorize systems: Free, Renewable, and Nonrenewable.

Free sources are most common in Inherent and Soft systems: magic is readily available and unlimited and requires no energy (or at least costs no energy) to cast. Harry Potter is, of course, a foremost example of this. All that is required is that the invocation is performed and the proper materials are assembled.

Renewable sources are common among Harder systems. In a renewable system, magic is freely reproducable, but can only be stored in certain quantities. Any kind of system with mana, such as Stormlight in The Stormlight Archive, or one’s own stamina in Eragon, falls under this category. A person can only hold so much magic at a time, but can refresh that quantity essentially for free if they ever run out.

Nonrenewable sources are very rare. I’ve only ever seen one system that fuctions this way: Sanderson’s Allomancy, in which small bits of metal are annihilated for special powers. Here, magic is a finite resource that will eventually run out (or at the power source will). In the world of Mistborn, where Allomancy exists, the nonrenewability of Allomantic magic is balanced by the fact only a few people are able to use it, and only need a very small amount of a given metal at a time.

Personally, I prefer renewable source systems, in that they present a problem of resource management, but one doesn’t have to worry about magic ever actually running out. However, all three have a myriad of uses and contexts to excell in, depending on the focus of the narrative.

Writing Magic: Width and Depth

Width and depth are terms that allow us to discuss magic availability.

Width is how broadly available magic is. A narrow magic system is one that’s only available to a very small number of people. A wide magic system is one that is available to many people, or even all people. Width can either be due to genetic traits, appointment, or difficulty in learning magic.

However, scientific systems – systems were magic is available to anyone with the resources and the desire to learn it – are difficult to classify in terms of width. While genetic selection or appointment is a hard and fast way of determining width, systems like those in Fullmetal Alchemist could be more widely available to the people of that universe, but, for whatever reason, are restricted to a small number of people. These systems, then, generally have a large precasting time investment to learn theory, and the methods magic makes available are generally not any more efficient or useful than nonmagical methods.

Continuing with the example of Fullmetal Alchemist, this is a system made thin, again, largely by the time required to learn the system (and all the inscriptional invocations), but also by the exponentially increasing labor required for any kind of effect beyond the immediate vicinity of the caster.

Depth is NOT how complex the system is. (At least, not in this context). Instead, depth is how much magic a single person can accumulate in a given system. Is a person limited to just a few simple spells? Or are there a multitude of spells that cover every conceivable situation, and a number of inconceivable ones?

In this way, a system like Allomancy in Mistborn is a very shallow one: most casters only have access to one ability. Meanwhile, Harry Potter opens casters up to a depth of magic one can imagine is only barely touched on in the books.

Brandon Sanderson categorizes magic systems along a spectrum from “soft” to “hard.” I posit that a system’s depth is inversely correlated with its hardness. (This is just a generalization: individual systems may vary). This is to say, the fewer spells that are allowed in a system, the more narrative space can be devoted to examining those few spells in full. On the other hand, when a system is very deep, there isn’t enough time to cover all the functions, or the ins and outs of how the system works.

So when a narrative contains a very deep system, it generally focuses on a small number of effects. In Harry Potter, this is the Patronus Charm and the basics of wand ownership. In Warbreaker, it’s Breath transfer, command codes, and some basics of Awakening. In the prototypical medieval fairy story, the only hard part of magic is how to undo whatever curse has been placed on the protagonist.

But beyond all this, shallow systems are generally easier to write, particularly for urban fantasies1. A small number of effects are easier to integrate into a world. In the case of deep systems, the effort of worldbuilding a relatively alien culture dependent on all sorts of magic is generally minimized by narrowing the system, thus restricting magic to a small subset of the inhabitants. Lord of the Rings restricts magic to the wizards, elves, and a couple objects. Easiest, then, are shallow, narrow systems, such as Allomancy, in which a small number of genetically selected people possess a single spell.

1Wait, do fairy stories count as urban fantasy?

Writing Magic: The Source

Here we’ll discuss where magic comes from – that is, through what means magic manifests in the world. Generally, magic can be categorized into two sources: inherent and external.

External systems are the far rarer of the two. Indeed, I can only think of two magic systems that fall under this category: Sanderson’s hemalurgy and fabrial systems. In an external system, magic can only be accomplished through means external to the user: that is, through devices and objects.

Inherent systems are far more common. Inherent systems refer to systems of magic where magic originates in the caster. The caster has some kind of mana, or all that is required is some kind of invocation, or so on. Regardless of the equipment involved, as long as the effect flows out of the caster or is primarily controlled by the caster’s mind, a system is inherent.

Sanderson’s feruchemy system, for example, is inherent. While it may seem external, much like its sibling hemalurgy, the two function quite differently in their execution. Both require certain metals to function, but feruchemy is open only to those with the genetic ability to tap into the magic – storage of specific qualities in pieces of metal – and the ability is solely activated by the mental action of the caster. Hemalurgy, meanwhile, occurs regardless of the intention of the caster.

I would go so far as to say all invocational systems are automatically inherent, as invocational systems rely on the language of the caster, and thus magic, as words from the caster’s mouth, flows out from the caster.

Writing Magic: Why I Don’t Like Invocational Systems

Spoiler warning: it’s because of multiculturalism.

But actually, invocational systems of all types (verbal, inscriptional, and gesticular) are inherently dependent on language. Language shapes how we see the world, how we’re able to interact with the world. I’m sure people who have studied a second language (myself included) have stumbled upon words that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate into English. Or perhaps English words that are hard to translate into other languages (like defenestration. Seriously, who’s the prankster who made THAT word?) But this gives each language a unique beauty, like a handcrafted stainglass window.

Invocational systems smash those windows. All of them. And then erects a single window (that’s usually not even that good) in their place.

But enough with the metaphors. Invocational systems generally put aside particular phrases or words to have a magical effect. Usually, these particular phrases and words are in an “arcane language” not native to the caster. The problem here is that this elevates the characteristics of this “arcane language” above all others that may exist. After all, wouldn’t it be better to speak in a language that has magical effects than a language that doesn’t?

After all, wouldn’t it be to everyone’s advantage to be able to understand, read, and write in the arcane language, if only so they know what kind of curses or spells are being thrown around them? “Oh, hey, he said ‘fire.’ I should get ready for that.”

Systems that are primarily inscriptional or gesticular are even worse. Verbal systems restrict magic to those with the intelligence to grasp language and those lucky enough to either be born in the right time or place or be wealthy enough to learn the language (meaning animals that can actively do magic should probably be nonexistent); inscriptional and gesticular systems restrict magic even further, cutting out anyone who’s unable to move their body in the required way to cast.

Consider the Harry Potter universe. How do left-handed wizards cast spells? Is the “swish and flick” mirrored? Is it the same as it would be right-handed? In the Avatar universe, what happens when a bender is born without one or more limbs? What if a bender loses a limb? How does that loss affect their ability to bend? Do they have to learn everything all over?

But I digress. Some examples of books that do invocation well:

Eragon has the prototypical magic system I’ve described: an ancient race sacrificed themselves to make their language magic. However, the book is very aware of the issues with this I have laid out. One subplot involves a mistake the main character makes when casting magic: he uses the wrong grammatical case for a word, and so screws up the spell’s effect. When the magic system is based on a language that’s no one’s first language, this kind of thing should happen, and happen a lot.

Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker requires that all commands or spells be spoken clearly in the caster’s native language. This is largely justified in that 1) the commands are given to what are in effect pieces of the caster’s soul and 2) the commands are usually more than just one word, and are very specific and imperative.

On the flip side of that coin, Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician uses the complete opposite of this. All spells are single words that must NOT be from the caster’s native language. It doesn’t matter what language is used: all that matters is that the word is actively connected to the effect of the spell, as the prelearned connotations of the corresponding native language word fuzz the effects of the spell, preventing effect precision.

This isn’t to say invocational systems aren’t bad. But their connotations and subtext must be accounted, and I, personally, prefer systems that aren’t quite as culturally restrictive.