Inventing magic

Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells are doing a series of podcasts on writing called Writing Excuses.

The have two podcasts on magic:

I found these two interesting, and, as always, entertaining to listen to. However, while their focus on limitations and ramifications is excellent, I’ve found asking “what does the magic cost” to be counterproductive. Here’s why: “cost” leads people to think ONLY of magics where you trade x thing for y power. Blood, memories, vitality, years of life, your children, etc. The problem with this is that while magics that use fuel (cost something) can be great, it isn’t necessary to do it that way. There are many stories with wondrous magics that don’t cost a thing.

For example, Heroes shows a lot of magic without cost. What does it cost Hiro to time travel? Nothing. It’s free. What about the painter? He can do it at will. Same with the guy who goes invisible, the cheerleader who regenerates–all the other characters there. What about the magic in Elantris? It costs nothing to draw the runes. What was consumed? Nothing. What about Orson Card’s Hatrack world? Alvin can doodlebug until doomsday. There’s no fuel required.

Some may say it’s semantics, but it’s not. It affects the paths taken in the invention of the magic. I’ve seen it in my invention sessions and those of groups I’ve been in. Don’t trust me, do a group magic brainstorm session where you ask the cost of magic question and then another where you ask about limitations instead.

I’ve found that it’s MUCH more helpful to ask these questions but NOT necessarily in the order below.

  • What is a cool power?
  • What are the limitations to it?
  • What are the ramifications and conflicts of using it?

Costs are simply ONE type of limitation. In magic, limitation and ramification are the key things. By opening up the question, we can use costs or MANY other types of limitations like genetics/bloodlines, intelligence, scope of power, duration of effect, sources, scarcity of ability, morals, geography, times when it’s effective, mysteries, etc.

Listen to the wonderful podcasts and then focus on powers, limitations, and ramifications, and use costs only if they are limitations that jazz you. 

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4 Responses to Inventing magic

  1. falwyn says:

    I wonder if asking the cost of magic started as a kind of shorthand question to get to the ones you list (especially for people who are less familiar with fantasy/magic, and who might be inclined to think – “it’s magic! it can do anything!”). If you say cost, that automatically starts people thinking about limitations and conflicts or consequences.

    I do agree that it’s far from the only way to generate rules of magic though, and obviously it needn’t always apply.

  2. John Brown says:


    Could be. And it’s certainly a useful question to a lot of folks 🙂

  3. Great post. Thanks John.

    Do you have a personal stoping point where you will lay the magic aside and start on another part, or do you wait for the ideas to run out?

  4. John Brown says:


    I don’t have a hard and fast rule. I develop as long as it’s satisfying to me and cool ideas keep coming. BUT I know that my goal is to write a story, not develop a world. And so I’m always itching to make sure I get the other 3 parts of story, not just the setting, and make sure I spend time on those questions.