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In this world, magic comes from a large tradition of stories. There is a tome of stories (or some such thing) that holds all of the stories that a particular culture knows, and this is passed down to the story tellers, who are able to perform the magic.

The concept is that, when facing a particular situation, a story teller will tell the story they know, modified to fit the current facts. For example, if there is a story of a young girl who grows so large that she can walk across a lake, then an old man telling the story in order to get to his cottage on an island would change the details so that it is him who is doing the growing and walking. In so doing, when the story is done being told, the old man is the one who crossed the lake.

The key is that in order to make the magic work, you have to believe that the story is possible.

The problem I'm having is that the plot's central moment will be when a new story teller, who has yet to actually perform the magic, suddenly realizes that it's not about believing the actual myth, but about believing that you can do what the people in the stories did, and weaving the magic to make that happen.

So...why doesn't everyone just write their own stories whenever they need them?
Why is it important that there are only so many stories, and what is so special about these stories that they are the ones that invoke the magic?

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    $\begingroup$ Is this like White Wolf's 'Consensual Reality' from their Mage The Ascension then? if it is then the answer to the titular question is 'nothing', they just have to get enough people to believe it (disseminate it widely enough) for it to work, only those with massively huge egos & levels of self belief (Mages in MTA) can manage an off the cuff spell without the weight of this mass belief behind it. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Oct 28 '19 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ ^ Such individuals are extremely rare (in the order of 1 in 10 million or less) in MTA. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Oct 28 '19 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ This is exactly the concept of en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Stasheff in his wizard-poetry novels. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wizard_in_Rhyme $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 28 '19 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, how does impact Culture Heroes like King Arthur? Do the characters from the founding myth of your country have adventures in some distant space? Or wait under a mountain to be awoken in a time of strife? $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Oct 28 '19 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz I imagine it more like whether or not the stories were based on real events or people doesn't matter. The people like King Arthur were just Kings or whatever, but the stories that people told about them are what hold power. $\endgroup$ – Michael Stachowsky Oct 28 '19 at 2:08

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I would like to address your second question first, because in my opinion it should be the central question.

Why is it important that there are only so many stories, and what is so special about these stories that they are the ones that invoke the magic?

There are not many really plausible reasons,

  • Based on real events
    The stories could be events, that really happened, but maybe just to some sort of magic civilization, gods that travelled the world long before time. Or maybe these are stories from another dimension/realm, that magical beings did and every time someone tells a story, a bit of that world's reality is leaking into the world. So if someone wants to write a new story, he needs a way of experience these other beings, which might be impossible now.
  • Forgotten knowledge
    Maybe it's the style the writing needs to fulfill. Some sort of emphasis that lies in the words, some sort of metrum that needs to be fulfilled or maybe just a certain amounts of vowels, that carry this magic. This does not explain where the magic comes from, but it could just be a god liking the sound and allowing the magic to happen.
  • It needs to be believable
    As you stated in your question, its not about believing the myth but believing that you can do what the people in the myth did. That may be because the story is so well written that you can envision yourself in the role of the story's protagonist. Those stories are so old, that everyone has seen some sort of theater showing those stories. So they are easier to cast when remembering those performances. And to that effect, if many more people know these myths, they are easier to cast.

So to your first question:

So...why doesn't everyone just write their own stories whenever they need them?

Because it's hard work. Either you need to research it, you don't have the knowledge to write them or your stories suck, especially under stress.

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    $\begingroup$ Things like "mass belief" are quite common tropes already, the suggestions in your answer are really interesting because I'd never heard of them before. Especially the "based on real events" one, I love the implications of that. All these "impossible" feats are actually possible in the first place, the stories just document them and open people's minds. I'd never have thought of that. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Oct 28 '19 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @theonlygusti Mass belief is what I first thought of, but it would exclude the "forgotten legends", a book you find in the ruins of an ancient civilization that you'd want to use. It wouldn't work if everyone who knew/believed in the story died, and it could be interesting to have in a story so I'd try to find a reason that doesn't make those useless. $\endgroup$ – Teleporting Goat Oct 28 '19 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @TeleportingGoat Mass belief is sort of plausible, but it would not explain, why someone couldnt just write a really good and believable fanfic, tells it and people believe it, as the charakters are well-known, So why doubt that the girl in the story jumped a 100 m high while in another story she grew like 500m big to cross a lake? And that would be a common occurence in this world. $\endgroup$ – PSquall Oct 29 '19 at 8:41
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Mass belief

The actual mechanism of how such stories gain actual power is by combining the 'belief magic' of many people. Thus, a story that's known and believed by few people simply can't affect much, the story needs to have a large scale consensus, drawing on the beliefs of many, many people in order to have a meaningful effect.

Writing your own magic-creating story would be possible, but not "whenever you need it" - disseminating it across the land and accumulating belief inevitably takes time, possibly generations. However, that would give an entirely new face to various instruments of mass media and propaganda - in the latter century we have been able to invent stories with a powerful political message and convince whole nations about them.

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    $\begingroup$ Similar to the ideas in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, or Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. $\endgroup$ – Dugan Oct 28 '19 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the Libriomancer series. $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Oct 28 '19 at 19:00
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It is a pretty common system to have gods' powers derived from their worshippers in fantasy settings (this provides the gods a motivation and limits their powers). You could use a similar system here. The power of the story comes from lots of people believing it is possible. Believing it is true is the most obvious but not only way of believing it is possible. Maybe your storyteller can spin up very weak stories that only they believe in, but they can't get much done alone.

In addition, stories naturally mutate. Many people believe the story of the girl stepping over the lake. In some places, the story of the man stepping over the lake also exists based on it. In some places, the story of the girl shrinking to an appropriate size and jumping across lily pads exists. These are all fundamentally derived from the girl crossing the lake. The reason you want fewer stories out there is that it makes them more general. If you want to be an old man who jumps across lily pads, you can combine the story of the girl and the lily pads and the old man and the lake, because they are linked by the girl and the lake, and related stories reinforce each other.

This also provides an interestingly-dangerous aspect that if you don't know the stories well, you might think the story of the old woman flying is related to the girl in the lake and try to combine them. Since they are not, the power of your story will be pretty weak and perhaps you won't fly as expected.

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You've said it yourself.

In this world, magic comes from a large tradition of stories. There is a tome of stories (or some such thing) that holds all of the stories that a particular culture knows,

A legend doesn't exist on its own, or on a printed page. A legend exists in the minds and imaginations of countless thousands of people. Going about their lives, they know the stories, they tell the stories, they compare the stories to the situations they're going through. The stories are touchstones of their common cultural heritage. Magic can only be shaped and guided properly by a collective, subconscious will. (Or perhaps a collective conscious will, but that's the stuff of religions and cults, not wizardry.)

You can't just make those up. Creating a new spell - a new story - out of whole cloth is possible but it is an exacting process. You need people not just to know the story that you've told, but to believe in it as part of their cultural mainstream - not easily done even today, let alone in the time before mass media. You might try your best to spread a new story as far and wide as you can, to couch it in the proper mythical terms, and eventually, after many years, decades, even centuries of work (by you and your descendants) it will work as a magical tale. But it's not so simple as picking up a pen and going to work.

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Because you need to believe it. Anyone who finds out that you have to believe you can do it has seriously hampered him/herself in being able to perform magic.

As a child you could believe in Santa and everything he could do. But as you learned more about the world it became harder to believe in such things. Try and write a story now and convince yourself it's true, thats going to be hard. And since believing it yourself is an important part of the magic any story you write yourself is going to be ineffective or have a much higher difficulty in succeeding.

This also transfers to telling the story on. If you dont believe it yourself then it is a lot harder to sell. It'll take a few retellings before the story becomes mythological enough that people can believe it, but the original author will not benefit as much from his own story.

The old stories will remain effective because you have used and seen their magic. You can assume the grain of truth that it happened is there, and likely someone even showed you the "truth" of it by using its magic

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    $\begingroup$ This is the most realistic answer imo, and the most obvious when considering the world the OP describes in his question. +1 $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Oct 28 '19 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ Somewhat backing this up, see also various takes on the vampire tradition where belief in something is the vampire Kryptonite, not belief in any specific religion. The Doctor Who serial The Curse of Fenrir uses this to good effect: the Russian leader believes strongly in communism; Ace believes strongly in the Doctor; and the Doctor believes strongly in his companions. Also Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, with a climactic scene where Mightily Oats discovers that faith is more important than things (avoiding spoilers for people who haven't read it). $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 28 '19 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ An even better example which I've just remembered is a lovely sci-fi short story called The Odour of Thought. There was a question about this: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/152639/… $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 28 '19 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ "Anyone who finds out that you have to believe you can do it has seriously hampered him/herself in being able to perform magic" Or they've seriously enhanced it, if the believe strongly enough that just by believing something they can make it happen they can do anything just by wanting it to happen, because they believe they can.. it could go either way, this is why most of the tropes rely on consensual belief, to limit this power, because his (or her) belief is countered by others belief he (or she) can't make happen what he wants to. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Oct 28 '19 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore true but this is a slightly different case than before. If they believe strongly enough that just by believing they still have to believe it. Just imagine someone with that knowledge writing a new type of Santa to use those abilities. He KNOWS it to be false, he wrote it himself, but somehow he has to believe in his own story? The other stories he has some kind of proof or distance between him, the story and the magic to make it more of a "this could have happened" story where you replace the char. And since your belief is in believing but you have trouble believing it yourself... $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 28 '19 at 19:55
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Because there are actually limits on what magic can do. The stories that survive are the ones that work, if you make up a story you probably are trying to create an effect you can't do and thus it fails. If you should happen to create a story that magic can actually accomplish then it works, but that's sufficiently unlikely that people don't believe it will work--and thus it doesn't.

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In order to be able to apply a story to magic, it has to be heard at least once in early childhood. An adult making up a new story might be able to get it told to young children, and let them use it a generation later, but it would be too late for the adult to use the new story.

This is similar to language acquisition. Almost all young children achieve full native speaker fluency in the language or languages that are in use around them. As they get older, learning languages to full fluency becomes impossible for most people.

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The story writers have the Silver Tongue. Everyone knows how the really great storytellers are made - it’s something about being born under a full moon as the seventh son of a blacksmith, while Dave’s comet passes across the shamrock constellation.

Everyone knows that. After all, that’s how the stories go. Of course, across the Great River they have different stories about how they’re made, but those people talk all kinds of nonsense.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how this can work in the OP's universe. Sounds like the OP wants it to become possible for new stories to be created and used by anyone (probably their main character), as long as some "belief" criteria are fulfilled. Giving the main character this in-born power takes away from the magical moments of epiphany/discovery, and hard work. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Oct 28 '19 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ I actually like the idea. I think I'm interpreting it as follows: it is a story that only special people can write the magic stories. Since people believe it, and since the reality of the world is based on belief, it is true. Hence why "across the great river" they have a different story - it actually doesn't matter what story is told, only that a story is told. $\endgroup$ – Michael Stachowsky Oct 28 '19 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ OH wow I didn't read this answer at all when I made my previous comment 😬. "After all, that's how the stories go" .... this is AWESOME $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Oct 28 '19 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelStachowsky that was the intent yeah. I think there's a couple of paths you can go down with this, but the main thing that bugged me about the answers there at the time were that they introduced a new element. With this system, it's just the same kind of thing, applied again. Stories for everything. Maybe once upon a time (heh) everyone could make magic stories, but only some people were good at it. Someone asked them how they were able to, and they told stories about themselves. In turn, those stories acted as a limiting factor for future generations. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Oct 28 '19 at 19:35
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If you want to add an environmental aspect: Only stories written on a special magical paper that is made of a special magical plant generates actual magic. These plants are of course only available in specific numbers. Also you can't just harvest all as they wouldn't be able to reproduce anymore. You can add different aspects coming out of this concept to your story. Like who controls the plants, special knowledge to artificially grow it and what not.

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Storytelling is at least partially art. In order to create a story that is magical,

it has to be really good as a story, too

Same as in real world, there are virtually tons of thousands of books, but only a very small number that is good enough to actually be remembered after a century.

Additionally, it is argued that

there are only only 6 archetypes of stories in the world

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180525-every-story-in-the-world-has-one-of-these-six-basic-plots

Granted, you can fit a surprising number of narratives in them, but the question is, does magic care?

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It's dangerous to create new stories. Your system has a lot of raw power. All the traditions and rituals, and the fact that people tend to only make small tweaks to existing stories, are because the process of creating new stories is inherently dangerous, and has killed many people. It has to be tightly controlled, in order to not get vastly out of control. The old stories give you a structure to hold on to, something to keep your imagination from running wild (perhaps literally!). People who don't stick closely to the old stories have a tendency to end up imagining and believing bad and self-destructive fantasies.

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You state it in your description - it has to be a cultural story.

It becomes impossible to write stories on-the-fly, since that means that they would have to disseminate it within their own culture and pass it off as a real long-forgotten story (due to non-MC's understanding of the rules). Additionally, since people who aren't the MC believe that it has to be a real tale that they believe, they don't believe it could work, and as such they don't meet the actual requirements of believing that what they're writing is possible.

example:

I want to cross a lake. There exist no stories like this, so I decide that I want to fly. Shakily, I try to write a story about a person using their arms as wings.

"there's no way this can work," I think. "It's not a real myth." I finish writing my story, trying to force myself to believe in the new mythos of my birdman. After hours of standing there, I still haven't been able to fly.

"Of course," I thought. "This never happened, therefore it can't happen."

Suddenly I see some young mage take a paper and write something down, then turn into a dragon and fly across the lake.

"Screw this," I think, and hurry to just be a farmer.

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In order to gain magical quality, the story needs to be kept in collective memory of the tribe for generations, and the exact words/symbols/gestures must be continuously preserved in a living consciousness for, perhaps, 12 generations or 240 years. The catch is,

  1. Prone to sabotage if not kept secret: if anyone actually tries the spell/recipe/process described in the story before it matures, it breaks down and won't work anymore ever no matter what is done.

  2. if the story with exact words is not continuously stored in someone's brain, it stops working. If the last person who remembers the story dies the story spell stops working. But it can be salvaged (from written record) when whole process is restarted.

  3. it must be told in person. Having it written down in book helps but it is not enough, without uninterrupted oral tradition the spell won't work.

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