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TL;DR: Is there any objective benefit in explaining supernatural phenomena using a single, well-defined and universally applicable system resembling a set of laws of physics?

A friend of mine is building a world for his fantasy fiction. He spends much time developing a magic system that is he said will be explained by exotic particles, which in itself will be science-based (conservation of energy, momenta etc).

When I asked him why he spends so much time shoehorning explanation of the particle system in the writing, he said that he prefers a world in which all "abnormal" or "supernatural" phenomena (which include giant spiders, flying people, iridescent fireballs and the like) with just one system of explanation. (So he would explain that giant spiders have altered physiology that uses the equivalent of magic to supplement its giant body, that people fly by shooting momentum-carrying particles and so on)

When I asked he what about this system of explanation is better than hand-waving each individual phenomenon or not explaining them at all, he said that there are three reasons:

  1. In his particular work, he wants to explore what exactly will happen when rational, scientifically-minded people confront seemingly magical occurrences. (The magic stuff is supposed to one day appear in our modern, non-magical world)
  2. A system of explanation that requires readers to suspend the disbelief of only one thing is generally better than a collection of things that must be individually taken on faith.
  3. His particular magic system explains supernatural phenomenon on the basis of physics, or science in general, which means there is no room for dispute because occurrences are supposedly deducible based on constant laws.

The first point is fair enough, it's his personal take on fantasy fiction and not a bad one at that.

The third point is I think quite easily demolished because while he suppose that there is a definite system of "physics" that governs the magic, he has not outlined every detail of that physics system yet, because unsurprisingly, inventing extensions to existing laws of physics is not that easy. That being so, magical phenomena in his writing must precede their explanations, and when they are explained, he has to either bend the system just right to explain everything, or that he must introduce some intermediate factors that justify the coexistence of otherwise contradictory things. Imagine the following conversation between us:

Me: So, you have this giant spiders, right?
Him: Yes, what about them?
Me: You said that they use exotic particles to transport energy in their bodies to be both so huge and so mobile, and this process generates enough heat for them to be warm-blooded, right?
Him: Right.
Me: Then why is it that the magical butterflies, which is powerful enough to fire energetic projectiles at people, freeze to death in winter?
Him: It's because the spiders and the butterflies have different adaptations to the exotic particles, for the spiders, the particle circulation is integrated on a cellular level, which allows endothermic bodies, while the butterflies control the particles without using the latter for biological processes, hence they are not endothermic.
Me: So you are saying that although both are arthropods using exotic particles, they exhibit different responses to ambient temperature because of their difference in physiology, which you honestly just invented to justify this difference, isn't that right?
Him: Well, yes, but why is this a problem?
Me: Because if you are going to invent explanations for every specific phenomena, why bother having a supposedly universally applicable system of explanation?

The second point, the most debatable of all, seems to be somewhat subjective, but perhaps there is a benefit to it that more experienced world-builder are acquainted with, hence this question.

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Telling a reader the underlying rules of magic gives the reader the ability to guess the feasibility of a set of circumstances in this world. Too many deus ex machinas by the world creator make a story feel contrived. If some unexpected event has a feasible explanation it can surprise the reader positively.

It also stimulates the reader when he understands the underlying mechanics of something because he is able to imagine or invent the same solutions to a situation as the writer. It is satisfying for both reader and author to invent some solution that might be introduced later in the story.

The system provides a world system that many different stories can be created in. It truly is a form of world building. Having one system ensures cohesiveness to all of the stories built around it. It even allows multiple writers to write stories in parallel that do not contradict each other.

It is also very rewarding and intellectually stimulating for the writer to invent a constraint that allows magic to happen.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting point with the multiple writers thing, sure make fan fiction easily compatible with the canonical world $\endgroup$ – Luna Dec 29 '16 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Luna you can see that really well with the MMORPG influence. It is almost a standard that the fantasy world has Warcraft (they have copied a lot from other, but it is often that this exactly the same set is used) like races with the same appearance and the world works with the same mechanics as a MMORPG game. By copying that setting the writer does not even need to explain anything as everyone is familiar with how it works. $\endgroup$ – user3644640 Dec 30 '16 at 8:01
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A systematic set of "magical rules" allows the reader to anticipate possible actions by the characters. That helps with the engagement of the reader. When a writer describes a deep chasm with a frayed rope bridge, that triggers certain expectations. Those expectations can be met or they can be skillfully subverted. It is an anticlimax if the character passes that rope bridge without incident, while it is no anticlimax if the character uses a steel bridge without incident.

In Star Trek there is the term "technobabble" for meaningless technical terms to solve a problem. Usually the solution and it's far-reaching implications are forgotten by the end of the episode. That's not a good thing for a setting.

So writing the "magical rules" can be helpful. I'm not prepared to say if your friend is going about it the right way.

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    $\begingroup$ It can be both ways too- the Eragon books start out with the notion that magic drains your physical energy just as though it were like exercise. Later on the hero learns how to kill people by squinching nerves in their brain with almost no physical effort. It's an interesting way to progress the character, but at the end you're still left with someone who can squinch people to death at their leisure. The final battles had to throw in some deus ex machina to make it more interesting than "Eragon squinches everybody to death... the end" $\endgroup$ – David Dec 30 '16 at 1:09
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First and foremost for your friend to understand is Sanderson's First Law of Magic. While he may have fun developing one system to rule them all, Sanderson's First Law captures the effect his efforts has on the reader:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

When he wants to explain the value of his efforts have on a reader, this should be the rule he goes to to explain it. He is arguing that a magic system based on one system is more understandable than many magic systems, and thus he can resolve conflict with it better.

Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn't. The real question would be how often he feels the reader could understand the outcome because he took the time to build it into one system.

One system comes with a fatally dangerous consequence: if you make your system too rule driven, and someone learns what the rules are, they'll start pushing on them. It's easy to find inconsistencies in magic systems, no matter how hard you try to make them perfect. If you truly sell your world as being consistent, you'll have readers asking "Well why didn't _____ do ____, instead of just dying?" Those questions can be very hard to answer.

One piece of advice I would recommend to your friend is to look at all of science, and see how little we actually care that it all stems from a handful of "theory of everything" rules. I learn fluid mechanics without having to worry about how Quantum Electrodynamics predicts the repulsive forces between atoms in a fluid. In fact, I can learn everything I need to know about fluid mechanics for virtually all tasks without ever having to talk about gauge theories or symmetry groups (essential vocabulary for modern "theory of everything" candidates). Likewise, I can develop circuits using semiconductors without quantum mechanics at all until I get into the more exotic regions like avalanche breakdown. Neither my fluid mechanics model nor my electrical circuits model reference each other at all! I could make a living with either, never having to tie it to a unified theory.

In reality, most of science is taught not as a unified system, but as a collection of independent systems with a promise that a few smart scientists know how they relate to each other for those rare cases where you truly need to resolve a dispute between the theories. Most of us never learn to resolve them, because we simply don't care!

What your friend does have to watch out for is the goal of unifying everything into one system taking charge and making things too "flat." If you're trying to build a unified system, its tempting to keep everything at around the same level (i.e. exotic particles) so that you can explain it all. A system can actually feel flat if this ties everything together too well. If he wants his in-world scientists to be exploring the world, he should expect them to explore like real scientists. Real scientists have many models of different fidelities. Only a few have any reason to have one unified theory to rule them all. He should make sure all the other scientists have a chance to build their own (inconsistent) models and beat them against each other, because that sort of dissonance is what really propels science forward.

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There's a lot of content to work with here, so I'm going to stick strictly to your TL;DR: Having a single set "physics" system to explain all magical phenomena in a universe: beneficial?

For the writer: Yes it is the most important thing, IMO, to fully develop this system first before starting work on the story itself. A set-laws system such as this will not just explain the crazy phenomena observed in this world, but will also provide opportunity to introduce some very odd and interesting constraints as well. See next section for more about this.

This is the part I'm most worried about with your buddy here, as it seems like he intends to work backwards from this kind of model. It seems he mainly wants giant spiders and flying people first, and to have a solid explanation for it all being so second, and this will cause distance from certain readers.

Examples:

The Martian: Andy Weir is mainly a space nerd, and while he was researching the true-to-life Ares mission plans he began to think of some of the possible failures and events that could cause things to go wrong. Then he began to think of solutions to those problems, then more problems that could go wrong, more solutions, and began to realize he might have a compelling story here.

He built the fictional story ground-up from reality. It has little to no holes.

The 100: X-years in the future, nuclear war irradiates Earth, and a ginormous self-sustaining orbital colony develops. The war ended a long time ago and people are beginning to wonder if it's safe to return to Earth now. To test it, they load one-hundred imprisoned juvenile delinquents into a capsule, strap them with health-monitoring wristbands, and send them down. The teens immediately begin to break off the wristbands, and those left in the station can't decide if it really is safe or not on the surface.

I got nearly 6 episodes into this series before realizing we've had devices that can measure radiation for a long time already, it's called a Geiger counter. This discovery completely killed my interest in the show, and I stopped watching mid-episode due to how poorly thought-out the story was.

The moral of these examples is to know your audience, if they will mind, and to understand the pitfalls of starting with story-first-science-later.

This is the big issue I'm having between you and your friend here, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems he's bringing you in later on to help science-out some of his fantastical phenomena. All of this is much easier (and creates a more complete story, IMHO) if you start with the fully fleshed-out new physics system first, and it doesn't seem like that's his main interest from how you described it.

If you can't get him interested in this point, the rest is pointless in my opinion.

Early story (for the reader):

In the beginning I imagine he will just "show" us this universe with all of its out-of-this-world possibilities, and not really explain much in terms of how just yet, in the beginning.

But having his idea of what's possible here completely nailed-down beforehand is important to also describe what's not possible as well (otherwise it drifts completely into hand-wavy territory).

This is a good thing, having constraints. It makes opportunities for interesting plot points, challenges for the characters, surprises for the reader. For example, say people can fly around and shoot lasers from their eyes like Superman, but this is because of an exotic matter cloud in space. So, they also cannot fly at night or shoot lasers as strong, because their planet is facing away from the exotic matter during night.

You can expand this in many ways, say a certain time of year their planet is closer to the exotic matter than the rest, and during a certain week their power is so strong they can fly to the Moon without space suits, or something.

Later story (for the reader):

Your first point makes it sound like your friend wants to introduce some regular, normal people from our world into this supernatural world, maybe they got teleported or something.

They will probably be astounded first, but soon they will seek answers and go on a journey of discovery, along with the reader. Soon they will start to work out the real cause of this magic. Perhaps the beings of this world thought it always was so and never asked why, requiring our scientificly-minded Humans to help explain things to them and our reader.

Towards the end, the true nature of this system could become revealed, showing it might be magic, but it's not magic. A system that allows this, and explains it sufficiently enough to suspend disbelief, would not only make a great story, but would create a whole world ripe for follow-up novels, sequels, fan-fictions, etc.

Maybe the benefits of starting off science-y and working the story later might start to influence him then. It's up to you.

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