Imagine a world without Hulk, only sorcerers and those who can only admire others for performing miracles for a living. There is only 1 rule in doing magic:

"The angrier s/he get's the stronger s/he get's."

My question is: instead of relying on years of experiencing and understanding magic to improve the strength/power of the magic, can we instead use our own emotion to control the manifestation of magic. In short we can learn any magic, but only our emotional state controls the strength of the magic. Is there any flaw in this system?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a good way to destroy the world or just cause a lot of pain... $\endgroup$ Jun 17 '15 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ If it's a known rule I think armies will search for ways to artificially induce extreme rage in their soldiers, like Norse berserkers. Without serious limitations the scale of damage in the conflicts will escalate very quickly. $\endgroup$
    – Soel
    Jun 17 '15 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Soel yep, if it's a world with tech then you can expect experiments involving drugs and wires in peoples brains to magnify the feeling of anger beyond anything normally physically possible. Think sleeper agent in the enemy country with a setup like this and a "in case of war take this drug and flip this switch" followed by the destruction of the city. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Jun 17 '15 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ I really like this idea. Extremely powerful emotions lead to extremely powerful magic. The key is balancing the two and retaining enough control to channel and focus. Isn't this the sort of "magic conundrum" that is often portrayed in high fantasy? It takes a special kind of person to focus anger on the correct target and not release it upon the first person that annoys you. It makes associating with starting mages a particularly dangerous occupations too. It also distances it from works like the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jun 17 '15 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Soel - I don't know what movies you've been watching as a substitute for real life, but modern armies have little use for extreme rage/berserk behavior except in the most extreme circumstances. Bullets are no respecters of emotional states, and artillery shells don't care how brave you are. Most of the time, berserkers will just become bullet magnets, and all the time spent training them is wasted. $\endgroup$ Jun 17 '15 at 16:11

There are huge flaws both in-universe and out-of-universe.

In-universe, as @TobiasWärre correctly points out, as soon as anyone gets "emotional" enough, he can cause vast damages. Maybe that's what you want, but if it isn't, you have a problem.

Out-of-universe, well, that's a so used and re-used mechanic that is beyond boring: either you insert some nice twists (notice the plural), or you are re-inventing the wheel for the nth time…

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of dashes in this post, for some reason… $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Jun 17 '15 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ I thought so too but I'm still expecting an unconventional wisdom/insight on this question before I accept your answer if you don't mind. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jun 17 '15 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 that's a sensible approach, I totally don't mind! : ) $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Jun 17 '15 at 9:41


Does it have flaws? Yes, because humans aren't good at self-invoking or sustaining powerful emotions for long periods of time.

Could it still work? Yes, as many books/movies/TV shows have proven.

Complete answer

There are two big and closely related flaws in this system:

Humans can't sustain strong emotions for long periods

Humans aren't really built for long marathons of powerful emotions. Think about the last time you stayed angry - really and truly angry, not just a resentful simmer - about something. How long did that fierce anger last, before it faded into something milder? Typically, powerful anger only lasts a very short amount of time immediately following whatever caused the anger. Likewise, bursts of fear, love, hate, and other powerful emotions are just that: bursts. So your mages would only be able to perform powerful feats of magic if they had just then been provoked into a fierce burst of emotion.

Even if you could find a mage who could sustain a simmering rage for hours or days on end, they'd quickly burn themselves out, emotionally. Think about watching the most intense non-stop action sequences you can imagine, for hours or days at a time. After a while, you'd stop being excited - you'd just be bored. Humans tend to adapt to their environment, so even if you tried to create an environment that allowed you to sustain powerful emotions, you'd find that your mind will eventually try to balance itself back out.

Which leads to the second flaw:

Humans naturally seek emotional balance

Related to the first point, human psychology tends to look for emotional equilibrium, sometimes referred to as catharsis. That's why movies, books, and TV shows are structured the way they are, with scenes of quiet talking after wild action sequences, light-hearted comedy after intense drama, and so on. Our brains look for ways to find balance in our emotions, so if you try to make yourself angry enough for long enough, it's even odds that you'll instead start to find it funny - that's your brain looking for catharsis. For a similar reason, it's very difficult to inspire a burst of powerful emotion in yourself - as mentioned above, you'd need something to provoke you, because otherwise your brain moderates your reaction.

Various illnesses, such as depression or bipolar disorder, muck with a person's brain chemistry and suppress some of that balance-finding. So you could maybe get some serious power out of someone who's suicidally depressed, because their brain is literally malfunctioning to allow them to sustain that kind of powerful despair (although not all people with mental illnesses feel powerful emotion; in some cases apathy is a symptom of depression).

All that said...

As has been mentioned in comments, this is a fairly popular idea in works with magic users. In The Dresden Files, for example, it's one of the driving forces of magic. (You ever want a wild ride, try reading the book wherein the wizard asks a succubus to kiss him with all her power in order to inspire enough lust in him that he can use it to power a major defensive spell.) However, the wizard also points out the downsides of this - that once his burst of emotion is over, if he hasn't wiped out everything that was a threat to him, then he's left physically and emotionally exhausted (think how you feel after a long hard cry), with very little ability to work up enough emotion to cast any more magic.

  • $\begingroup$ the exception being that we autistics could be all-powerful because we DO tend to have prolonged emotional reactions. perhaps magic would be limited to those who had sustained emotional feelings. $\endgroup$
    – user20762
    Oct 5 '17 at 15:06

I hope this doesn't apply to animals. You can imagine a magical super-powered grizzly bear, or even a rhino.

Its been said by @Lohoris and @TobiasWärre already that emotion is not enough of a limit as anyone at any given moment is just too powerful, however, IMO that seems like more of a technical flaw, easily fixable by adding a limit, or several.

The first limit is in power. No one wants city-wide destruction when someone gets fired, so lets add some math.

Magical ability can simply be mapped to a square root function. More emotion added does not mean an equal addition in power. Instead, the difficulty in increasing power raises with the power, tapering off eventually. Where this tapering happens is based on whatever you would like to use (different for each person, random, etc).

The second limitation is in context. There are multiple types of situations we would prefer aren't magically amped-up, like 5-year old tantrums or adolescent blowups. A number of solutions are possible. Maybe magic increases with age or maturity, it may even be blocked by hormones. :)

Alternatively just leave the one rule how it is. Instead of modifying the rule, modify society. Who needs cars when you can get angry and run 80 kph. Even tools are useless to a degree as beating your head against a wall actually might smash the wall.

  • $\begingroup$ You could also allow for some variation in the population by varying the size of the root. Weak people's strength grows by a root > 2. Really powerful people have a root < 2 and > 1. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jun 17 '15 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ I omitted considering limitations, since IMHO they do not work as expected. I'll elaborate them in my answer, then. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Jun 17 '15 at 13:46

Do the opposite: only calm can produce magic

As others have pointed out, there is a profound error with this system in that...

  1. humans are terrible at producing certain emotions on cue
  2. humans have a hard time controlling the intensity of these emotions once they hit us
  3. we cannot sustain our emotions for any length of time

Then again, this is only really an in-universe problem. And it can also serve as a really nice narration-generator where you can tap into these problems to make an interesting story. However this will probably get strained after a while.

So I have a suggestion...

Emotional calm produces magic.

The calmer and more unemotional you are, the better the magic works. Individual disposition, the current situation, mood, mental health, training, drugs/alcohol, relaxation techniques (like meditation) and so forth all affect this. I dare say this is an even deeper well to get inspiration and suitable plot hooks from.

For example...

  • Oh no, The Big Disaster is upon us! Unless the hero magician manages to focus and calm down, they will not be able to use their magic to save lives!
  • The Evil Psychopath Villain is holding us in thrall with his magic, made extra strong by the fact that they are next to emotionless. How can we get them unbalanced enough to break the magic?
  • The Secret Society of Wizards have people especially trained to shut out their emotions in dire situations. Others would love to know their secret techniques to gain access to their Extra Awesome Magic™ that they have sometimes been witnessed using, but they guard that secret with determined vigilance.

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