Pt 3 Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the third part in the three-part series “Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals.”

Here are handy links to the other two parts:

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In the second part of this series we discussed what the different elements of ritual were as well as different levels of importance ranging from the mundane to critical. In this part, we will walk through the different elements and talk more about how to apply them to your own writing.

Quick Review – the five elements of ritual are:

  • Central focus
  • Unique venue
  • Ceremonial dress and/or items
  • Prescribed actions
  • Music/sound


Central Focus – What’s the Goal?

  • Mundane, significant, or critical?
    • How important is it to your character to succeed?
  • Emotional impact to character
    • What does he feel about the situation?
  • Higher emotional stakes translates to a more dramatic scene, long set up
  • Low stakes mean not as much time spent setting up, less description.

Example: For this post we will be using the proposal scene that appears in my book being released in November. Katira and Elan have been sweethearts for years and Elan decides that at that year’s Harvest Festival he will propose. He’s excited, scared, and has been planning this day for weeks. Everyone in the town knows of his intentions.

wramplingham church

Unique Venue – Where (and when) does it take place?

  • Most rituals must be performed in a specific place and time of day.
    • There will be a place that feels right. Religious rituals tend to be in Churches, etc.
    • Some rituals work best at very specific times, like high noon, early morn, or  late at night.
  • As with all settings – describe only the parts relevant to the character
    • His focus will guide your reader through the scene, what does he see, feel, and smell?
  • Another chance to worldbuild
    • Buildings and public spaces often have historical note, if it feels right, sneak in a few descriptions that flesh out the world or culture.

For my proposal it is customary for the boy to ask the girl during the harvest festival so that the whole community can be involved and show support for the happy couple. It’s evening, the lanterns have been lit, bonfires dot the outer rim of the square.

22-evergreen-boho-flower-crown-is-a-great-ideaCeremonial Dress or Items – What items are needed?

  • Each item mentioned must have meaning
    • While it’s very easy to list off many unusual items, it’s more interesting to focus on a special few.
  • These items can include specially prepared foods
    • Wedding cake, seasonal specific foods, Japanese Tea Ceremony
  • Possibility of revealing backstory
    • Just like setting, items can talk about a characters past.
  • Worldbuilding tool
    • Items can also be used to mention cultural practices.
  • Resist the temptation to info dump
    • Vivid action is amazing. Exposition is boring.

In this proposal ritual there is no special dress, although those attending the Harvest Festival tend to wear their best. Elan must present a proposal crown for Katira to wear on her head, showing the community that she accepted his offer. Each of the flowers and seedpods woven into the wreath has symbolic meaning. Evergreen pine symbolized the long and happy life they would have together. Red fall roses were for strength in adversity. Feathery white woodsmoke seedpods were for the hopes of future children.

Note: these three things represent the things Katira wishes for.


Prescribed actions – What must the participants do?

  • All actions must have significance.
    • Again, it’s easy to list the different steps your character takes. It’s also boring. Make it engaging by giving those steps significance to your character.
  • The more important the ritual, the more precise and demanding the actions are that must be performed.
    • This can cause anxiety in your character, make sure we see him sweat.
  • This will include the different steps of the ritual the character must perform, as well as observers, officials, etc.
    • Don’t forget to add other important people to the scene.
  • How does your character feel about the ceremony? Jubilant? Reluctant?
    • The effectiveness of a ritual scene rests in the emotional journey of the character. The reader needs to see how important it is, or isn’t.

To show his humility, Elan must kneel to present Katira her crown and ask her to marry him. Beforehand, he must seek permission from Katira’s father. She has the choice to accept or refuse, and if she accepts, she wears the crown.


Is there music or sound?

  • Doesn’t have to be music. Can be clapping, drums, chants, shouts of agreement.
    • Set the soundscape of the event
  • Some ritual observes respectful silence
  • Adds another tactile sense to the scene.

The Harvest Festival has live music playing throughout as well as the shouts of children racing through the crowd, lovers giggling as they find shadows to hide in, and people clapping to the beat.

Think back on any religious ceremony and the first memory will probably be of the music. Midnight Mass, Christmas programs, Weddings. All have music involved, either performed or as a congregational. Music serves as a unifying element, it literally brings people together as they unite their voices in song, which is why it can be a powerful part of a ceremony. In LOTR when the elves believe Gandalf has died, the elves of Lothlorien sing him a lament, Skyrim’s theme song is a chant, military units have call and response cadences to keep them in unison as they march or run.

Writing Exercise: Create a ritual for your current project, don’t forget to address each of the five elements of ritual as well as discuss the emotional impact on your character.

Want to tell me all about the ritual you created? Share it in the comments below!


I hoped you enjoyed this series of lecture as much as I enjoyed learning about rites and rituals. Don’t forget, there are other presentation notes handy, feel free to check them out. I’m working to get my complete lecture series listed, so check back often.

Don’t want to miss a future post? Click the subscribe button on the sidebar or “like” my author page on Facebook. Prefer Twitter? @JodiLMilner

Be part of the conversation, comment below!

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Pt 2 Elements and Levels of Ritual

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the second part in the three-part series “Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals.” If you’ve missed the other parts, here are some handy links:


Rituals can be categorized by how much they impact the person participating. Rituals can be simple, but loaded with consequence. The opposite it also true, a ritual can be elaborate and highly public, but hold little meaning. A ritual’s weight rests in the significance to the person participating.

Levels of Ritual

Mundane Ritual – Regular tasks that aren’t thought about much, but when aren’t done the person feels off balance for the rest of the day.

  • Morning Ritual
  • Making the first cup of coffee
  • Opening of meetings
  • Serving of food

Significant Ritual – An important event that if not completed properly will change the person’s life. Most observed rituals tend to fall in this category.

  • Wedding vows
  • Baptisms
  • Driver’s License
  • Asking to Prom

Critical Ritual – Part of an initiation where failure to complete the ritual results in rejection and possibly death. Tends to end up in speculative fiction a lot.

  • Indiana Jones Grail Test
  • Monty Python Bridge of Death
  • Brisingr Trial of the Long Knives
  • Wheel of Time Aes Sedai Final Initiation


Elements of Ritual

A ritual contains five distinct elements. Generally, the more elaborate and important the ritual, the more elaborate each of these elements become.

Central focus – The goal of the ritual

Unique venue  – The place where the ritual fits best

Ceremonial dress and/or items – What is required to complete the ceremony, including foods.

Prescribed actions – What those participating in the ceremony must do

Music/sound – What the ceremony sounds like, if there is music, chanting, or drums. Silence is a sound and many rituals take place in respectful silence.


Matador Dressing Ceremony

Matador.jpgMatadors are famous for their distinctive dress, called the Traje de Luces (suit of lights). In order to be prepared to face death in the ring, a Matador will take his dressing ceremony very seriously. He always dresses in the same order, with the same people helping him. He faces a large mirror and watches as he transforms from ordinary citizen to a celebrity. The pants are extremely tight, like a corset, which not only protects the Matador from bleeding to death if gored, but also mentally gives him additional focus, all of his distractions are pressed away and he is ready for the ring. As he dons each piece he grows more confident and gathers the courage he will need to face his bull.

This is one of the few real life rituals I would rate as crucial. If the Matador doesn’t feel prepared, his lack of focus could kill him. The focus of the dressing ritual revolves around transforming the Matador into a fearless fighter. It happens in a dressing room, which in itself isn’t all that special, but the fighting ring he will enter is a highly specialized venue. The act of dressing in the suit and donning the other items unique to bullfighting are what create the ritual. I imagine many fighters have a specific playlist they listen to help mentally prepare themselves, if not, they most likely observe a respectful quiet.

Fictional Rites and Rituals

Let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to a fictional rituals – the same is true, although in fiction we are allowed to stretch our imagination more, and make the stakes higher.

Star Wars Victory Celebration

Victory_Celebration_ANH.pngThe Rebel Alliance has won a great victory over the Empire by destroying the Death Star. While they could have just given Luke and Han their medals, they needed to make it a significant event. The troops are organized and wearing their military dress uniforms, they are in what looks to be a special place, a fanfare is playing, every one knows just how important the victory was.

This is an example where there’s a lot of fanfare and fuss over a fairly mundane task. However, not being blown up by the death star is a big reason to celebrate and is highly significant to everyone involved. I would rate this as a significant ritual for this reason. The focus is to applaud the bravery of Luke and Han, who risked their lives for the Alliance. This also encourages a greater sense of devotion in all present.

This space they are using is beautiful and carries with it the somber feeling of a huge church. The different troops are outfitted in dress uniforms and those on the platform are wearing formal clothes. Chewbacca gives the call for the troops to stand at attention while a triumphant fanfare plays.

Writing Exercise: Research a fictional ritual and identify the level of ritual and each of the five elements.

Want to talk about your favorite ritual with me? Tell me about what you learned in the comments below and I’ll respond!


Missed part one? Here’s a link.

Part three, where we discuss how to create our own fictional rituals, is now available.

Want to see other presentation notes, look no further.

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Pt 1 The Difference Between Rite and Ritual

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the first part in a three-part series. If you missed the first two parts, go back and check them out.


Every culture, every family, every person on earth participates in some sort form of ritualistic behavior. This behavior might be as simple as the specific way one prepares his coffee in the morning to formally greet the day, or as complicated as initiation rites of the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest.

The purpose of ritual is to elevate the ordinary. Anyone can get dressed, but when a Geisha dresses, it transforms the activity into an art form, creating wonder and fascination.

Yōshū_Chikanobu_Cha_no_yu.jpgTake for instance the ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, or “The Way of Tea.” The goal of the ceremony is to create a relaxed communication between a host and his guests. This communication consists of more than words, it is displayed through exact choreographed action, impeccable appearance, delicate tastes, and suitable sounds. It includes the disciplines of flower arranging, calligraphy, selection of an appropriate kimono and ceramics as determined by who is being served and for what occasion, and ritualistic meal preparation. The tea philosophy incorporates the ideals of “Harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility” and every action taken serves to bring focus to these ideals.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a ritual because it elevates the act of serving a guest tea into a performance worthy of special attention. It is not considered a rite because the participants are not passing a milestone or entering into a different phase of life.

Satere Mawe.jpgIn the Satere-Mawe tribe young men who wish to be known as Mawé warriors must pass through a grueling initiation. This is a Rite of Passage ceremony. The gloves on their hands have bullet ants woven into the grasses. When worn, these ants bite the hands of the wearer over and over, injecting a toxin. The bullet ant earned its name because the pain is said to rival that of being shot. The effects of a single bite can last for days. These boys must wear the gloves for 5 minutes at a time and to be truly considered a Mawé warrior, must complete the ritual 20 times. They must prove their worth by remaining calm and expressionless while experiencing excruciating pain.

To review –

A ritual is the performing of a task in such a way that elevates it for the participants involved.

A rite consists of a ritual, or several rituals, that mark an important milestone in a participants life.


Loving this discussion? Stay tuned for the next installment where we discuss the specific elements of ritual.

Want to see other presentation notes, look no further!

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The Idea Notebook

IMG_5882Fellow writer friends of mine have talked about how ideas seem to attack them at random. It’s as if this happens constantly and if they don’t stop what they’re doing immediately, they will forget their bolt of inspiration and it will be gone forever.

I’d like to say that I was the same. Having an unending stream of ideas, useful or not, would be a welcome change. Personally, I get an oddball or unique idea maybe two or three times a week, sometimes as many as six. Nothing like the torrent of ideas that my fellow creatives seem to be getting.

Since my ideas don’t come all that often, I have yet to swerve to the side of the road and madly race through the contents of my car to find a suitable piece of paper to jot the idea down before it deserts me for a more worthy creative person. I think the worst I’ve done is wait for a red light and then use speech-to-text to make a note of whatever crazy my brain has cooked up.

Every once in a while something good will float to the surface as I’m trying to fall asleep. These are the hardest ideas to snatch because, frankly,  I really want to sleep. As much as I am convinced I will remember in the morning. I never do. Bizarro dream notes I leave myself are even worse. I have one that reads, “Space wet ware, Matt Damon.” The only memory attached is that the idea was a brilliant piece of sci-fi. There may or may not have been a potato involved. If any of you can figure that one out, let me know.

The problem I’ve had for years is how to organize these ideas. Some people have dedicated binders and index cards and computer files that hold the fluff of their brilliance. Others are happy with a box of torn napkins and old receipts covered in scribbles.

I’ve tried all sorts of books, binders, card files, computer files, and never found a good system that worked for me. Either I can’t find what I written or I don’t want to take the time to transcribe things back and forth to different places.

So, when Todd Henry, author and host of the Accidental Creative podcast, talked about how he organizes his ideas –  it sounded perfect. The specific episode, I think…, was “The Power of Little Ideas (with David Robertson).”

Here’s how it works –

The first part if obvious. Always carry something to write your ideas down on. He uses index cards, that didn’t work for me.  I use the notepad feature on my phone because heaven knows I won’t lose it. When I get an idea, I jot down the basic gist. All the ideas go into the same note so they are all in the same place. These ideas can also include books I need to read or shows someone has recommended I watch.

Once a week, or when the list gets too long, I sit down at my desk and copy out the ideas into a composition book. Yes, I know I said I don’t like transcription, but this feels different. Why not a computer file, you ask? Brilliant question. The act of writing it out by hand and having it all organized in a permanent, undeletable,  low tech place, brings a tremendous amount of reassurance that the idea is safe.

It was at this point Todd Henry’s podcast pushed me in the right direction. He suggests creating a series of indexes in the front of the notebook to organize all the ideas into useful groups. As I copy my ideas into the book, I sort them into categories and place a heading or brief blurb in the index. If the idea has lots of elements I would like to explore, I write the page number where I have done so in the index.

Most of my ideas fit into the blurb space so I don’t usually have to turn pages to find what I am looking for. The categories I use include: blog post ideas, short story concepts, agents to contact, problems that need addressing in my current work in progress, and media to watch/read.

I find when I pay attention to ideas and take care of them, more ideas will come my way. When I ignore them, I tend to notice them less and less. Now when I’m considering what I should write next, I have a book with at least a dozen interesting things to explore.

How do you organize your ideas? Share in the comments below!


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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 5 Create Your Own Magic System

This is the fifth and final part to the Magic Systems 101 presentation notes. The original presentation was given at the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Want to read the rest of the series? Here are some handy links:

More presentation notes are coming soon! Make sure you like and subscribe either here at WordPress or on Facebook so you don’t miss out.


If you’ve been following along for the first four installments of the Magic Systems 101 series, then you have learned lots about the different types of magic systems and seen examples of how magic has been used. Now for the fun part! Creating a magic system.

original-7101-1486053612-3Who Gets to Use Magic?

The first task of creating any great magic system is deciding on who gets to wield it. There are several ways to approach this. In many books only a specific race or species can use magic. In others, humans can use magic if they are lucky – or unlucky – enough to be born special.  A third consideration is that any human/sentient being can do the magic if they have the special object or book.

Once it is decided who gets to use magic, then the big question is why? Why are certain beings granted this gift, and others not? The answer to this question can be simple. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. Or it can be extensive, like the genealogies of different magic characters in Lord of the Rings. Either way, choose carefully how you share this info with your readers. Unless it’s a crucial part to the problem your main character is trying to solve, you might not need to go into detail.

Other things to consider is how having this magic affects your character. How are magic users seen by the rest of society? Are they cast out as devil-worshipers or idolized as gods? Does having a greater power bring a better standing among magic users, or do they have to prove themselves by doing great deeds?

Often, the true price of having magic isn’t realized until it is no longer an option. What would happen to your main character should the magic be taken away? Would they fall into a depression? Would they be happy?

the-last-airbender-aang-the-avatarWhat is the Cost of Using Magic?

There are two things to consider when discussing the cost of  using magic. The first is where does the energy come from to perform magic. Many systems drain the life force of the magic user, while others need the presence of certain elements to draw from. Elemental systems, such as the Last Airbender, draw on air, water, fire, and earth. In this type of system the magic user will have an affinity to one element over the others and might only be able to use the magic associated with that element.

The second cost is much more personal. How does using magic affect the user? Do they risk insanity should they use too much? Do they live longer? Shorter? In the Wheel of Time, men who used the power went insane, but the women didn’t. A large portion of the plot revolved around cleaning the power so it would be safe for men to use.

aladdin-genie-prequelWhat can the Magic do?

It is very tempting to have magic that can do anything. However, like the genie’s wishes, limitations must be set. Why? Because if magic can do anything, then it doesn’t allow your characters to struggle to solve their problems. The one exception is when the magic requires certain items and the characters must quest to find them. (By the way, the quest for magical items story has been done enough times that I caution writers to stay away from it or find a really unique twist.)

When we discussed the magic system of Harry Potter we talked about how the characters were limited by their knowledge of spells and their proficiency at performing the right gesture with their wands. In other stories where the magic comes from books, the magic user would be limited by his access to different spell books.

Those with internal magic, where power is drawn from the life force itself, the first obvious limit is if the magic user uses too much, it kills them. In addition to this, they may be limited to only specific uses depending on what kind of world building has been established in the story.

1868944What does the Magic Look like?

This is where fantasy has the chance to shine. Magic is unusual and therefore very interesting. People read fantasy to escape into a world where the impossible is only a breath and a wish away.

You, dear writer, are charged with making your magic look cool. You owe it to yourself and your readers to come up with a unique way for your story’s magic to looks and feel. Does your character need to learn spells or create symbols to make the magic work? Is the magic visible in the air as it performs its function?

Depending on the story, the magic can be beautiful or terrifying to behold as well it should be. What it shouldn’t be is boring.

Good Luck!


Enjoy this series? Like and share below. Stay tuned for more in-depth discussions from my other presentations to come.

Want to discuss magic systems? Leave a comment here or come over to my Facebook page and shoot me a question. I’ll answer all magic system related questions.  🙂

Thanks for stopping by!


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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 4 “Literary Magic Systems”

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Don’t miss the other parts of the series:


Examples of Literary Magic Systems

As we explore these different systems we will be considering the following questions:

  • Who gets to use the magic?
  • What are the costs?
  • What are the limitations of the magic?
  • How was the main conflict solved?
  • Is this a hard or soft system?

6359333648355712821253840626_lord-of-the-rings-2Lord of the Rings

Who? Of all the races that take part in Lord of the Rings only the Wizards and the Elves who possess rings can use magic.

Cost? It is unclear what it costs wizards and elves to use the magic or where the energy comes from. We know both races possess phenomenal powers of self-restraint so it might be infered that they have learned that magic often causes more problems than it solves. Culturally, both wizards and elves tend to live isolated, secluded lives which may be a result of possessing said magic. They don’t want to be constantly petitioned to help with the problems of the world.

Limitations? It is unclear what the wizard’s magic can and cannot do. Gandalf seems to have a variety of powers including fighting Balrogs and talking to insects and animals. Saruman can create new frightening lifeforms. Whether they had special limitations is never explored and the reader is left to imagine.

Conflict? The main conflict revolves around destroying the one ring. In the end, this happened when Frodo cast it into the fires of Mount Doom at great personal cost. Gandalf’s magic helped the group survive long enough to get Frodo where he needed to go, but in the end it wasn’t magic that solved the problem.

Hard or Soft? Definitely a soft system. So many variables aren’t defined.  The reader is never sure what might happen.

promo324074177Harry Potter

Who? There are wizards and muggles and the distinction between them is very clear, even going as far as distinguishing bloodlines and discriminating against any wizard or witch who isn’t a pure-blood. Unless a young wizard comes from as wizarding family, they learn about their ability to use magic when they turn eleven and are eligible to attend a wizarding school.

Cost? As far as we know, it is the complexity of the spells themselves that limit the magic’s use. No thought is given to where the energy for the magic comes from. We see magic being used for a variety of mundane everyday things, especially in the Weasely’s home.

Limitations?  If a wizard has mastered a spell then they know precisely when and how to use it. Therefore, it’s their knowledge that limits them. Hermione had a wonderful functional memory and therefore could remember and use far more spells than other students. The government of the Wizarding world has set out very strict rules regarding the use of magic, including when and where it cannot be used.

Conflict? Harry’s extended conflict revolves at first about surviving the efforts of Lord Voldemort to kill him and in the end, how to defeat him. He must use his hard learned lessons to each battle and with each year the battles are more challenging.

Hard or Soft? Harry Potter is mostly hard magic where there are strict rules and incantations and gestures that must be performed. However, since there are no physical limitations and endless energy, I consider it a hybrid system.


Who? If we are defining magic as something normal people can’t do, then yes, Superman can use magic.  He, and any one else from his home planet have unusual powers on earth.

Cost? Luckly, Superman has endless amounts of energy and therefore doesn’t tire of saving the inhabitants of earth.  His only cost is purely emotional, he must often choose between the fate of the planet or the life of Lois Lane.

Limitations? Superman only has a few very select powers including flying, super strength and speed, and magic eyeballs with lasers and x-ray.  His only weakness is that he becomes mortal in the presence of krypton.

Conflict? Save the earth and Lois Lane! The exact conflict depends on the specific story, and there are lots of them. Usually, he must use his powers to overcome a huge obstacle that pushes him to his limits. In most scenarios, he is weakened by Kryptonite or has chosen to be human and must overcome those weaknesses first.

Hard or Soft? Superhero stories are mostly hard magic systems because they are so clearly defined. We know exactly what Superman can and cannot do and what his weaknesses are. In Superman’s world, he has limitless power – and therefore great responsibility – so it does have that one element of a soft system.


I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about magic systems. In the next installment you will learn about how to build a strong magic system of your own!

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 3 Sanderson’s Laws of Magic

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Don’t miss the other parts of the series:


20170426-labyrinth-heroAny discussion regarding magic systems must include talking about Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Brandon Sanderson–author of Mistborn, Elantris, the last few Wheel of Time novels, and the Stormlight Archive, to name a few–is no doubt the master of technical magic systems. He has created this set of three laws to govern the creation of systems he creates. These laws are both brilliant and insightful and can be applied to any magical system.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

I mentioned before that when “convenient” magic solves a problem it cheapens the victory. All the effort our characters have gone through to arrive at the climax needs to be rewarded with a good fight. However, if our main character happens to discover a magic spell that vanquishes the bad guy right when he needs it then the problem is solved too easily.

In the first Harry Potter, each of Harry’s friends had to use their smarts to get through the obstacles to allow Harry to reach Quirrel and recover the sorcerer’s stone. Harry is granted the stone through the Mirror of Erised, an existing magic which was explained earlier in the book. Quirrel touches Harry and then disintegrates due to the magic of love that Harry had been given by his mother. We already knew that Harry had something magical happen to him when he survived Voldemort’s attack, and it’s the same mother’s protective magic being used here.

Had we not known understood how the mirror worked or that Harry had survived an attack by Voldemort before, having the book end this way would be highly unsatisfying.

If a conflict is going to be solved by an application of magic, it needs to be an extension of magic that the reader is already familiar with. When the reader understands the extent of what magic can do and it’s cost, they can more fully appreciate the struggle of the main character as they try to use it. This also creates a more immersive reading experience.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

Limitations must be greater than powers

There has to be a reason why magic can’t be used for everything all the time. A character using magic to do literally everything won’t resonate with readers because it’s unrelatable. However, make that same magic have a cost and presto, there will automatically be good reasons when that magic should or should not be used.

When we give our characters limits, then they have all the more reason to test those limits creating additional conflict – and the base of any great story is loads of conflict to resolve.

A character with unlimited power isn’t really a character at all as they have ascended to a god-like state. Can you have god-like characters? Of course. Should you use them as a POV character? I wouldn’t recommend it.

Remember Q from Star Trek? He had unlimited powers as well as a perverse sense of morality. He could do untold amounts of “magic” causing all sorts of grief for the crew of the Enterprise, especially Picard. His character uses god-like power. It is unpredictable and dangerous. Because the audience and the crew had no idea what might happen next it caused huge amounts of stress and anxiety. There is no neutral ground when it comes to fans of Q, either people love him, or really hate him.

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic

Expand what you already have before you add anything new

Creating new and wonderful things in the name of fantasy is one of the perks of the genre. In the first third of any fantasy book the author has the license to create what they feel their world needs, including unique creatures, fantasy races, and magic systems. However, after the first third everything needs to already be established. After that point, if something amazing and wondrous needs to happen, it needs to be drawn from what has already been introduced.

The reason new things shouldn’t constantly be introduced has everything to do with creating a deep, well-constructed world. When there is something new around every turn there is too much for the reader to take in and the world feels thrown together. Think of the movie, Labyrinth. There were literally new things at every turn of the maze. It was confusing and bizarre. If David Bowie hadn’t been in it to tie everything together, the movie would have failed.

By forcing yourself to think deeply about what already established magic elements can do, you can create a more realistic and rooted system that makes the readers feel like they have an understanding of the world.


Thanks for stopping by! In the next installment of Magic Systems 101 we will discuss the key elements of several literary magic systems.

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 2 Hard Magic vs Soft Magic

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017. Don’t miss the other parts of this series:


Mickey MagicIf you are going to write a good magic system, one of the first things that needs to be decided is how that magic is going to feel to the reader. This is often described as how hard or soft the magic is.

Let’s discuss the defining features of each system:

Soft Magic

A soft magic system won’t have clearly specified rules or limitations. It won’t be clear where the energy to perform the magic comes from or how it affects the person using it. When soft magic is used it creates a sense of wonder, much like if we were to attend a modern day magic show. We allow the magician to delight and fool us into believing that the impossible is possible.

Soft magic is wonderful in books meant for younger readers because they don’t care why the magic works and they don’t tend to question things as much as older readers. They want to be enchanted by the possibility of people flying and food magically appearing. Often, soft magic will be used in coming of age fantasy stories where the main conflict revolves around the main character learning an important life lesson while being part of an interesting magical world.

There are a few drawbacks to soft magic that need to be discussed. Because the focus of the story usually isn’t the magic itself, the main character usually isn’t a magic user. This way they are allowed to experience the wonder of the magic, without worrying about the details or costs of creating it.

In soft magic stories we find that the main conflict isn’t solved by magic at all but rather by the valuable lesson that the main character learns throughout the course of the book. Often, when magic is used to solve a problem it will actually make the problem worse. Think of the Mickey Mouse clip “Magicians Apprentice,” every time Mickey tries to use magic to help him clean up, the magic has other ideas.

Historically, early fantasy, like Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, tended to have softer, more flexible magic that served to make the world and characters more interesting. The current trend is leaning toward more technical “hard” magic.

Hard Magic

The term “hard magic” is misleading as it leads writers to believe that the magic is hard to learn. The “hard” refers to inflexibility in how the magic is allowed to be used. I prefer the term “technical magic” because it places the emphasis on the science of the magic itself.

Technical magic has defined limits. It is clear what can and cannot be done. Often there are specific rules surrounding its use outlined by the culture at large or a governing magical society. There is a clear cost in the use of this magic to the user. The energy must come from somewhere.

Because of all these details, a story featuring technical magic will spend significant time teaching the main character how it works, and as a result the reader will develop an understanding as well. Often in this kind of fantasy, the main conflict is solved in part by a unique application of the magic that the main character has been struggling to develop.

Readers read this type of fantasy because they crave to feel like they are part of the magical world. It feels more realistic and can pack a stronger emotional punch.

Interesting note, many superhero story fall into the category of technical magic. Their abilities are unique and narrowly defined. They have limits and weaknesses. Spiderman creates webs and has the agility of a spider. Superman flies, has super strength, and magic eyeballs. Doctor Who (yes, he is a superhero, think about it) can time travel and regenerate.

There are a few pitfalls in using technical magic. First of all, its harder for a writer to come up with a solid technical magic system and be able to weave it into the narrative without risking the story getting boring and slow. This is often the reason why these stories lose their sense of wonder, there is a tendency to over explain. The power of the story lies in the strength and grit of the main character. As writers we must use caution not to let the magic take over the story.

Hybrid Magic

There are so many good things in both soft and hard magic systems that upon closer inspection, many popular fantasy books will fall on a spectrum that ranges between both. The Wheel of Time series is mostly technical magic. It is fairly clear what the magic can and cannot do, however there are always loose ends that imply there might be something new around the corner.

Harry Potter falls into the 50/50 range. The students have clear rules about magic and its uses. However, the rest of the magical world holds a cornucopia of unexplained and wonderful spells and abilities.

Regardless of the system a story ends up using, there are a few vital things to remember:

  • “Convenient” magic puts off the reader. Discovering a new magic spell in the nick of time to beat the bad guy cheapens the victory. A good victory means that the character has to stretch his limits to find a way to solve the problem, often at great personal cost.
  • Consistency is crucial. Remember Elsa on Frozen? Her magic was awesome, however there was a problem. If she could only manipulate ice, what was her dress made of? Also, most critics thought it a bit of a stretch that she could animate snow objects and bring them to life.
  • Don’t forget the cost. This often overlooked detail can make or break a magic system. Having a clear cost will add depth to the conflict and answer the question, “Why can’t we use magic for this?”


Thanks for stopping by! Loving this topic? Jump on over to the next installment of Magic Systems 101 where we discuss Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 1 Why Write Good Magic

This presentation was originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

This is the first part of a five part series.  Here are handy links to the rest of the series:



On to our discussion!

“The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

-John Campbell, Analog Editor

I’m sure many of my fellow fantasy writers have heard this sentiment expressed by other writers, both fantasy and other genres alike. It’s maddening, but I am guilty of at one time stating the same idea – that one of the biggest perks of writing fantasy is the ability to make up new amazing things.

This does not mean we get to break the rules, kids. In many ways, fantasy and science fiction are very similar. A new and unexplored world is introduced. In this world is a problem that must be solved. However, the power in a fantasy, just like in science fiction, lies in the struggle to solve that conflict, not in what cool magic we can come up in the moment.

Put simply – A fantasy world has a problem that usually revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, fantasy takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.

It’s the same with science fiction. In fact, take that previous paragraph and replace “fantasy” with “science fiction” and the result still works. Check it out:

A science fiction world has a problem that revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, science fiction takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.

Cool, eh?

So, why spend time building a good magic system? Why can’t we just wing it, like so many people believe fantasy writers do?

Here are three reasons why building a good magic system is important –

Magic is the key distinction between ordinary fiction and fantasy.

For purposes of our discussion today, let’s define magic as anything that can’t exist in the world as we know it. This includes people and items with special powers, mythical creatures, and human-like races.

Why would we want to do that?

The presence of these magical elements creates a degree of separation from real world drama, making fantasy an escape. It allows readers to dream of the impossible and gives them a sense of wonder and adventure. The more concrete world the author can create, the more realistic this illusion can be.

Magic allows readers to explore the amazing, unbelievable, and terrible through the eyes of a hero in the making.

Fantasy stories often have much greater stakes than real life. Our heroes are fighting dragons and facing demons. Their villians can destroy worlds. They do this while also facing personal challenges, like feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Embarking on these quests requires enormous courage. When we see our hero succeed, we feel a sense of victory. It gives us strength knowing that there are people out there, even fictional ones, who are brave enough to take on dragons.

Magic builds greater compassion and understanding through metaphorical storytelling.

Real people have real problems that cause real pain. A character facing the same problem in a book is almost too uncomfortable to read because it dredges up painful emotions. However, if we are to place this character in a magical world and give them a similar problem cloaked in imaginative elements, there is enough difference that the story can be enjoyed and learned from.

Harry Potter wasn’t about kids going to school to learn magic, it was about friendship and overcoming obstacles.

Lord of the Rings wasn’t about the ring, it was about a brave little hobbit Frodo stepping outside his comfort zone and being brave in the face of adversity.


Loving this discussion? Keep reading! In the next part of the series we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of hard and soft magic systems.

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How to Write a Villain

Writing villains never looked so good! This post is by my friend Tara and shares some great insights on creating a well rounded villain.

It seems like it has been a while since I have done a solid writing tip. I’ve skimmed through the files in my brain and pulled out the folder labeled “Villain.”

Mwahahaha . . .

Everyday I get more and more people looking at my post about How to Write a Bad Boy. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe there will be a huge influx of bad boy characters coming into novels pretty soon. Anyway, in that blog post, I said I would expand on the Villain character. So here goes.

Who is your favorite Villain?

Here is a list of some of mine. I’m going back to my post on resonance a bit.


The Lord of Darkness from Legend


The Joker from Batman


The Governor from The Walking Dead


Queen Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman


The Goblin King from the Labyrinth

It’s all about seduction.


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