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I've gotten feedback for a complete draft of my WIP fantasy novel. Overall it's looking good, but a couple of friends noticed a significant loophole in the system of magic I use in the book. The book introduces the basic rules of how magic works in my fantasy setting. Without making this too specific about my particular magic ruleset, reviewers liked the magic system, but these two figured out the same basic loophole, which basically makes it possible to gain a ridiculous amount of magical power (way beyond anything anybody has in my book, and certainly way beyond what my protagonists have).

I might be able to find a small tweak to the rules that could close the loophole. But if I don't find something simple, easy to explain, that makes sense with the rest - is there anything I can do to solve a major flaw in my magic system, without needing to rewrite the whole system and novel from the start?

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This is a seed question for our Genre Q&A Contest, running through December 8th! – Standback Nov 30 '13 at 21:35
I get annoyed when a story back-pedals to plug a hole. – Blessed Geek Dec 1 '13 at 8:11
@BlessedGeek: Yup, I know what you mean, and I'd like to avoid that impression if I can. (Unfortunately, writing with zero holes to begin with is... rather difficult...) – Standback Dec 1 '13 at 8:35
Make it a black hole and be done with it. You know, everyone is too afraid too approach a black hole ;) – John Smithers Dec 1 '13 at 23:05
I think this could stand to be little more specific about the problem you're asking to be solved. Unless the question just asking for general strategies about plugging holes in a logical framework? – Neil Fein Dec 2 '13 at 3:02
up vote 9 down vote accepted


That something is possible within a system doesn't mean it's a good idea. You can drive your car 180MPH on public roads (if the speedometer labeling is accurate), but if you do you'll soon be getting used to a bicycle. You can subsist on nothing but Big Macs and Coke for a year, but you may face medical problems. You can make a deal with the devil for great reward in this world, but you'll probably find yourself on the receiving end of an exploit and you'll be handing your soul over much sooner than you planned.

In the case of your magic system, then, the following could be used to prevent use of the loophole (or make for interesting stories when people do it anyway):

  • an authority that will do something bad to you if you try it
  • a great personal cost (health, sanity, related magical powers, a curse, whatever)
  • a correction factor in the magic system itself; magical forces will compensate for the loophole exploit in a way that will make the exploiter unhappy
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This is a terrific answer; I think this could be applied with depth and color to a whole lot of similar problems. – Standback Dec 2 '13 at 8:11

Novice: Master, if I understand correctly, it looks to me like if we do [insert loop hole] that we could eventually gain unlimited power.
Master: Yes, that would be the case and in the early times of magical exploration many magic users tried this. All of them disintegrated. You see, because of the [insert closure of loophole] that means that beings in this realm cannot harness more than [insert maximum level of magical power].

I can't remember where I first read the phrase, possibly Science of the Discworld, but essentially this is "lies to children". You first tell them that gravity is 10 ms-2 and then when they are better at physics you explain that gravity is 9.8 ms-2 and then when they learn some more you explain that gravity is actually variable dependent on how close you are to a body.

So cover up your loophole by saying that what has been previously explained is an over simplification.

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You might not want to make it so simple. In the Earthsea novels (Urula K. LeGuin), magic is unlimited in principle, but there is a sort of "Newton's Third Law": to every magical action there is an equal and opposite magical reaction. For example, resurrecting someone will kill someone elsewhere, summoning food takes food from elsewhere, breaking a drought one place causes drought elsewhere, etc. Thus, magic must only be used responsibly, when absolutely necessary. Of course, bad guys don't care about that, so you've got automatic conflict. – dmm Dec 1 '13 at 0:13
@dmm I totally agree. This is just one of many possible outs. – Matt Ellen Dec 1 '13 at 13:18
To me this sounds random and ad hoc. If the more complex explanation is given later, it must be motivated to come late. Otherwise it reeks of an author making stuff up as he goes. – what Dec 1 '13 at 19:07
@what: If it's done so blatantly, then yes, this is disappointing. But it wouldn't take too much to blend this type of restriction in fairly well, making it seem like a consistent element of the setting. It'd be, say, two or three scenes touching upon it directly, and another smattering of minor references. – Standback Dec 1 '13 at 19:34

The same solution as every decent DM has to Pun Pun.

You Are Not The First Who Thought Of It. And the one who did think of it first really doesn't like competition.

They are a background god, one who avoids spotlight and acts following own motives, rarely heard of. You rarely hear of them in particular, because the moment you think of a viable way of gaining means to beat them, you draw their focus to yourself, and die a very gory death. So, my advice is, don't think about it.

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Why plug it? Have the loophole pointed out or discovered in the epilogue. It can be discovered by the bad guy, or by an innocent who is easily captured/corrupted by the bad guy. Presto: instant sequel!

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I would agree if the loophole were subtle. My hunch is that if two beta readers found it, it's not very hard to discover. And if it's easy to discover, someone in the magical world would have discovered it. But if the beta readers are rare people who can pick out subtle implications, yeah, maybe leave it. – Dale Hartley Emery Dec 2 '13 at 4:18

The intriguing thing about magic is that you can imagine being able to do things that you cannot do in real life.

But characters that can do anything are exceedingly boring. What drives a plot for me is the limitation that the character has to work under. The story of an all-powerful god would be boring and short:

"He did anything he wanted."

So you do need a limitation to make magic interesting. And that limitation must not be a random "plug to a loophole", it must be constructed as a foundation of the world and a defining element of the plot.

(The story of the all-powerful god might have an interesing sequel: "After centuries of this he got bored and killed himself / gave up his power to life as a human / turned mad / ..." The limitation here is boredom. This gives the story something that makes us interested.)

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I understand that I shouldn't leave the loophole in; but given everything I've already completed, are you saying that the moment I've located a loophole, I should toss the whole system and start anew? – Standback Dec 1 '13 at 19:06
Not necessarily. The problem is that I don't know your system and the loophole, which makes this a bit hard to comment on. I mean, you don't go to the doctor and say "I feel unwell" and expect him to give you a remedy. You need to be more specific. But in gerneral I'm all for rewriting. Hemingway rewrote the ending to "Farewell in Arms" 39 times befor he was satified. Tolstoy dictated seven complete drafts of "War and Peace" to his wife. I know rewriting is boring hard word, but it is the most essential part, if you want your novel to shine. I'd say, depends on what you aspire for. – what Dec 1 '13 at 19:14

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