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May 252011

Fantasy is, as a genre, about the supernatural, and in particular about magic. There are almost as many takes on how magic works as there are fantasy novels to read.

With the right approach, magic can be a tool to emphasize what should be emphasized, occlude what isn’t necessary, and draw readers more firmly into a story. The wrong approach brings us yet another battered-hatted wizard deus ex machina-ing his way to an unsatisfying climax.

To write a fantasy story in which magic is more than window-dressing, the author must ask some questions, make some decisions, and chart a whole lot of consequences.

The Purpose

So, why use magic in the first place? What does it accomplish? What’s it for?

The easiest, laziest answer is that it’s a fixture of the genre, and we use it because readers like it. Which, I mean, fair enough. C+. There is a certain grandeur to being able to move things with your mind, or shoot fire from your nostrils. But we’re after more than the cargo cult.

As I see it, magic has two purposes: the first is technical, the second thematic.

The technical explanation is fairly simple: magic allows us to break the rules a bit, and to build scenarios that highlight our themes without necessarily getting bogged down in whether or not something is realistic.

First, a question of plot. In the real world, when eight thousand orcs show up on your doorstep, your options are probably few and far between. Fantasy-land opens new plot options. Perhaps you’ve been debating signing over your soul to the Dark Lord for the sort of magical powers that could get you out of this mess. Is it better to live a life of servitude than to be poked to death with rusty steel? How will you react when you eventually learn the Dark Lord sent those orcs to hasten your decision? There’s nothing in this plot that couldn’t happen outside of fantasy per se: the Dark Lord could be a boss that’s willing to offer you a bonus for doing something unethical, and the orcs could be rumours of imminent downsizing. But orcs are more fun than accounting.

Second, a question of setting. Here, magic plays the same role as technology in sci fi – that is, we’re playing with the ‘speculative’ part of speculative fiction. How would the world be changed if magic could heal diseases, or conjure food out of thin air? How would that change, in turn, if this magic was ubiquitous or limited to a tiny handful of people? What would human spirituality look like if you could teleport yourself up a mountain and talk to Zeus in person?

There’s not necessarily anything here that can’t be written without magic – perhaps in lieu of conjuring up food we can talk about genetically modified soy – but fantasy makes certain things easier, and more importantly, it grants you a readership that’s willing to roll with it and slowly discover how your world works rather than experiencing dissonance every time something a bit far-fetched happens.

The thematic explanation was partly touched on in the last bit. Magic certainly allows you to hone in on certain themes, but it is in itself a sort of theme. Fantasy, with magic as its secret weapon, is essentially the fiction of the uniquely powerful. It allows us to tell stories about heroes or villains with capabilities that stretch disbelief well past the point where it might snap elsewhere… or it allows us to tell stories about the lot of the common bumpkin in a world far beyond his pay grade. How helpful would the villagers around Sherwood be if Sheriff Nottingham could scry their actions and then fry them with a waggle of his eyebrows?

Magic is power, and fantasy is about power – its exercise and its consequences.


The Rules

Now that we’ve established that magic allows us to break rules, it’s time to codify rules that govern it and stick to them, conformist squares that we are. We need limitations for our stories to make any sense.

“A Dark Lord rose up. When Tom found out about it, he teleported over and turned the evildoer into a newt. The End.”

Not the stuff of legend, that.

So if we’re to use magic, we must first and foremost decide who can use it, and what it can and can’t do. And as we’re doing so, we need to think about the effect of our decisions on the setting and make sure everything is congruent with the story we’re trying to tell. Maybe Tom can’t teleport, and he has to walk over the Dark Lord’s lair. Maybe he can only turn him into a newt if he collects the Six Talismans of Amphibia. Or maybe we could, y’know, write something good.

What can magic do? What are its limitations? I’m sure you’ve read a hundred stories in which magic could do just about anything, except *drum roll* raise the dead. (Still boring).

One of the most common magical beliefs in our own mythologies is that of sympathy; that is, magic can only affect something of which you have a piece. To turn into a swan, you need to wear a cloak of swan’s feathers. To torture someone from afar, you need a doll shaped like that person, and probably some of their hair or blood. Perhaps you can’t implant emotions into a victim, but you can tease at and emphasize emotions that already exist. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, people can learn to affect the elements, but in order to bend water to one’s liking, one must a) be near enough water to bend; and b) be born into one of the Water Tribes.

What can all wizards do? Can they all recognize when something is magical? Your story offers different possibilities if wizards instantly recognize each other as wizards, Highlander style, than it does if this is something they only learn by staring down a fireball.

What can no wizard do? Are the dead beyond our reach? Perhaps magic can never kill directly. Perhaps it can only affect the non-magical, and no wizard can cast spells on another.

What influences magic? Is it more powerful at night? Does it only work when the gods approve of a wizard’s ends? Are there any areas that are magic-dead? For that matter, does it always work the same way, or is there an element of chaos or caprice?

Whatever you decide, you need to work through consequences to ensure that it all holds together. In the D&D roleplaying game, even the most neophyte priest can conjure up food out of thin air, yet we’re frequently asked to believe that society is agrarian: that people farm and that droughts are a problem.

Does this make sense? Why not simply hire a priest to magic up some eating all day, every day? Well, some folks might argue that even neophyte priests are so few and far between that one can’t build an economy around them. All well and good, but somehow we have a neophyte priest in every adventuring party. If I were a church patriarch, I surely wouldn’t be letting my newbies wander off to get ganked by goblins when I could just put them to work making pies. That’s especially true given one of the most common rationales for an adventuring priest is to raise money for the faith. If I could poof up food from thin air, I doubt fund-raising would constitute a problem.

But perhaps the gods don’t want their worshippers creating food except in the direst emergency. Why might that be? Maybe the harvest god is offended that people are ignoring his beautiful wheat. Or perhaps magic can only make beef pies, and you need something else to ward off vitamin deficiency (why yes, we are reaching a bit). Or maybe we should can the food summoning idea because it changes the game more dramatically than we’re interested in dealing with.

Where does magic come from, and who can use it?

The most common answer throughout fantasy is that magic is inherent. Either you have it or you don’t. Does that happen along hereditary lines? If so, one can bet that wizards will be intermarrying to ensure passing on their magic. What if magical talent is completely unpredictable? Perhaps there’s an industry of quacks offering libations and amulets to guarantee that a child will be magical.

How common is it? The world is a very different place if wizards are common enough to be integrated into society, or to constitute their own societies. We can have items enchanted and sold in magic shops. We can have teleporter relays set up to whisk people away. But if we’re to do that, magic has to have fairly predictable workings and, of course, there needs to be a lot of it.

If wizards are rare, what does that mean? Are they primarily celebrated or feared? Will they absorb piles of yes-men, or draw a torch-and-pitchfork mob, or both? Obviously, if wizards are rare, we can’t have our magic shops. But were they always rare? Maybe what we have are relics of a golden age when blah blah blah (beware: golden ages when magic was still grand are one of the most tired fantasy cliches).

What if magic isn’t inherent? What if it’s basically just technology, and anybody is capable of learning how to use it? Will that knowledge be jealously hoarded, or encouraged? Can it even be hoarded, or is there a critical enough mass of rogue wizards selling teaching services that any attempt to keep magic bottled up is doomed to failure?

What if magic doesn’t come from the wizard, but from the environment? Here we come to another of our world’s most common magical traditions: shamanism. Perhaps magic is not something the shaman can do, but something he must convince the spirits to do on his behalf. All of a sudden, we need to understand those spirits: what they want, and why they do what they do. What price will those spirits exact? What if a well-loved shaman asks for something that isn’t in the spirits’ best interests? Perhaps, like Faust, wizards must make a contract with evil things. What responsibilities might that contract stipulate? Are there any loopholes in it? What kind of sorcery will a malign spirit grant? What price will it exact?

How and where does magic work? Nuts-and-bolts stuff. Do wizards need to wave their arms around and say the magic words? What happens when a non-wizard waves the same pattern and recites the same spell? Do wizards need wands? How long does it take to cast something? If the creation of magic is obvious, and a ritual takes a while to complete, a wizard might get stuck full of arrows before he can finish. Or a charlatan might wave his arms about to scare off brigands. But if you can just think a spell into being with no outward sign of doing so, the brigands might be in for a nasty surprise, and magic in general will be a bit scarier. After all, even your mild-mannered next-door neighbour might be a filthy Red.

We talked about sympathy earlier – if the alchemist wants to turn lead to gold, does he need some gold to start the process? If he wants to hurl a fireball, does he need sulfur?

Let’s say magic only works at night, or a shaman can only call the spirits if he ventures to the secret grove. What happens if a wizard’s enemy lays plans to attack during the day, or if the grove has been desecrated?

What if entire swaths of land are magic-dead, and no spells can be cast inside them? How’d that happen? If these areas can be recognized, maybe warlords will build forts in them to ensure they have nothing to fear from magical enemies.

Finally, why have we made the decisions we made? How do they support the story we’re trying to tell? We need to pull it all together and make sure, as my Polish compatriots say, that it has arms and legs.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which magic is a heresy zealously expunged by inquisitors (classic fantasy cliche). If magic only conjures up pies and makes fluffy clouds and rainbows, it’s a bit of a hard sell. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just means that we need to think about consequences. Peasants who like pies and rainbows will do their best to hide their magical buddies, and maybe eventually they’ll be pushed past their breaking point and rise up against the unfair zealots. But what if magic is genuinely dangerous? What if it’s hard to control? The inquisitors may find, all of a sudden, that they have more support.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which a civilization collapses because magic stops working. Well, for a society to collapse for lack of magic, we need, first and foremost, magic that was common and dependable enough to integrate into its workings. And how did magic disappear? If an anti-magic zone just happened to spring up under our city, maybe it’s a matter of moving next door. But maybe the spirits we depended on to grant all this can no longer be contacted. Maybe they’ve been imprisoned, or wiped out, or they no longer approve of the way magic has been used? Why might that be? What can we do to solve the problem and bring magic back?

Traditional fantasy writing is, essentially, about magic. It’s critically important that we do it right. We have to know how it works, how it doesn’t, and what all that means. Even modest changes in the way these questions are answered can significantly impact the nature of a story.

Next time, I may do a Magic 201 case study, charting how magic works in my own fantasy writing and why I made the decisions I made. If that sounds interesting, or you have other subjects you’d like to discuss, please let me know in comments or via Twitter.


  4 Responses to “How to write fantasy: Magic 101”

  1. This is thought-provoking stuff. It reminds me of Orson Scott Card and his workshops and writing on the price of magic.

    The earlier part made me laugh so hard that fire came out of my nose.

  2. I think magic is one of those things that looks easier than it really is, and people don’t realize it until they’re lost in the haze of residual smoke from backfiring spells — if they realize it at all. Lots of good ideas here and the humor makes it a fun read!

    • Glad you liked it. It really can get thorny, particularly when it comes to the problem of setting inappropriate limits. You never want to back yourself into the situation where, for instance, you get the “Well, why didn’t he just blooglefoozle his way out like three chapters ago?” question.

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