The storyteller sits down. He has a tale to tell, a tale of a village that was suffering a drought. A tale of the desperation of the villagers. The desperation that led them to seek the help of one of the cruellest of tricksters, a Narrator. A tale, of how the narrator was one which was surprisingly docile, and didn't cause a flood, or an invasion, or a monster to arrive. In fact, the tale goes, no more people lost their lives from a cause that was linked to the initial drought.

The people are pensive. The story, they hear. And they say to their neighbours, "please lend me your ear. I have here a tale, important to tell, and I beg you to listen, and remember as well."

This is roughly how my magic system would work: someone tells a story, and the story is passed on, until it literally gains a life of its own. This life is a Narrator, who then bends reality to conform with the story that spawned him. Now narrators are not mindless forces, they are sentient, incorporeal, invisible beings. Their most dangerous characteristic is that they can get bored. This is why most people don't deliberately spawn them.

However, some people are such good storytellers, that they can just tell the tale once, and the narrator is spawned. True, not as strong as the older ones, whose story has been told hundred or thousands of times, but it can still make simple things happen, like tiles falling of roofs, or lightning striking a tree's equally tall neighbour instead of the first one.

I would like "wild" Narrators to be a force to be reckoned with, but I would also prefer it if one person couldn't just tell himself a story about a city being destroyed, and it happening.

Tl;dr: how do I nerf people who are exploiting the fourth wall?

Edit: "Wild" narrators are spawned by wild narratives: in the case of the example, the entire community is deliberately repeating as close to the exact same story as they can get. However, a lot of stories are told and retold so many times that the original is hardly recognisable. These are wild narratives.

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    $\begingroup$ Just imagined a magic battle being 2 people just talking about horrible things happening to one another $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ What happens when thousand of different people all tell different versions, as happens in the real world? $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHambling Sorry, I thought that was implied. This is how you get the so-called "wild" narrators. They have more... well developed tastes, more free will, and a less focussed narrative. Say, "murder mystery" instead of "A study in Scarlet" $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ Books for research... The Indexing series, by Seanan McGuire... The 500 Kingdoms Series... ... Then there's possibly some of the basic constraints on Reality Warpers in general... $\endgroup$
    – Malady
    Jun 1, 2020 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ There might be some ideas in this thread with a similar magic system. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/159451/… $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Jun 1, 2020 at 19:33

5 Answers 5


Number of people who've heard it and believe in it

The most common restriction I've seen for a magic system of this type is that it's powered by the number of people who believe in the story, and for stronger stories, you need stronger beliefs. For instance, let's say there's a story in a small village about a boy finding a well. That could very well meet the requirement. But let's say there's a story in the same small village about how their small country somehow defeated a much larger and more technologically advanced country. If just the village believe that - no dice, the narrative can't be formed. But if the country believes that, then the narrative can be formed.

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds very Pratchett. Which is good. Very good. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Also reminds me of the Names in A Practical Guide To Evil. $\endgroup$
    – Skyler
    Jun 1, 2020 at 20:13

What if the power of a story depends on either the momentarily total or the accumulated amount of belief or imagination it causes, in the teller as well as in the listeners?

A good story captures your imagination, and makes you see the events told with your inner eye. It might even send chills down your spine! Even if you know that "it's just a story", there is no denying this perception, in itself, is real. The stronger this alternate reality is perceived the more impact it has on reality, but there is only so much imagination in a single person. If you can capture a dozen people's imagination this is clearly more powerful, and capturing a nation might make truly non-trivial things happen.

This way there could be individuals with the power of three or even a hundred average people, who are either born with talent or train their minds at institutions since childhood. These individuals, for whom reality and imagination so-to-speak blend together, could do things on their own which are impossible to most people, but without an audience who vividly listens their powers are limited.

The effect could be linear, with a story seen by the inner eye of six people having six times the power of one told by a person to itself, but more likely not. I like to think that an audience of one is quite a bit more powerful than a story told to oneself and increases rapidly for small numbers, but soon starts to flatten off.

Like mentioned on the top, Narrators could either be fed by spikes of belief which quickly wear off, they could accumulate power to be still sustained by the imagination of people long dead, or some combination.

With this system, you CAN exploit the masses by using them as an audience to something they don't really agree to, while you retain the possibility of people (wise by experience) protecting themselves by either physically preventing themselves from hearing or by suppressing their imagination. Also, at least in a pre-industrial society, finding a large audience is difficult, especially if you are a suspicious Taleteller (What good can come of listening to those?)

This gets a little meta, but I just realize that for people to be suspicious of Taletellers, they must, in some way tell stories about them to warn eachother and their children. Does this somehow feed the system? Or do the True, very old and often retold, tales of history feed more stable and "boring" Narrators, like a sort of relatively passive gods?

Do Narrators care about how their stories are told? Does altering a story weaken the power of a Narrator or cause it discomfort? If so, this might be strong incentive for people telling about History to get it right, not to provoke the gods.

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    $\begingroup$ Now that gave me an idea. Making it not just how often it is told, but how immersive it is. So, a puppet show or stage play would be devastating! Good job there aren't any cinemas yet... $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 13:37

A Narrator depends on three main things for life:

  • The reality of the Story to set a personality
  • The Story being told to call it into being
  • The Story being spread to give it power

Each of these three, along with whatever limitations on the magic itself that restrict their creation, is a choke point for creating a Narrator force in the world. The stories literally develop a life of their own, but until called forth they cannot influence the world directly.

The core tenet is that every story can have its own spirit, and we invoke those spirits at our risk.

Premise 1: A Wild Narrator is a Minor Trickster Spirit

TL;DR: They can't have enough power to do much by their nature

The first idea is that a Wild Narrator does not have a lot of power because their stories do not have a lot of lasting power and are not grounded in a single precise moment of reality. They are the nebulous tales of minor events, sometimes exciting, that pepper lives that we remember and repeat endlessly through random chance.

Because these spirits are based on minor events that happen in a myriad of ways, they have been passed down through the ages like the larger tales. However they have not been passed down in a definitive line of succession, nor in any coherent way like a myth or legend would. This gives the Narrator lattitude in fulfilling its narrative and allowing it more freedom in its interpretation, but narrowing its scope to a single event.

Example: The story of a person getting injured when a small part of their ceiling fell on them has happened many times in history. However, it's a minor event -- a story that gets spread for a few days when it happens and then life goes on. Its spirit is not necessarily that strong as it is not about one single momentous event, but due to the many times and ways the story has spread, it can create the event in a myriad of ways.

Note: Not all tricksters are good -- I am almost sure enough people have fallen through ice and drowned that there is a Narrator Spirit for that too should somebody want to curse their enemies in winter.

Premise 2: Wild Narrators are Distilled Tropes and Genres

TL;DR: The greater Wild Narrators spririts are rarely invoked due to their nature

In contrast to the minor spirits of events, these Wild Narrators are the greater spirits that hold sway over tropes in general. They are the ones that are potentially invoked when a Storyteller spins a tale without it being a specific one.

In a sense, they have ascended beyond being the Spirit of the Story because they have been told and retold -- stories passed down through time until many mesh together into a sort of ur-tale. The Hero's Journey, being one of the archetypical ones, would fall under this category. Character Archetypes fall under here too -- religious mythologies tend to spawn them given the many changes and variations in myth and legend.

They hold an immense power within their sphere, but are incredibly hard to rouse because of it. It would require a story either so mind-numbingly generic that only the Overtrope could hold it effectively, or one would need to be able to invoke the ur-examples of the trope. Only the First Stories can reliable call the Wild Narrators of the Tropes and those are either incredibly secret or lost to the ages.

They are wild and capricious because these Spirits are so wide reaching and we can't control them by their nature. The tropes that they embody are much more vast than a single event and once set into motion, the Storyteller can influence the Story but not control it. However, a story usually resonaltes more with a spirit that is more specific to the story and these greate spirits rarely awaken

Premise 3: Getting Meta

TL;DR: Your Story is different, netting a different Narrator Spirit

By their nature, invoking a Narrator is exploiting the Fourth Wall -- this person is forcing a narrative onto something and they are holding the script that the spirit needs to follow. When invoked as a story proper, there is only a small level of risk. Namely that the spirit gets bored and/or creative when imprinting its tale on reality. But intentionally invoking a Narrator is also a Story and invoking this kind of metatale Does Not End Well.

For a start, the Story changes. It is no longer the tale of a town suffering from a drought that prayed for rain and got it. It is the tale of a person that wants to call the spirit of the rain maker stories and ask for them to being rains through the power of their Story. That is an entirely different Story, and they ways it can go wrong are immense. Not the least is that the Storyteller does not have the power here -- the Narrator does.

The biggest risk is a Narrator Spirit developing from those stories of people that invoke Narrators directly and knowingly. This spirit would have a similiar Fourth Wall Awareness as per the protagonist of the tale, only their awareness equate to the awareness of our world, and have the sentience to know that if people don't tell these stories they will fade into obscurity. Maybe it already has and the biggest lesson is Do Not Invoke -- Yes, the capital letters are mandatory.

Comparison: It would be like Deadpool being able to directly influence media people to produce more Deadpool stories so that Deadpool can always be on the shelf in some form. This world's version is probably saner than him, though no less aware of their own situation.


Introduce a concept similar to mana or to chanting.

Your magic concept is a really interesting one, and sounds almost poetic and a nice thing to exist...until some jerk tells a terrifying story about a man-eating monster to most of the village's children.

To avoid both these misuses as well as strong narrators, we need to make the act of telling stories something special, even if the story must be passed on to become real.

Solution 1-"mana".

Telling a story isn't just a matter of breath and spit, there's something else, an energy from within that's invoked and used when one's telling a tale. The better and greater the story, the more it takes from the teller. Of course, tales that are shared by many won't require so much, as the "cost" of the story is shared by the many who tell it, but for one to make a story happen alone, he must pay the price fully, that way telling a good story is literally an exhausting activity.

Solution 2-there are stories and there are Stories.

Anyone can tell a story, be it a simple tale of something that happened or a myth about a hero who slayed a dragon. But Stories? Those are different. While the great narrators do understand our language, they won't listen to any story unless they're bored to the point of insanity. It takes a special way, of saying, a way of almost chanting the Story, which captivates the narrators and allow it to be remembered through the ages. The stories are told but the Stories must be sung and fit a certain format. Singing a Story according to a special metric not only makes it easier to remember (in Palestine as well as in the medieval times, many stories were sung in order to make memorization easier and ensure they lasted longer without alterations), thus ensuring it won't be distorted by the next teller. It helps differentiate them from something you normally wouldn't want the narrators to pay attention to (let's hope none was bored when you decided to tell your tale).

But there's another important difference: anyone can tell himself a story, but no one can't just sing himself a Story. The narrators may get bored, but they won't take anything unless they're in absolute desperation for some stimuli. If you can't even find a mortal who might want to hear your Story, you really think they will want to hear it? A Story is more than a well sung tale, it takes another, a listener, to hear the Story and spread it through the winds, tho whoever shall listen. A good Story has many listeners, but a Story told to oneself or forced onto another shall be ignored and forgotten, and so shall be its teller.

  • $\begingroup$ so, enforced writer's block? $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Gardner if that can translate to "having a trouble in adequating the story to fit a singing structure while keeping it interesting enough for others to want to hear it" , then yes. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Thing is, (for solution 2) that the narrators aren't attracted by the stories, but created. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Gardner sorry, just now re-read the question and realized I forgot that important bit when writing the second alternative. But you'll still need to sing the Story to someone truly interested in it other than yourself to meet all the requirements in that scenario. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2020 at 18:10

Make them pay

Yes you may case a hurricane with "The Wizzard of OZ", but your soul would be consumed to create this "Narrator". And you would need to complete an untrivial quest to get it back.

Or you may slowly and gradualy become a tale of yourself with each new story. At the end you cease to exist and only story of you is spoken around. For a while.

UPD: to nerf the power of magic you can also make listeners an retellers to pay. For one single rain one single soul is enough. But for city destruction you need thousands of eager listneres (cult?) who whould sucrifice their souls (or existance) to make it happen.


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