5 Points to Consider When Creating a Magic System

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Living in the future of work

Today I’m really appreciating the freedom that modern technology and my freelance work allows me.

By the time you read this I’ll be on the far side of England, having crossed the country to help out my dad on short notice. It’s not a crisis moment, but my presence will be helpful for him and reassuring for me. It’s on short notice, but I don’t even have to drop everything to go, because so much of my life exists either through the internet or through a small number of electronic devices I can easily carry myself across the country on a day’s notice.

Being self-employed makes a huge difference to this. I’ve previously worked in a job where I had to fight to get time off for a funeral. My last employer was far more flexible, but I still would have had to run around making arrangements and getting permission before I left. And the time would have come out of my holidays, rather than just being time I spent working on a train or in someone else’s living room.

But this isn’t just about how lovely it is to be a freelancer. It’s about the age we live in. Changes in technology and society are letting us live our lives in more dynamic, flexible ways. We can cross entire countries in a few hours. We can stay in contact with work, family and friends through pocket-sized devices. We can carry half our lives with us in a backpack. It frees us up to take more care of ourselves and the people around us. Big social institutions like how we’re employed can be slow to change, and so just as living in a first world city lets me make the most of technology’s potential for entertainment, so too working freelance through the internet lets me make the most of this flexibility. But over time we’ll adapt to the possibilities on offer.

I’m extremely privileged to live on the edge of social and technological change. But that change is spreading, and it makes me optimistic for the future.

Now excuse me, I have to go pack. Don’t want to forget my books if I’m going to spend hours on a train.


Oh, and for those of you in the UK reading this on Thursday, go out and vote! I know it’s ‘only’ local and European elections, but this stuff matters. This is how we build that better future, by voting for people who will help it happen.

Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht


Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.


This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?


When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.


Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons

Technology, psychology and the rise of AI – my science fiction inspiration for the day

One of the good things about working as a freelance writer is the endless sources of ideas. It’s not that I never got ideas out of my old job – just people watching from my desk gave me moments of character inspiration, and any job with a bit of analysis to it gets you thinking. But the insights were few and far between.

This is your brain on ideas
Practising levitation, or something

Now they come at me all the time.

Take today. Today I was writing about smartphones for a guy who sells – guess what? – smartphones. I’m not terribly interested in smartphones in general, but researching his articles has led me down some interesting paths.

The Blackphone – almost as sinister as it sounds

Like last week when I did some reading about the Blackphone. You’ve probably never heard of this device, and you certainly haven’t seen it as it’s not yet on the market. But it’s a phone whose designers have put all their focus into protecting the user’s data, providing them with security and anonymity. It’s a smartphone response to the ongoing battle between forces of privacy and intrusion. It’s a change in the market to make phones more varied. It’s a business acting like something more than a profit making machine. And it’s also a cool little slice of near future potential, a source of inspiration for science fiction gadgetry.

Building addictions

I also read about some legal and PR battles surrounding King, the company behind many simple but addictive smartphone games. And that led me back to some things I’d read before about the psychology behind these games, the way that they’re built to tap into particular parts of your brain and manipulate you into keeping on playing. You may be using your phone but now maybe your phone is using you. Look at all those tasty conflicts – business vs business, business vs press, man vs machine, man vs himself in a fight to stop playing Candy Crush Saga (seriously, knowing it’s manipulative and addictive is one thing, putting it down is another). That’s some story fodder right there.

Putting it all together

Mix those pieces together with this week’s Writing Excuses episode on AI and I had a story idea bubbling in my brain, all before lunchtime.

And what’s the point of all this reflection? Well, it’s cheered me up, so that’s something. There’s the old lesson that you can find inspiration everywhere. There’s even an element of pointing and going ‘look, our science fiction future is here!’

Beyond that you can take whatever lessons you want.

So what have you seen today that’s inspired your inner story teller? And what cool story ideas have you stumbled across at work? Share your thoughts in the comments, inspire each other.


Image by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons