This is an entry in a sporadic recurring series: Twists On Tropes, where we explore a popular fantasy or science fiction trope, and consider ways to break it. To this day, these are still some of The Bookshelf’s most popular posts:
Magic Rocks. Green Goo. Unobtanium. All names for the same trope: A special physical thing powers the magic system. Done poorly, it becomes an arbitrary excuse to make the plot do whatever it needs. Why are the characters invisible? Magic Rocks! Why did they get that plot-essential vision? Magic Rocks! Why are the protagonist’s omelets the best? Because they’re made with love! … just kidding, it’s Magic Rocks!
Poorly executed Magic Rocks are unsatisfying because they reek of deus ex machina. They remove narrative tension and invite plot criticism, because the reader knows if there’s a problem, Magic Rocks are the answer… and if they’re not, it’s hard to explain why not in the absence of clear rules.
Let’s explore the ingredients, in this reader’s opinion, of quality Magic Rocks:
Barrier To Entry –
If anybody who picks up a Magic Rock can use it with 100% efficiency, readers will justifiably ask why they are not used by everyone throughout the setting. Easy-to-use Magic Rocks would revolutionize society much like steam power, electricity, or the internet. If you’re using easy-access Magic Rocks, you’ve not written a magic system, you’ve written a setting. If that’s what you’re going for, great. Tell me all about Magic Rock World.
If you want a true Magic Rock, the reader needs to know why they’re use is limited. Perhaps they’re exceedingly rare. Competing for unique magical McGuffins makes for great spy novels and thrillers. It’s possible that only certain types of people (a certain genetic strain or bloodline? A chosen few, blessed by the divine?) can use them. It may require years of training to use them properly, or, to push the knowledge gap further, perhaps their secrets have been lost to time. Whichever path you choose, make sure to demonstrate to the reader why your Magic Rocks are not common tools.
A Heavy Cost –
An excellent way to both explain the rarity of magic-rock use and ramp up the tension in your story is to impose a heavy cost for their use. Do your Magic Rocks physically harm the user? Drive them mad? Distort time or probability in chaotic ways (more on that below)? Is the cost less to the user, but more to the world they love? What if the magic the hero uses to accomplish their immediate goals ruins the object of their ultimate motivation?
Although stories need internally consistent rules (arbitrary developments, which don’t follow what came before, are nearly guaranteed to knock your reader out of the narrative) predictable outcomes are boring, especially for genre-savvy readers. Perhaps your Magic Rocks are poorly understood… or, even better confidently incorrectly understood. Have your Magic Rocks work in a seemingly understandable way once or twice. Lull the reader into a sense of familiarity and comfort with The Way Things Work… then turn it on its head. So long as your twist is explainable later, the surprise will only deepen the mystery and tension.
Anything But A Rock… (but it doesn’t matter) –
Heavy genre readers have seen magic systems powered by every variety of metal, stone, mineral, and element. If you’re feeling up to it, you might enjoy stretching your creative muscles by powering your magic system with something more unique. Memories. Spicy food. Sentimental items. Perfectly pitched tones (for the bards at heart). Drawings. Bunny rabbits (that story is either going to be super adorable or painfully dark).
At the same time, as we’ll see in our case-studies below, the uniqueness of your Magic Rocks can be a shiny hook to get a reader in the door, but ultimately the other elements of quality story-telling must turn them into a lifelong fan. So, if you want your iron-and-salt based magic system, go for it, then tell a killer story around that trope.
Case Studies –
Let’s look at some excellent books with high-quality Magic Rocks:
Monstercraft Alchemy in The Witcher:
Barrier: Ingredients are rare, come from dangerous monsters, and are poisonous to the uninitiated. It takes special knowledge to brew them correctly.
Cost: Witchers undergo dangerous operations that kill most patients to gain immunity and compatibility. Even so, it is implied that drinking too many can still be deadly.
Unpredictability: Not well explained in the two books I’ve read. Sorry!
Bioenergetic Jade in The Green Bone Saga:
Barrier: There is both an environmental and a genetic component. Native-born Kekonese have a natural affinity for unlocking the magic of Jade. At the same time, it takes developing a strong inner will and focus through martial training to use it properly.
Cost: The overt cost is death by what is essentially an overdose and addiction, “the itches.” There is also, however, a subtle social cost – Green Bones live brutal, and often short lives. Entering the world of jade magic makes you a legitimate target in an unending war.
Unpredictability: We never know how much jade is too much for any specific user before they succumb to the side-effects. We also never know when jade will exhaust the user, failing at the moment of greatest need.
Aether Crystals in The Aeronaut’s Windlass:
Barrier: There is a vaguely defined natural affinity as well as specialized training to make the most of aether crystals.
Cost: Literal madness. At first, this manifests as small quirks, but the user’s mind will eventually snap.
Unpredictability: Minor spoiler alert… it is implied that the crystals are alive, and sometimes act with a will of their own… if you trust the potentially unreliable the narrators who explain this.
Soy Sauce in John Dies at the End:
Barrier: It is an excessively rare material, literally from another dimension.
Cost: Madness, permanent haunting, and drawing the attention of otherworldly horrors.
Unpredictability: Of all these case studies, Soy Sauce is the most unpredictable. You don’t use this Magic Rock. It uses you.
Etched Silver in Babel:
Barrier: In addition to being a skilled smith, Silverworkers must be so proficient in two languages that they think and dream in both, understanding subtle shifts in meaning.
Cost: Poorly conceived translations can backfire. Babel thoroughly explores the social cost of supporting the system behind silverwork.
Unpredictability: It takes multiple rounds of trial-and-error to develop a new magic silver bar. Evoking an untested translation could result in almost anything.
Realize There Is No Rock –
You’re a savvy reader/writer. You’ve probably noticed that this advice is applicable to any magic system or sci-fi tech, not just the McGuffin-powered variety. Being the genius that you are, you’ve probably already realized that, from a certain perspective, this advice applies to any plot element.
Your goals should have barriers preventing your protagonist from obtaining them immediately, and explaining why the hero is uniquely position to pursue them (why them? why now?). Obtaining goals should come at a cost, or they wouldn’t be worth writing about in the first place. The journey should be consistent and understandable, but still surprise us in interesting ways.
Happy reading, and happy writing, folks.
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