Writing, Philosophy and the Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater is the head designer for Wizard of the Coast’s card game Magic: The Gathering. He’s also a former scriptwriter for the TV show Roseanne and has a degree in communications. He also goes to great pains to interact with the audience of the game and share information with them. One subject that frequently comes up is the color pie.

Now a brief aside, for those unfamiliar with the game – and yes, this does all tie back to writing so I hope those who are interested in my thoughts on that subject won’t tune out. In Magic, players gather land cards and use them to cast a variety of spell cards. Each spell can be one (or more) of five colors (or no color, but that’s much less common.) In order to make the game more interesting, each color tends to do different things with it’s spells. The layout of what color gets what effects is referred to as “the color pie.”

The mechanics of the pie itself aren’t what’s really important to us, so we’ll gloss over that part. What is important is that each color’s abilities are heavily influenced by it’s philosophy. The philosophies of the color pie are as follows:

White wants every one to stand in line for their pie, and will make sure that everyone get’s a piece that’s the same size.

Blue wants to know what’s in the pie, to study the recipe and try to improve it.

Black just wants as much pie as possible, by whatever means are necessary, and hang the consequences.

Red wants pie now, and doesn’t really care about what it takes to get it. Even if the pie is technically on fire when it arrives.

Green wants organic pie, and as much of it as possible.

Each of these philosophies gives different gameplay. For example, White is all about fair play and order, it’s not going to arrange an “accident” for its enemies in order to get its way, though Black might, neither is it going to run about doing things at random, although Red might. That brings us back to Mark Rosewater, the color pie guru.

See, in the time he spends talking with the people who play the game and getting feedback one question that gets asked a lot is, “Why can’t my favorite color do this?” Where “this” is something that the color wouldn’t normally do, like Red spinning a clever illusion to protect itself from attackers. Red sets it’s attackers on fire. (Works a lot better.) The answer Mark gives, every time, is, “That doesn’t fit your favorite color’s philosophy.”

Okay, so you’ve made it this far and there hasn’t been anything about writing yet. So what lessons can we learn about writing from the way Magic handles the color pie? The answer is simple. Your characters have to be consistent to who and what they are at all times, with meticulous attention to their attitudes, ideas, predispositions and prejudices, whether they’re good or bad for you, them or the story, just like the color pie of Magic, or else their impact will become muddled and your story will suffer.

For a simple answer, it sure was long, huh?

Okay, let’s break that down. First, why is an example from a game designer even relevant to a writer? Don’t get into a haughty snit if you’re not a fan of card games or other geeky hobbies. Magic: The Gathering has lasted twenty years and continues to experience growth in sales and mainstream acceptance. Whatever Wizards of the Coast is doing with it, they’re doing right. Mark, as one of the public faces of the game, insists that the color pie is a big part of it and he’s in a position to know. They do research into this stuff.

Second, just like comic book fans tend to identify with some specific character such as Wolverine or the Flash as their “touchstone” in a comic universe, many people who play Magic identify with a specific color. People care about these things, and if they’re not consistent, they cease to be as meaningful. For Magic, the difference between the play styles of the colors is a big part of what gives them their identity. Look at chess. The black and white pieces all work the same. There’s no identity there. The colors of Magic have identity because they’re different, and those differences must be maintained.

As a writer, your characters are what people identify with and touch base with. You have to stubbornly work to keep them distinctive in order to keep people engaged with them. If all the characters start to look the same, they lose value immediately. It’s better for you to have a character that is passionately hated for consistently unpleasant behavior than for you to tinker with the character and wind up with a totally forgettable character. Keep attitudes and dispositions consistent and a character becomes much more believable.

By the same token, actions have to match attitudes or credibility is lost. If a character isn’t likely take part in a plot of his or her own free will, hound them. You have total control over their circumstances. Put other characters in their path constantly, bend circumstances until they have no choice and then hit them with the consequences of avoidance – lost time, missed opportunities, hurt feelings and anything else you can think of. This stuff is the meat and potatoes of the story.

This isn’t to say that characters shouldn’t change over the course of your story. The characters of your story are very dynamic, and free to discover new parts of themselves or go through revelations that challenge and change the way they think. But we have to see the hows and whys of that change, and if you’re not very deliberate about them then you risk damaging your character’s impact. It’s also important not to do too many of these changes at once, or your readers will have trouble keeping track of everything that’s happening. They already have a lot to track in real life.

But in real life, as in card games and writing, consistency is key. It’s a skill well worth developing for the sake of all three endeavors.

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2 responses to “Writing, Philosophy and the Colors of Magic

  1. You are absolutely right, Nate. And the shorter the piece, the more important distinct characters and consistency become. In a play, one has only a couple of hours at best to bring characters to life and lead them through a series of actions to a satisfying conclusion. The common denominator in most weak scripts I read is either that the characters have insufficiently distinct personalities, or their actions are contrived to make the play go the way the writer wants, rather than being consistent with what we understand of their characters. Very good advice here!

    • You bring up a good point, GBL. For a perfect case of shorter format = greater need for clearly defined characters, look no further than your newspaper funny page. Comic strip are one of the most condensed formats there are and their characters are so frequently archetypical for a reason. Even the more unusual, like the title characters of Calvin and Hobbes have strong personalities with distinct motivations.

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