Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 8

The Heart of Your Tale

Nearly all stories in science fiction and fantasy deal with new systems of power—whether it be Frodo’s magic ring or Asimov’s robotics, ultimately you’re creating a new system for acquiring and maintaining power, and when you do this, as Orson Scott Card put it, you are forced at some level to consider the question, “What is the right use of power?”

Very often, the answer to this question becomes the very heart of your story. Certainly, it did for Frodo with his ring of power, for Luke Skywalker as he struggled to master the Force, or for Ender Wiggins as he fought to outwit his aliens.

Indeed, if your story is going to have an epiphany—a powerful moment of realization where the audience actually learns something of value—you as a writer have to contend with the issue of the proper use of power.

It’s for this reason that Algis Budrys, the longtime science fiction critic for the Chicago Sun Times and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction pointed out that “Science fiction and fantasy are the last bastion of moral fiction in America, the only place where you as a writer can talk about good and evil.” (In the mid-1980s when he said it, there was a backlash in popular fiction where people refused to talk about morality. Given the recent #MeToo movement, corruption in politics, and our persistent mass shootings, I suspect that maybe some folks will begin to realize that, “Hey, maybe we should have been trying to reach a consensus on what is right and what is wrong.”) We ignore moral questions at the peril of our own society.

Thus the issue of morality tends to become the very heart of your tale.

Now, there are thousands of “power systems” in the real world. If you think about it for a few moments, you’ll recognize them. In our world, money can give you power. You can use your money to do good—to cure cancer and help others—or you can become totally self-serving and build your pool until the day you abruptly expire. But other power systems exist. I’ve known men in politics who tried to gain power and then been destroyed by others in their own political party. I know writers who use their gifts primarily for self-aggrandizement until they become the Harvey Weinsteins of the publishing world. I’ve seen priests who were destroyed by public adulation, along with rock stars and actors and sports figures and so on. Heck, I’ve even seen mothers use their parental authority to become evil moms.

You’ve probably heard Acton’s quote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He continues, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Take that quote to heart. I think that when most of us hear it, we assume that Acton was talking about someone else. Let me assure you, he was talking about you and me. He was talking about the protagonist of your story. Whatever power system you serve and struggle to use, it can and will corrupt you. All of us need to learn how to handle power without being destroyed by it. Part of learning how to use power is understanding how and why and when to give it up.

What does that mean to your story? Whatever wanky magic system you create in your tale, it is a monster that is likely to turn on and destroy your protagonist.


– We still have space in the upcoming Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop in Provo, Utah, and we also have openings in the Fantasy Writing Workshop in Oxford, England. Learn more or register here.

– I now have bookplates for sale. Each bookplate is $1, plus $1 for shipping. If you order more than one, shipping is still only $1 for all of them. My intention for these is that if you would like to have a book signed by me, but are unable to get the book to me, you can buy a signed bookplate to stick in it. If you would like to order any, please email me at

Here is what they look like:

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