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One of my favorite parts of The Kingkiller Chronicle is the way that we learn world truths and history. Rothfuss will have different characters explain the same stories or truths to our MC through a different lens every time. We hear about history from the view of a religious man, from an ex-caravan guard and from a traveling story teller. And while every story is very different, when comparing them against each other it's clear to see what the core truths are--we get a glimpse at the true story. This gives the knowledge a mysterious arcane feel and also keeps the reader hooked and wanting to learn more.

I'm not trying to do anything so crazy as write multiple stories about the same history in an attempt to slowly uncover that history to the reader--that's something I could never hope to match Rothfuss with. However, I have setup a magic system, but I want the roots of the system to be misunderstood by different groups differently.

I've reread Rothfuss' books trying to get a grip on how he does it, but while I'm glamoured by the magic, I can't see the secret to the trick. A very basic description of my magic system is:

There are three main sources of energy: Spritual, Natural and Life. Spiritual energy is that of the Numena--the divine beings of our plane. It is said that much like us, they are limited to how much power they can store within themselves. Since pure energy requires motion, it will dissipate into the atmosphere if it is left alone. So to store their extra power, the Numena needed something that could cycle their energy, constantly keeping it moving. To this end, they created the earth and the ever-moving sun and moon. They created Nature. This is where you can find the second source of energy: Natural energy. This is the energy of the Numena that has been diluted cycle after cycle. While it no longer bears their taint or potency, it is energy all the same.

However, what the Numena did not foresee was their creation evolving itself. In their quest to make Nature as self-sufficient as possible, the Numena allowed it much freedom. And with this freedom, Nature created life to better recycle the energy. Here you find the third and final main source of energy: the physical Life energy that dwells in every living organism. This energy our body is constantly taking from Nature and transforming into energy of our own. It has likely circulated many many many times through the ecosystem of Natural power and finally has come to reside within you as your Life energy. As such, while you may draw on any of the different energies with the right link, Life energy is the easiest to draw upon for a living being.

But there is also the secret and debatably most powerful energy--Soul energy. You see, just as Nature evolved to create Life energy, so too did Life evolve to create Soul. The first creations of life were simple things. It began with the plants and small animals. But as life continued to evolve, it grew towards sentience. And with sentience came Soul. Some believe that Soul energy is a distillation of Spiritual energy from the body. That the existence of consciousness pulls in Life energy and refines it into something akin to pure Spiritual energy once again. Others theorize that there is some higher fifth power, Cosmic energy, that the Numena pull from and that consciousness is somehow able to connect to to get energy the same way.

Regardless of the truth, unlike the other energies, Soul energy cannot regenerate. This means that each sentient being is born with a set amount from the time they’re born to when they die. Most die never knowing the pure seed of power they hold within themselves. But some burn quick and bright, accidentally instinctually calling upon this power at a young age, creating miracles and horrors in equal parts. Dangerous is a child who’s come to know the ways of energy without formal training.

I've thought about how a rural farmer would envision what energy manipulators (name pending, read: magicians) do--they use demons to siphon energy from others--vs. more educated people, but to me it feels like the farmer doesn't know enough so is just rambling or the educated people know too much so there are no secrets left. How can I find the balance of obfuscating enough to make everyone's ideas different while keeping the core to slowly push the MC (and reader) toward realizing the truth so that when the MC or someone close to them makes breakthroughs in the field of Energy, the reader will have some stake in it?

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Here is how I would start looking for your answer...

Start a never-to-be published scene in a crowded bar or other public venue. Have a naive person (your pov character for this exercise) asks the crowd how magic works. Then let the verbal conflict begin...

  • a farmer stands up and starts talking about demons
  • a scholar interrupts him, explaining that there are no demons, just Numena which are neither good or evil.
  • a minister takes offense, demanding that his divine master is distinct from the Numena and is most definitely good.
  • a shop keep brings up the little girl who recently performed a miracle using soul energy then died.
  • the scholar and the ministers both start talking at once trying to explain what happened.
  • A school teacher starts talking about life energy and how the little girl must have used hers up. Others agree, adding that she might have made a great wizard if she had been trained earlier.

Take the argument in as many directions as you need to, to fully explore your magic system. Have the people in the room rearrange themselves so that like minds and opinions are sitting together. Take note of which belief systems cooperate with each other and which ones immediately conflict.

This is a thought experiment being performed on paper (or in a word document) to help you mature your magic system and its place in the world. You may end up with dozens of pages before trends start to emerge, but along the way, you we meet your people and find out what they believe.

When you are done, write up a quick summary of your conclusions and store the rest away for future reference. Keep in mind that this bar scene will never be included in any published work. It is just a way for you to find the beliefs and believers which surround the relatively unknown facts of your magic system.

Keep Writing!

  • You make a really good point--a big part of my problem is that I'm not entirely sure yet the place my magic system holds in world. Not only is this a great idea to explore that, but it sounds like a lot of fun for a free write! Definitely something I'll be trying out. Thank you!! – scohe001 Oct 8 '18 at 16:44
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    +1 Great answer. I was going to add my usual advice about worldbuilding, but I think you covered it, and more. I really like the idea of writing scenes that you know won't be in the book --I heard similar advice years ago for actors --to build scenes that aren't in the play as background work for the character. – Chris Sunami Oct 8 '18 at 17:00
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    It might be great if it were published: the dream of a frustrated apprentice who is trying to understand the conflicting explanations they've received from various people. It would be especially useful if the book were about trying to understand and use magic—something that the apprentice has great potential for but who is nonetheless blocked from practising because they can't learn the proper way of accessing it. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Oct 8 '18 at 17:50
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    @JasonBassford, good point. "Becoming a Wizard" stories are wonderful and can be a great way to leverage leftover world-building material after the original tale is told. My labeling the exercise with "never-to-be-published" is meant to free the writer from having to get the voice and grammar perfect while the ideas are flowing. Not all writing needs to be done with the care and precision of publisher bound work, and sometimes being free of those expectations allows the words to flow quicker and clearer. – Henry Taylor Oct 8 '18 at 17:57

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