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I'm writing an urban fantasy series in which like many urban fantasy series there is a magic-and-powers system hidden from the broader world that the supernatural phenomena of the series run on. However, I'm having trouble providing exposition as to how this world works. Like many of these series, there is a relatable viewpoint character who is new to the supernatural world and at least part serves as a vehicle for readers to learn about the supernatural as the character does. However, I am running into a big problem in that it's hard to figure out how to give exposition given that the other characters don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural world and its magic system themselves. They know the bare bones, like basic terminology, a very broad understanding of what they are (i.e., they don't know how the magic system works, they just know they're weird and have powers), and "don't go near those guys because they'll mess you up". But they can't provide a good explanation of where their powers come from or how they work beyond "they just do".

In most series the protagonist after being inducted into the world of the supernatural would get some big expositional speech on how they're part of an aristocratic lineage of vampires dating back to Cain or they're half-angel demon hunters or the ever famous "Yer a wizard Harry", but one of the big novelties of this series is that nobody has any idea how the magic system works. The supernaturals don't know where they come from, and they don't have some venerable pedigree going back centuries or millennia. A good way to put it is it's like germ theory. In 1800 we had no idea that bacteria and viruses caused disease, but that didn't stop humans from getting sick and dying anyway. Like any natural phenomenon it just happens, and people are forced to react and figure it out on their own. Much like how real science doesn't have all the answers to every natural phenomenon, neither does mortal supernatural knowledge have the complete picture (there is a hard magic system in place, but no character has figured out its mechanisms).

Adding to that the supernatural gimmick in my series is weird, almost to the point of silliness. Like, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure-level weird. It's so weird that one of the things that's mentioned to keep the existence of the supernatural under wraps is that it's so weird that it's almost impossible for someone to try and spill the secret without being looked at like they're completely insane. The seeming silliness is part of the point, the narrative intent behind this is to lower the reader's guard by making them laugh at how silly this is, only for them to stop and be forced to reconsider when the consequences of this “silly” magic system result in mass loss of human life.

However, this in turn causes two major problems. One is that it's hard to introduce the magic system in a way that the audience can connect to, because there's little pre-existing mythical tradition like there is for vampires, werewolves, wizards, and other supernatural beings that have saturated pop culture. By contrast, in works Harry Potter all Hagrid has to do is say “yer a wizard Harry” and the audience immediately knows what he means, even if they’ve never read Harry Potter book before. It is implied that many myths and legends throughout human history are misinterpreted retellings of this supernatural gimmick (as is typical for many of these types of stories), but none of them are so straightforward that you can say "these are vampires, but different".

The other downside is it makes it really, really hard for the characters to provide exposition in a believable way. For example, I've tried writing the "intro to the supernatural" speech for the protagonist several times and each time I keep finding myself struggling to come up with a believable reason of "why does the protagonist even believe a word they're saying, and why doesn't he think they're just insane?" That's not even getting into when the characters try to explain the situation to other characters. The only thing I can think of that would make someone believe would be is if they got mauled by a supernatural monster first.

Even if the protagonists give a downright inaccurate, one issue is that the audience depends on the characters to provide context to the crazy fictional world they're viewing and so have a tendency to believe what is said without reservation because they have nothing else to judge the characters' words against. This is one of the reasons [REDACTED] in Knights of the Old Republic II, the idea that most of the exposition you received in the story was wrong was shocking. However, this also has a tendency to upset audiences, especially when it comes to the magic system, because it turns out that all the rules of the plot the audience was following are either not quite correct or outright wrong. Rather than getting the impression of "this is what the rules were all along", the audience tends to throw a riot because it comes off as the author changing the rules mid-story.

Given this, how can I provide exposition for the audience when no character has an extensive, objective knowledge of how the magic system works?

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    To avoid reader outrage, you need to inoculate them to the idea that there may be superstition and inaccuracies in the perceptions of the characters. Have characters arguing about the 'right' answer, or use an authority (teacher, etc.) who proposes two competing answers, and says there is proof for both. It's critical YOU know the truth, and that the reader can be shown (not told) what the true answers are. But characters pontificating about the right answers (which then prove wrong) WILL aggravate readers - unless the pontificator is shown to be a fool/arrogant somehow. – DWKraus Jan 18 at 18:55
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    Read Mistborn or Stormlight Archive – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 19 at 5:30
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    Also consider "Sanderson's First Law": The audience should understand the rules of magic insofar as magic is used to solve problems. This doesn't solve your main two issues, but it gives you a way to think about how to use magic that the audience doesn't understand without the audience feeling like it's "cheating" -- use the magic for background or to create obstacles, but make sure it's not used successfully to resolve things. You can even have some rules that are understood (for problem solving) and some that are not (for other storytelling purposes). – Charles Staats Jan 20 at 15:52
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    @CharlesStaats +100 Sanderson's First Law is in practice more important than having a well-defined system in the first place. A system that says "my mages are all-powerful and can do whatever the hell they want" is well-defined, but will still probably lead to a shitty story, whereas a system that the author himself barely understands can be great if the author withstands the (serious) temptation to come up with new rules as the plot progresses. – xLeitix Jan 20 at 16:39
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    While it's great you put in the time to build a (hopefully) coherent framework for your magic system (Is there a hard/soft fantasy distinction like there is for SF?) do you need to show it to the user? It's understandable you want to given the work you've put into it. Was Star Wars better before or after the midichlorans? – JCRM Jan 21 at 10:43

13 Answers 13

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Some people will believe they know how things work, even if they don't

If you were to ask a highly educated person 2,000 years ago why things fall down, they'd have an answer. (It just wouldn't be a correct answer.) If you asked them what light is, they'd have an answer. Their answer wouldn't have anything to do with particle/wave thingies which (probably) weigh nothing, and travel at a speed at which time stands still, and which nothing can travel faster than. In fact, if you said that's really what light is, they'd think you were crazy.

Alchemists had theories about why mixing different substances and heating them caused new substances to form, and while they were pretty sure there were details still to be worked out (like how gold was made), it was just a matter of time. Alchemists were not entirely useless, either; they developed dyes and other useful chemicals, even with their imperfect system. Later, chemists went through various models for atoms, the building blocks for matter, until they arrived at quantum theory, and probability fields for electrons. Quantum theory is so complicated in practice that we don't even use it (most of the time) to calculate what will happen in a chemical reaction - we use older, technically incorrect theories, which (usually) work to describe what will happen, even if things like electron orbitals isn't really what the atomic system is like.

If nobody knows why something happens, there will be competing theories

Cynthia, who can make plants grow and blossom before your eyes, swears up and down it's because of the power of Mother Gaia, and that it's that same power that everyone is using (though "Some people are using it wrong!").

The Thompson brothers, who can both make fire, disagree whether they're drawing heat from the sun, or from the center of the earth. They have endless discussions, when together and not doing anything else, about whether their powers are stronger during the day, and whether that proves that the sun is the source of their powers.

Angela started being able to resurrect dead bugs and small animals after her trip to see the Egyptian artifacts at the museum. Okay, it was a year and a half or so after the visit, but she was really impressed, and is pretty sure it has something to do with it. She's now obsessed with Egyptian mythology, and always wears some kind of snake totem. But no Ankhs, because she's not some stupid sun-worshipping heretic, like Akhenaten was! She's for Osiris, all the way.

Different characters will have different versions of "the talk" about how magic works

The Thompson brothers will talk your ear off about how powers work, if you let them. (If you also have powers, so they're not keeping it a secret from you.) Cynthia will speak in vague generalities about Mother Gaia, whether you have powers or not. Other than talking down Akhenaten, if you bring up the subject in just the right way, Angela won't say a thing about how (she thinks) she got her powers. It's a secret. After all, if visiting a few artifacts in a museum can give someone powers... Bad things could happen, if her knowledge got out. She may even encourage people to believe in that bunk Cynthia is selling. (Literally - Cynthia sells crystals and essential oils, even though they don't work. And even though Cynthia has actual powers, she don't realize crystals and essential oils don't work.)

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    With modern science, a lot of "incorrect" models are used because the extra couple digits of accuracy are usually useless. However, a commonly used system, GPS, actually uses relativity to compensate for time dilation when the signal travels to and from the satellite, and those calculations are a real mess. You normally don't want to bring in relativity in, say... calculating baking time for a cake, whether you were walking around in the room or not. Nobody cares you were off by 0.05 seconds, but that 0.05 seconds will be noticeable in GPS calculations. – Nelson Jan 19 at 3:15
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    Interesting enough, all you wrote is also true for our 'real world'... people will believe they know how things work, even if they don't ... – Aganju Jan 19 at 7:32
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    @Aganju Of course - one of the things that makes for a good story is people behaving more or less like people really do behave (with a bit of editing, and accounting for the various technological and societal changes). Superstition has been with humans for ages, and it's unlikely it will go away any time soon; and that doesn't just mean believing in unicorns, it also means all sorts of lucky charms, astrology, homeopathy, necromancy... humans love stories, especially explanations - but most of us aren't too hung up on whether the explanation is actually correct. – Luaan Jan 19 at 10:20
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    I really this answer, because that's just how empirical knowledge works. Artificial models such as mathematics are built up from axioms, so there is definite knowledge of things (modulo Goedel). Real-world models, however, are empirical. Observations are made, hypotheses formulated, experiments designed to (in)validate hypotheses, etc... and little by little theories are invalidated (Newtonian physics) and refined to account for new observations/experiments. This is called Science. – Matthieu M. Jan 19 at 11:14
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    I think characters in such a universe would eventually converge on some somewhat consistent explanation that explains a lot of things (even if it’s incorrect). After all “all models are wrong, but some are useful” – Others Jan 20 at 4:14
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My answer is fundamentally similar to JonStonecash's, but comes at it from a different angle.

You mentioned the following:

the narrative intent behind this is to lower the reader's guard by making them laugh at how silly this is, only for them to stop and be forced to reconsider when the consequences of this “silly” magic system result in mass loss of human life.

If the intent is to play this bizarre magic system for horror value, then have you considered simply not explaining it? We fear what we don't understand; it's one of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of the human psyche. Not explaining your magic system will make any atrocities stemming from it all the more horrifying for both the characters and the readers.

The classic example is Kafka's Metamorphosis. At no point is it ever explained, either to Gregor or to the readers, why he has transformed into a monstrous bug creature. He just has, and the lack of any logical explanation amplifies the absurdity and horror of the situation. Similarly, your characters don't need to understand how they're able to (say) shoot fireballs by making a specific hand gesture. They may not even know that they can, until they make the wrong gesture at the wrong time...

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    +1 just for Kafka and giant cockroaches. Otherwise they're all similar (correct) answers. – DWKraus Jan 18 at 18:48
  • I have to have some explanation because the gimmick relates to the themes and unique selling point of the story. It's like if in Fullmetal Alchemist they were just throwing fireballs around without explaining equivalent exchange or alchemy; it would look like random magic and the uniqueness of the story would vanish and we'd have yet another "wizards in WWII" setting – user2352714 Jan 19 at 18:43
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The most important question is, why does it matter what the details of the magic system are?

It may be important for you as the writer to know, but does it matter to the characters or the plot? For example, does the behavior of the protagonist change (or can be explained) because said protagonist has deep knowledge of the magic system. Think carefully before you answer. Consider other protagonists. It is likely that they live in worlds with electricity, mobile phones, web sites, and automobiles. Ask yourself, how many of those protagonists have deep knowledge of these topics. "I flip the switch and the light comes on. Duh and Done."

If the question of deep knowledge is still relevant, then the question becomes how to dole out the knowledge. Let me introduce you to Dudley. He is not the protagonist. He is devoted to the protagonist. Dudley is willing but not too experienced. The protagonist says to Dudley, we must enter that dark and foreboding cave. Dudley, shaking with comic fear, says, you better have a really good reason for doing that, Boss. The protagonist, working under an urgent deadline, gives Dudley the minimum explanation possible and assures Dudley that magic quirk #17 will protect them from nastiness. When it does not, Dudley demands more information. The protagonist, dusting off the scales left from their fight with the dragon, hastens to point out that paragraph 6, subsection 3 indicates that magic quick #17 applies to all cave dragons except for the thankfully rare blue dragons. Dudley observes, and that one was so blue it hurt. And so on and so on.

Dudley serves to provide the mechanism of exposition. There are endless possibilities for Dudley to advance the plot at the same time as Dudley hatches another tiny egg of knowledge.

I could even envision a scene where Dudley is sent off on an errand and he spends most of the scene ranting about the insane magic system. First they tell me this, but that turns out not to be quite right. Then they tell me something more complicated, but that ain't quite it either. I know that we are in a hurry but it is two steps forward and one step back and I'm the one who ends up on my backside, scraping dragon poo off of the only jerkin that I own. I am beginning to think that Sir Protagonist doesn't really know what he doing.

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Other answers have already given you good reasons why it might be a good idea to not spell out the exact details of your magic system.

However, if you still want to share some background on how the magic works in your story and the only thing preventing you from doing so is that the cast doesn't know, you could do it outside of the story. A common way to do this is to start each chapter with a short snippet on something relevant to the story, even if the characters might not know it, or if they do, have no reason to quote it. That said, even there, it's almost certainly best not to give an actual explanation of your magic system. Instead, you could give the reader some glimpses into legends, traditions, laws, spells, historical events that, all together, form an image of how the magic system works.

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    Was going to answer with this exactly. Two good ways involve a flash-forward technique - either write a side story with a researcher who doesn't appear in the series otherwise (at least, not until later books...) talking about / writing research notes what they eventually discover about the parts of the system you feel the readers need to know, or do the same thing with a relatively young character in the story, writing from their future perspective. (Bonus points if it's someone the readers will be glad to have proof from the "future" that they live long enough to relate these details.) – gatherer818 Jan 20 at 19:16
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In somewhat reverse order:

Subverting expectations with a false/flawed narrative is fine, and doesn't necessarily lead to outrage. It's all about how the subversion and eventual reveal take place.

I can envision several different scenarios that can accomplish this end. I'll share two.

  1. Make it evident that the characters providing exposition have a flawed/partial understanding of the systems they are discussing.

    • This is best done subtly and can be a nice device to provide an air of mystery and provoke curiosity. The reader has a gut feeling the world isn't quite as the characters make it out to be, but at the same time they don't have enough information themselves to discern what is really going on. This can build some nice tension which can be parlayed into a satisfying resolution.
    • Commonly I see this done with each character having a few small fragments of knowledge about the system. The totality of these fragments allows the reader to understand enough of the system to make the world and surrounding events plausible/believable, but not enough that they fully understand what is going on. Essentially, the reader is 'in the dark' along with the characters, but by synthesizing their collective knowledge the reader is a bit more enlightened. This often leads to a nice payoff down the line when there is a big reveal simultaneously impacting the characters and reader. Often this is very satisfying, as the reader can directly empathize with the impact the reveal has on the characters while also having a 'mind blowing' experience as their synthesized/meta knowledge allows them to see the far-reaching implications of the reveal which are well beyond any individual character's ability to comprehend.
    • The 'wrong' way to do this would be to have a seemingly authoritative figure provide a flawed narrative. This can make the reader feel like they were intentionally mislead by the author and lead to anger and frustration. (This can also be done well, but it sounds like this isn't what you want to go for)
  2. Provide a plausible narrative only to later subvert it with an equally plausible true narrative

    • This often looks like subtly nudging the reader to believe x is going on, even though y is actually happening. As long as the facts shared with the reader fit x and y relatively equally, this usually works well without frustrating the reader
    • This is essentially the "I should/could have seen it all along!" narrative device. As long as the subversion does not appear to be an arbitrary or contrived plot device but serves some emotional or narrative purpose it usually is well received.
    • You may be interested in the book Three by Ted Dekker. It does this incredibly well and is a great read imho.
    • This can also be done in a somewhat asymmetrical manner; providing a dubious narrative only to later subvert it with something more plausible, or vice versa.

If you want more straight forward exposition, it doesn't need to come from a main character.

A way this can be done is with a mysterious and/or evasive source of authoritative information. Sometimes this takes the form of ancient tomes, clues, or rare but significant events that reveal to the reader and/or characters scraps of truth about the world around them. This can also take the form of a sagely or experienced character that briefly enters the plot at various points to provide advice or influence events, all the while revealing information (either directly or indirectly) about the world's systems. These characters can take many forms, being 'master puppeteers', enigmas, or role models and can vary in their development and relevance to the overall plot, with some remaining shrouded in obscurity while others becoming main characters or playing a pivotal role in the plot. Lots of flexibility to explore here.

I think Gandalf and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings movies (yes, I'm sorry) are good examples of such characters. For example, you don't learn everything about the Nazgul immediately, you just know they are bad. Then through a combination of sage characters and significant events the truth of who the Nazgul are and what powers they possess slowly unfurls.

Ultimately, I think this comes down to how you want your readers to experience the narrative

Do you want them to experience it from the relative viewpoint of the characters? Then little exposition beyond what the characters themselves know is needed. The reader is going to start in the dark and some things may seem jarring or arbitrary. That can be ok if both the reader and characters are going to gain in their maturity and understanding of the world as the story progresses. Or maybe your characters are going to remain relatively static in their understanding, in which case many events will simply go unanswered.

If you want them to experience the story from a somewhat meta perspective, then you could pursue any of the options discussed above.

TL;DR

I think what I am trying to get at is that I don't think your issue is how to introduce your magic system, I think your issue is that you haven't decided where you want the reader's knowledge to start and what end goal/state you want to develop that knowledge toward. (in other words, what sort of epistemological journey do you want to take your reader on) Once you can answer those two questions, I think how to introduce your magic system will reveal itself.

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Although it has been touched on in the other answers I'd like to highlight something:

If it is important to the characters in the story, it is important to the reader.

You mentioned that you're not sure how to introduce this exposition dump, or why your character is even interested to start with because it's "ridiculous".

Maybe your character is ordinary and they love plants, and your magic system enables a very bizarre looking plant, or the ability to grow plants quickly. They get pulled into the adventure simply because they try to buy a plant that isn't for sale. Exposition about bizarre plants adds flavour, but isn't required.

If you make it relevant to the character, then that makes it relevant to the reader.

As for the exposition of the magic system itself, my answer is that you only explain what the characters themselves need to understand.

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  • The relevance is the same, but the question is about amount of knowledge, not about releveance: Readers should know (slightly) more than the characters. – toolforger Jan 20 at 8:31
  • @toolforger I'm not sure if I agree with that, the reader should often know less than the characters. But I agree that the question is more about how to do the exposition. I will edit my answer to reflect that. – Erdrik Ironrose Jan 20 at 12:41
  • Ah, I wasn't too clear about this. I meant so that in this case, the author clearly wants the reader to know more than the characters. That's essentially the core of this question: How does he expose the true nature of his magic system to the reader if none of the characters knows enough to do that as normal part of the story? – toolforger Jan 20 at 19:00
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Science Will Lead:

I think exposition is bad, unless you are establishing an absolute authority of what is right or wrong. This answer is not really radically different from the rest, it's just too extensive to be a comment. So that last line says a truth which seemingly undermines the answer I'm giving (despite it being accurate).

Oddly, those of us who are scientists are most familiar with the pitfalls of belief that the answers we know today are absolute truth and inviolate. But anyone actually TELLING people what is or isn't truth isn't going to undermine their position by pointing out uncomfortable facts like "The last three absolutely true theories proposed were all proven at least partly wrong."

In my world, I have additional dimensions that are inhabited by beings that relate to our reality very differently than we do. Those beings work through human proxies, because they can't fully comprehend our reality. While these beings can alter our reality in ways outside conventional physics, their actions are through the lens of their human - and deeply flawed - proxies. The extradimensional beings have a different value system that doesn't take into account insignificant things like "Death is permanent," or "Cause equals effect in time." Similarly, the humans are trying to do the bidding of their alien masters but imposing their own biases to things like "Human sacrifice to our god must mean we're really devoted."

To avoid reader outrage, you need to inoculate them to the idea that there may be superstition and inaccuracies in the perceptions of the characters. Have characters arguing about the 'right' answer, or use an authority (teacher, etc.) who proposes two competing answers, and says there is proof for both. It's critical YOU know the truth, and that the reader can be shown (not told) what the true answers are. But characters pontificating about the right answers (which then prove wrong) WILL aggravate readers - unless the pontificator is shown to be a fool/arrogant somehow. You might want to consider having a character who is trying to figure out scientific principles for the magic system. By definition, a magic system violates all the rules - OR it isn't magic, but simply the underlying scientific truth as we understand it.

In a REAL magic system, people are stumbling around in the dark, following hunches and doing what they imagine is right. Unless you start TELLING the reader one thing or the other is right, they aren't going to be offended when the rules we thought were true really aren't. After all, it's magic.

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According to Ernest Hemingway, the reader can always tell the difference between things that the writer knows and understands, but deliberately hasn't included in the story (because they don't belong there), and things that the writer hasn't thought through, and has left out because of laziness and convenience. The first category is good, the second is bad.

If YOU know the rules of your magic system, and it makes sense, and it's consistent, it isn't necessary for the reader or the characters to understand it fully. In fact, it's better if they don't. People love a mystery. When writing fantasy, in particular, making it too well-explained can strip all the "magic" out of the magic.

What your reader should learn about the magic system is what the characters learn about it, when they learn about it, in a situation where it is crucial that they learn it. Therefore, to whatever extent it's important to you that they learn it, you must structure the book so that the plot demands mastery of it. That's the only way to make it engaging. (Lyndon Hardy's book Master of the Five Magics is the single best example of this I know.) Otherwise you're just a boring school-teacher doing an info dump.

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Introduce it gradually

There are many steps in how much detail the specifics of the magic system is known to the characters. You can do the same with the audience. A big infodump right at the beginning which includes many mechanics which only become relevant much later, is detracting from the reading experience, but mechanics being introduced right before they are used is not a great idea either.

What you could use instead, is different levels of details, introduced gradually. At the beginning it's enough to introduce that magic exists. What it can and cannot do, can be then introduced gradually.

A great example for this is Worm, with a very rational approach to superheroes.

The following levels of detail are introduced gradually during the story:

  1. At the beginning we only get to know that the story is set in modern day Earth, with the exception that individuals with superpowers started appearing a few decades ago, there are publicly known teams of superheroes and supervillains, and that the main character recently acquired powers.

  2. Only after some scenes where we see the main character and a few others use their powers, do we get introduced to information which basically everyone knows about in the setting: for example that a small percentage of humans have the hidden predisposition of getting superpowers, but the powers only manifest if they go through an extremely traumatizing "trigger event". We gradually get the hint that no two powers are exactly the same.

  3. Later we (as the reader) discover information which is openly available, but only people who educate themselves in the topic know about, for example that powers can only affect either living or nonliving things but not both. Until now, the main character knew more about the mechanics of powers then the reader, but everything after this will be discovered together with the main character.

  4. Later we discover information about powers that are kept secret from the general public.

  5. Much later, information is discovered which is new to everyone, about what might be causing the powers, but it's still not known why.

  6. Only near the end is it discovered

What the true motivations of the gigantic trans-dimensional entities are, for giving humans superpowers. And that there are a handful of humans who knew this all along.

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While reading your question I kept thinking about what I always tell myself whenever I'm stuck.

Don't force it. If you can't make it work/look right, make people think it was intended this way.

In your question you mention the magic system is considered “silly” on purpose. That's perfectly fine. On the other hand, you sound like you're trying to force a serious speech for the protagonist, explaining all of those silly magics. By your own words, "why does the protagonist even believe a word they're saying, and why doesn't he think they're just insane?"

This right here, that's the thing. What if he DOES think it's insane?

Try to look at it this way - what if the protagonist believes the story only as much as believing in Bigfoot? Or aliens kidnapping people? Maybe he believes only some parts and realizes how it all sounds, even while telling it?

What if his speech on the supernatural was really just a story he heard somewhere? Old legend? He tells it in the book as a "crazy story" he remembered, with a lot of exaggerations and speculations. He does know and believe in only as much as you let him. The rest can be filled with false information, blanks, guessing or hearsay, only sounding right at the moment.

The point is, this "intro to the supernatural" could be initially told as just another story, even interrupted with dialogue. Nothing unusual here, move on. Because "the audience depends on the characters to provide context", don't try to suddenly explain it all at once. Make it absurd enough to at first not even take it seriously. It has just enough strange or unexplained, funny or disturbing elements to make the readers remember at least some fragments. Separating this first, incomplete "joke" story opens a way to actually explain it better later, when the situation starts turning serious. Now we HAVE to know how this all works.

"Hey, remember that crazy story you told us last time? Yeah, the magic one. Mind telling it again?"

And maybe more importantly, where is part 2?

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I think if you really want to have an exposition explaining how magic works, then do a prologue with some unknown creature - adds a bit of mystery - telling an ancient story that connects with the main character. Maybe do something a little like how in Warrior Cats they sometimes do a prologue with Starclan talking about something. This is just a suggestion though.

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If you absolutely must establish some point of the system in counterpoint to the understanding of your characters, you could try adding in an Authors Note or two.

For example, the character just finishes an internal debriefing on some experience they just had with the magic system and they come to the totally wrong conclusion. You then step in and offer an Authors Note

Something like, "Now, we will later learn that this conclusion of theirs was wildly inaccurate, for if they would have just remembered this other thing that happened, they would see that there is no way it could work the way they currently think it does."

This allows the reader to put some of the pieces together ahead of the characters, to aid their understanding without spoiling it for the characters themselves.

This can be a jarring break from the narrative, but I have seen authors like Tolkein use it to great effect to offer some explanation for why their characters made a certain choice when they did, or how they just happened to have some unexpected bit of knowledge or skill.

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There are a few ways to introduce a magic system.

  1. Don't explain it. Let readers learn with the character. (ex. there was only one person who ever understood the magic of ____.) Eventually, your character meets this person, whether it was a hard journey to meet them, or if it was an easy part.
  2. Have an unknown ancient "something" explain it, possibly in some story that somehow pertains to your main character. (ex. There was a prophecy of ____ needing to learn the magic system of _____ to save the world. The magic system is very complicated indeed and ___ will have to work hard. The specific prophecy is ______ and I, as the only one knowing how the system works, will tell you now. It works as _____.).
  3. Maybe introduce some artifact that explains it. (ex. No one, in the stars or on the ground knew how magic worked! But way, way back, someone knew, and wrote a book on it. This book was hidden ____, and in order to win the war, _____ must find it; or all is lost.)
  4. Have evil explain it as a joke. (ex. Have the antag explain it to the protag in a final battle, as if to say that the protag will never win! But nay, the protag wins anyway, through unlocking magic through emotion or something like that.)

Anyways, good luck! Introducing magic really is complicated...

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