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Potion Making as Story Element


Not necessarily potable, a potion can be thought of as the end result of a formula. Whether it merely adds flavor to world building, or has a major impact on the climax, the question is whether to invest in a data base or just wing it. A character having this as a super power pretty much requires a ready reference; but for minor characters, overuse can slow the pace and devote to him too much word count. The basic equation here is ingredients, a formula, and the activating spell. The latter is innate and needn't complicate things.

The list of ingredients is inexhaustible: plants and their products, bugs and animals, minerals, potion combos etc. Each one has a name, geographic source, description, and effect. Each formula has a name, delivery method, target, and special handling.

A short example illustrates one that briefly turns the user into a gorgon. Ingredients are a type of squid (the tentacle angle), a hallucinogen (the evil eye thing), and a mineral for the stone reference. The resulting gray paste is buried under a Greek statue for two days as part of activation. Note that ingredients don't have to be this intuitive.

Should a major character specialize in this one ability, or have it as one of several talents?


Either / or.

You can have fun with it as a character's primary ability of course like writing about a potiom seller or a fantasy version of Jekyll & Hyde, and having it as a secondary ability can add some spice. For example, just imagine a warrior that spends as much time brewing strange potions or oils as he does training so that they can give him the edge he needs when slaying vicious monsters.

The problem comes when potion making becomes a tertiary ability.

Say that you have a wizard who graduated from a famous mage's college. It's not unreasonable that they'd know how to brew potions, but if we mostly see them tossing fireballs or studying & neutralizing the magical defenses left on whatever ancient ruin the heroes are traveling through then having them be able to basically brew up a new power as the plot demands can cheapen things.

In a case like that there's two main options that I can think of; either generally limit what the potions can do unless one specializes in brewing them or as the author ensure that any powerful potions that the character's make / obtain are either unable to resolve the complication at hand or introduce a new complication / make an existing one worse.

Harry Potter is a good example of this.

You have people like Snape or Slughorn for whom potion making is one of their core abilities.

Below them many of the potions the characters have access to have relatively mundane equivalents. A pepper up potion is magical cold medicine and while completely regrowing one's bones is beyond mundane medicine that whole sequence of an athlete being injured on the field and needing to be taken to the hospital is relatively mundane.

Among the more powerful potions the protagonists get access to the polyjuice potion doesn't actually resolve the complication of trying to figure out who the heir of slytherin was and the luck potion introduces the complication that hey, you used a luck potion to cheat.

Of course magic is common place in Harry Potter. In a D&D style world you might be able to get away with minor healing potions that work like the equivalent of bandaging your wounds or in an urban fantasy setting you could have your wizard detective protagonist replace his morning coffee with a custom made potion. In some settings that just won't fit.

Another thing to consider is that you can generally get away with a softer system when the one using it isn't a viewpoint charactet. Frodo or Bilbo don't need to know how Gandalf's magic works or how Sauron made the one ring. It's enough to know that Gandalf and Sauron know how it works. The hobbits only need to know that putting on the ring turns them invisible and causes bad stuff to happen. If the hero only has to worry about swinging his sword around while the team mage handles all the potion making then he, and by extension the audience, don't need to know the precise details of how mixing these specific ingredients in this specific way produces a potion.

Now when it comes to my personal setting...

There's a philosophical bent to most of the magic in the setting. I think I'd like to contrast alchemy with that somewhat. It starts out relatively similar. The core ingredients required hint at the final product. For example a healing potion might use the tenacious lifefore of a divine weed herb as its core or a water breathing potion might utilize a luminous pearl as its core, but unless you know the formula for actually creating the potion it's pointless to just have the ingredients. Such formula would be incredibly valuable to an alchemist.


In one project there's teas which magic users drink as a restorative. But none of my POV characters know what any of it is, so lots of "he drank it but he had no idea what's in it" lol. When it is mentioned, it's very obvious stuff, like sugar or peppermint, cause magic overuse can mess up your tummy (and sugar restores energy). If I need something it's a 2 second google to figure it out.

in another project, I got alchemy going on, so there are definitely compounds/medicines being made that serve the use of potions. The only thing that is actually relevant to the plot is depo-T, which I actually do not know (element-wise) what is in it in reality (besides the oil it's suspended in) so I just. Make up stuff for the story. Things that sound like it should go in there. Like what's an animal that would probably have a lot of T in it? Go kill that thing and take the relevant organs. There's a lot of made-up monsters that people get compounds from, and since they are made up they can be whatever I want. I am more concerned with the vibe of it than being totally correct.


I like the point about not creating potions as the plot demands, which would be like deus ex machina. Making up monsters for ingredients is also very good. That adds to the formula possibilities. My character in question has this as part of a sinister manipulation in a lab during childhood. In addition to potions, she also has stealth magic and can summon a familiar, but has only one attack spell.

The potion category is just a subset of making things like magical talismans and weapons. When one is used, a little description of its creation helps bring the reader into the story world. It's helpful to get other opinions, since a site search turned up no similar threads. Now I'm off to the lab to brew up a few things.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
One of my MCs makes something similar to potions - close enough to just say potions for the sake of discussion. I went ahead and put together almost the entire crafting system. I did it for four reasons.

1 - The crafting system is an extension of the character, and I want readers to feel that. He thinks about his ingredients, he remembers collecting them, he's careful with his tools, he's proud of the techniques he uses, and so on. Most importantly these potions are some of his abilities, and I don't want to create a situation where he ends up doing something he could've done two hundred pages ago because I didn't have that figured out.

2 - Building out the crafting system and its ingredients helps flush out the setting. I've got flowers, and creatures, and an idea of what does or doesn't have magic in it, and where these things all come from. No gaps, it's all there, and it starts coming out just in chapter 2.

3 - Having these things - the character's potion abilities, the new features in the setting, and whatever else - helps inspire the story. What starts as background detail can quickly evolve into major plot points, complicated decisions, and serious character moments. It fuels the story engine, if you know how to use it.

4 - Maybe it's a bit of a pipe dream, but I have it in my head that I want my story world to fit seamlessly into different mediums. For example I envision a story in the setting's history as a movie trilogy and have a one-page outline to that effect. I jot down two-sentence premises for tv series, and I've seeded game-friendly conflicts all over the setting's background - for example, they have these locations all over the forest that were seized by militia groups, perfect for "level up" quests, but that's not what the main story is about. Anyways a functional crafting system fits into that vision.

With all of that said, every story is different. Maybe your potions are better off being mysterious. Holding up a whole crafting system might be too much weight on your narration. Maybe it's just too complicated for whatever your story is about. I mean, my story, Smughitter, is told from the POV of two sprites and everything they do is laced with magic. A crafting system fits right in. But that isn't most stories. Whether it's yours, that's up to you.


I think all four reasons make the case for a detailed system. In writing these short scenes, I use word economy and a background tailor made for the character, complete with symbolism. It's also a good time to develop the thought life, like we do when engaged in a favorite hobby. In approaching the end of the current story, I've got a better idea how the world at large perceives potions, so I definitely came to the right place.


Putting more work into your world should not fail to be rewarding but i am willing to accept a character can make potions and be passionate about it with out a huge database.
Looking at your original question, why do you want to create a database? How would it be useful to your story?

Does your character look up potions, their uses, and their ingredients in the database? Or in a potions book, which would be the same thing, really, just not computerized? If so, you're unlikely to need a whole database, just references to the particular potions he's looking up. There's no way you could put the whole database in your story without making it boring and largely irrelevant to the reader.

If you like making such lists, you could create a database of potions just for your own reference. If this is to be a novel or series of novels, maybe your database, or portions of it, could be in there as an appendix. Other than that, there's no good place to put a database in a work of fiction.


The character has this knowledge sort of downloaded into her mind, which can be accessed according to need. I should have clarified it comes from several pages of charts that I made. True, most of it will never be used, but it's a fun pasttime. Come to think if it, in the whole novel, she's only shown crafting two potions. The rest are already in belt blisters ready for use. So it seems we can wing it. Either or, as Queshire said.