Generating Ideas for Writing - Magic

Magic! It has a magical hold over humans. We watch it, consume it, think about it, theorize about it, and dream about it. When we can't find magic that is good enough, we make more up. Let's see if we can come up with some magical ideas.


In starting to think about magic a few things popped into my head: trial by ordeal, rights of passage, the four horsemen, and blood iron. Now, when I look at these things just a moment longer I realize that only one, maybe two, even deals with magic. Trials by ordeal and rights of passage are very interesting ideas, and would make great stories, but there is nothing inherently magical about them. Yes, they can be associated with magic, but that is because the minds of men and women are full of magic. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are a kind of  religious magical event, so that is a possibility. Off hand I think there are kind of four main areas that we can break magical thinking up into: ghosts, gods, aliens, and magicians/witches/wizards. That is very general and could use some work to really come up with a more thought out classification, but in a rudimentary way it works. The only one of my original four ideas that falls into the magic category of magical thinking is blood iron.

I believe I came up with this idea while watching The Badlands, which is a good show. I might have been influenced by Blood Drive as well, which I was surprised to find out that I kind of like. The basic idea is that there is a special kind of iron that becomes stronger when it is bathed in blood, and it becomes weaker the longer it goes without being in blood; iron made for war, blood iron. There are lots of different ways I could go with that idea, but I am not experienced in making up magic, so I want to get advice from someone that is.

Brandon Sanderson is a very successful fantasy author and is known for coming up with Sanderson's Laws of Magic. Like all laws, they are more like guidelines or approximations of truth, and guidelines are exactly what I am looking for. He wrote an article covering each of the three laws, but I am just going to list them here.

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

Sanderson's Second Law
Limitations > Powers

Sanderson's Third Law
Expand what you already have before you add something new.

All of these laws obviously have huge ramifications and can be studied for lifetimes, as I am sure they will be, but I want to just take them as general statements to add to my idea. The first law hits on a lot of things. There are really two directions to go with magic, it can either be soft magic where it isn't really explained or understood, or it can be hard magic where it is explained and understood. Great writers have used both types to good effect. If we go with soft magic then it can basically only be used to create problems. If there is some magic that we don't understand we will just keep asking questions like, "Why don't they just use magic?" If there isn't a good answer for that then the story will be either confusing or boring, or both. Confusion and boredom are the two main things that will have a reader or watcher stop reading or watching. I know for me it is almost 100 percent boredom that stops me from reading or watching something. There are some subjects that just don't interest me, but I don't usually even start those stories. Hard magic, on the other hand, can be used to solve problems because it can't "magically" solve all problems like soft magic might be able to do, and the readers will know why.

The blood iron idea already lends itself to being a hard magic system, there is basically some alternative science to it. So, it seems, the first step must be to flesh out at least a general understanding of how this blood magic works. It has to be something in the blood that must somehow either absorb into the metal or create a chemical reaction. There are lots and lots of things in blood to choose from, and I can make something up if I want to. Hormones are a possibility, and that could have a lot of major implications. Heme-iron is another good possibility, as is oxygenated blood. What about a combination of those? Wow, there are so many choices that I could make with this simple idea, I see why fantasy writers get addicted to this type of thing.

Okay, how about the iron has to be forged in a special way to have this special power. Maybe a certain kind of volcanic ash has to be used, or blood has to be used in the folding process, or it is some part of making damascus steel. I can decide that later, the important part is that this metal is rare and hard to get. The metal (I haven't decided on iron or steel yet, I like the sound of iron, but steel makes more sense) has some sort of accelerated breakdown/entropy/nuclear decay process, so it always has to be maintained or it is lost. This process can be stopped, or reversed, by bathing the blade in blood. The heme-iron in the blood embeds itself in and binds with the steel, but only if the blood is still oxygenated. Without oxygen, the chemical reaction that is needed doesn't happen. Also, the hormones make a difference, so animals can be used, but they aren't as good as humans. I could have that, but I could just have that as a popular myth in this world, but not part of the actual science. The blades that are consistently bathed in blood over long periods of time become as hard as diamond.

It seems that by talking about the science of our magic we have already done a lot of the work for law number two. There are already a lot of limitations that we have placed on our blood magic. I am sure there are more that we could make, or even discover based on what we have already stated.

I have heard Sanderson's third law explained another way.

If you change one thing, you change the world.

Really this is more like a piece of Sanderson's third law, his third law is huge, it should probably be broken into two or three smaller laws. Having this steel and this blood magic is obviously going to change everything: politics, economy, religion, war, trade, science, etc. Even small changes that I make to this magic would have huge ramifications on the whole world we are building. If the magical property of the steel is because of a certain volcanic ash made with damascus, then that changes all of the economics and geopolitics of the entire world. If the blood is only useful while oxygenated rather than when it isn't, then that changes everything.

We have covered a lot. We were able to get ahold of a solid magical idea and, with the help of Sanderson's Laws of Magic, add some details to make it intriguing. I understand now why people enjoy writing fantasy so much, it's just fun. I am intrigued by this idea of blood iron/steel. Maybe I will do something with this in the future. You are welcome to join me in the exploration at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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