In the magic system I've been workshopping, magic is powered by the caster's emotions and memories. Specifically, mages can shape spells by creating associations to their own memories, and strengthen those spells with the emotions those memories conjure. A happy memory of sitting around a campfire with good friends or family, for example, could be used to cast powerful fire spells.

The main character, however, is special (as main characters tend to be). Instead of being limited to this emotion-memory system, they have a large reservoir of magical energy to fuel their spells with instead. This doesn't mean that their emotions or their memories are necessarily stronger than those of others: their "innate magical power" is a separate thing.

The way I see it, I have a perfectly good process for casting spells (the emotion-memory system), but I want to staple a completely unrelated process onto it. How do I make these two systems play nice together, or at least be internally consistent with each other? How do I explain "high innate magical power" in a system driven by emotion and memory?

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    $\begingroup$ Can regular mages cast spells endlessly so long as they remember things relevant to their spells? If not, that suggests they too have a reservoir of mana, with memories and emotions acting as the 'key' to using their mana. In that case, your MC just somehow bypasses the memory-emotion requirement $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ The capacity for empathy, and therefore the capacity for emotion, actually is variable from person to person. The point being that in this system a natural born empathizer actually does have innate magical power, especially so if also endowed with exceptionally good memory. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @MS I haven't worked out the details, but the idea is that casting spells exhausts the caster just like any mundane high-effort mental activity would. The limit is less "how much mana do you have" and more "how many sudokus can you solve before you need a break". $\endgroup$
    – Q_C
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ You can explain your magic system however you want. There are no rules for your magic system besides those that you choose to impose upon it. As such every answer someone can think up will be equally valid. Such questions where you're seeking help brainstorming or generating ideas are not permitted on this site. If you have a more specific issue you can always edit your question to ask about that instead. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings Good point; I hope that this edit helps to make my question less subjective and more specific. $\endgroup$
    – Q_C
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:39

6 Answers 6


The Feeling of Magic

One way to reconcile it is that the MC has either stumbled upon or been taught how to harness magic without actually casting a spell. Or perhaps it is a magic gathering spell that the MC has in their arsenal.

That feeling of sensing the magic in the air, the rush of sensation when you reach for that magic and draw that power within yourself before casting your spell. The sensation of that magical energy infusing your body and comforting you like a warm hug. The raw emotion when your master praised your for the first steps in sensing and pulling on the magic to make a simple puff of air.

It's not a boundless well of power -- those lead to negative feelings and thus the power leaving the MC -- but it is magical power that is at the ready.

The Consequences

Normally when a person is taught a spell, they learn to associate the spell with a memory, a feeling, an experience. But that spell also has to draw in the power from around them before it can take shape. This is, in part, why the strength of the emotion and/or memory are important.

A weak emotion and/or memory lacks the impact to be able to force itself on the world very much. Meanwhile, a powerful personal memory does have the force because the stronger resonance allows a more powerful effect in reality. In part because that is how people are taught, that is how it works.

But for the MC that has a well of innate power? They have both the feelings needed for the spell's effects and the feelings of that power within them. This allows them to tap into their innate power without having to draw upon the outer world until they have to.

To use a fire spell as the example: There's the feeling of the campfire the MC's mentor would train by, the light and warmth dancing across their face. But there is also the well of power, the feeling of magic moving to their whim. Of the magic well releasing some of the power and taking the form of the fire in the MC's thoughts and feelings. It is both the memory of the fire and the memory of the magic working to make fire that allows the MC to tap into their well of power instead of their surroundings.


Something that could be possible is that there are others that have figured this out partially. There could be other casters that can do this, but with one or two of their spells -- their favourite ones that they have cast so often that they can actually recall the feeling of the magic flowing to make the spell as well as the numerous powerful emotions when casting their signature spell.


TL;DR Anyone with a photographic memory would be able to pull from more and more memories as they grow older, while other humans realize how forgetful they are in comparison.

"I once knew a girl who either wouldn't or couldn't forget anything. She could tell you the color shirt you were wearing on this day 2 years ago and pulling up a photo she'd always be correct.

I had never met someone with such a perfect memory, though she would explain the phenomenon as more a curse than a blessing, living constantly in a rigid world of what once was and is now, while everyone else's worlds were fluid, not noticing their constant forgetting of almost every detail they would experience. She had some habits of writing in journals and keeping calendars that may have helped.

I tried to train myself to be better at remembering and I've gained a little skill in it, if that's the word. I can take snapshots, a still image and a feeling encompassing it. I can still see her silhouette clearly in front of the full moon as we float along a river... but that was decades ago, and I couldn't tell you what river or even what her name was, but that image, I still have it.

A single frame of my life compared to the entirety of hers... it's no wonder she is a master caster these days while I can barely make ends meet. My workings fueled by what bright scraps of my past I can hold onto bolstered by the building loss and frustrations of my daily existence; yet here she is again, her smiling face front page of the daily paper, surely another miracle of her making." ~potential scene

As for having a separate system that may interject, consider the following: Powered by memories and emotions, their brain (or what ever magical organ) is processing these signals while evoking the magical work. The brain may be familiarizing itself with the forces at hand by gleaning the properties of these forces through reliving the memory. Someone with more experience with bonfires and more memories of various fire related events to pull from will be better at fire magics than someone who's held a candle once.

Perhaps a new age of magic is on the horizon, a new branch "Arcane" magic. Where the emotional based magic is a natural, sensory dependent way to feel and harness magic, there are underlying forces at play that can be more directly distilled.

Rather than focusing on a memory of fire to instinctively learn how to control it during evocation, a mage can study the properties of a magic in more of a lab setting. Rather than feeling your way around fire, you can know it more directly. Rather than encouraging flame to behave as you wish it, will the flame to be as you demand it. There's a lot of unused information contained within these memories pulled when evoking, find out which parts of memories actually contribute to the casting, and extrapolate the common factors. Once found, you only need to remember your understanding on the now and always (physics, if it hasn't been named) rather than pulling memories from the past.

The older "emotional" casters will call it cold and souless, but really "apathetic efficiency" is what it is.

Perhaps memories are relied on so much because the world may be lacking in a more free "imagination" that we humans in our world take for granted. I have plenty of memories of what it feels like to be standing out in the snow, enough memories that I can conjure new, original memories (imaginations) that allow me to enhance the effects of existing memories by mis-remembering a particularly cold day to be almost lethally biting, the feeling of loss for dropping my coffee escalated to utter devastation. Through hearing stories told by other casters of their magical workings, an imaginative caster can quickly learn new abilities and somewhat copy the powers of their peers by imagining themselves being a part of or even taking the central role within the newly heard memory.

  • $\begingroup$ Where is that quotation from? $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ No one but me, just an example scene illustrating the concept. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 23:05

Your character has a disturbed personality where they get sort of obsessed by details which for others are trivial/easily forgotten.

For example if they have seen someone strike a match against a surface, they will be repeating that image in their mind until something else take over, resulting in your magic system being triggered: overthinking of fire ==> amplified fire magic.


I can think of a couple of options


Your character was transported from a different universe with a different magic system.

Divine Interference

Your magic system works because God (or gods) make it so. For some reason, they have deigned to give your MC a different form of magic. Perhaps they are just experimenting, or perhaps your MC has some role to play in their plans

Your MC found a loophole

Somehow, your MC found a way to bypass the need for memories and just cast directly. To figure out exactly what that loophole is though, you'll need to deepen your magic system.

Your MC is a psychopath

Perhaps mages need memories and emotions to access magic fields that surround the planet. As a psychopath, your MC bypasses the need for emotions and can access the field directly. This is likely the worst option, as it has major implications for actually writing your character


Symmetry breaking and yoga magic

You say that people perform magic by drawing on emotional memories, except for the hero, who does it some other way.

One solution would be, as you say, to bolt two different systems together. You can do that, but if that is what happens then your question should be closed because you'd be asking us to invent the entire second system for you, with the only acceptance criteria being that it not be driven by emotional memories; that would be far too open-ended for this site.

The only acceptable alternative I can see would be to grow a larger super-system around your memory system, and then explain how the additional parts grant the hero magic. (This is, in a weird way, an analog of the anthropic principle.) That is what I propose to do.

I take as my (loose) model the electroweak force and symmetry breaking:

In particle physics, the... electroweak force is the unified description of two of the four known fundamental interactions of nature: electromagnetism (electromagnetic interaction) and the weak interaction. Although these two forces appear very different at everyday low energies, the theory models them as two different aspects of the same force. Above the unification energy, on the order of 246 GeV they would merge into a single force.

Along those lines, we should consider the following questions:

  1. What is the larger mechanism, of which emotional magic is just one aspect?
  2. How and why did the larger mechanism give rise to two distinct aspects?
  3. What is the other aspect that grants access to magic?
  4. Why does the hero have access to the other type of magic, when it seems like nobody else does?

Emotions and memory are both completely private mental things. The obvious opposites would be public, physiological things. A "whole person" is a combination of their private mental states and their public physiological state.

If people can do magic by using one half of their whole self, it stands to reason that the ability has its origin in that unified self. And we're going to stipulate that the other half also provides access to magic, somehow.

We might ask: is there a time in a person's life when those two halves are not separated? I propose the answer is childhood, before the person becomes self-conscious enough to make a habit of distinguishing between their mental states and their physical states, a simple time when they just exist and the everyday experience of life washes over them as an undifferentiated stream of stimuli.

The picture now becomes clearer: something unusual happened in your hero's youth that led them to have more affinity for their public physiological state than for their mental and emotional state, and this affinity became entrenched when their human development reached the stage where they started to resolve that undifferentiated stream into its parts. The way this person experiences life, the seat of their identity is not the mind inside their skull, but rather their visceral and tactile body.

So, how does the public, physiological identity grant access to magic? It's a very common trope for spellcasting to require a physical dimension, usually hand or body movements, and that's how it is for your hero. The best fuel for their magic is not vivid and emotional memories, but exaggerated or even strenuous physical motion. Imagine something like an aircraft marshaller:

helicopter marshaller signalling "turn left"

Presumably, the reason your hero has a lot of this kind of magic is that they are very fit and in touch with their body. Perhaps they are a yoga instructor, or a serious gymnast, etc.


We all recall memories a bit differently. Main characters way to recall memories is somehow just right, somehow meshes extremely well with the fabric of the world. Perhaps his (quirky) way of remembering tells us something deep about how the world fits together?

I have met some wonderful* people in this, that just seem to bend the world around them. When they laugh, the people around them feel better. They dont have to be beautiful by my standards, they bend reality to have standards that fit them. Kind of a high charisma, but not entirely, it seems like their emotions carry weight, in a strange and powerful way. I expect they would be very good mages in your world.

You could do a full reversal, and make it a plot point. Your main does not have any long term memory, and lives by his book of notes and short term memory. His head just can't carry the weight of his incarnated vault of everything. What if he never feels anything, and has made a mask of false emotion, in all of his life? He is so adept at faking it, and has such an empty slate to work with, that he can fake any emotion needed for any spell.

Your main char cannot live in the present, he is all nostalgic emotion over the past. If he has to go somewhere new, he needs to read up on it first, to get a memory of it. His sole devotion to backwards-looking emotions cripple his life, but gives him massive magical prowess.

So much psychologically interesting points to explore.

*Both in the regular sense, and the "Elves are wonderful, they beget wonder" sense.


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