The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Magic

This is the third in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

If there’s any sort of structure to these posts, it’s a movement from more objective elements of worldbuilding to less objective ones. To continue that trend, I bring you magic.

Like myth, magic can be tricky to define. It takes numerous forms, each highly dependent on the culture it belongs to. Is a microwave magic? Is a lightning bolt? Is the Eucharist? And why or why not, under which circumstances?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use a definition of magic that I find particularly useful to storytellers: “Magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t.”

The Eucharist would pass the test. The microwave would be a bit dodgier—if you had so little experience with modern technology that you didn’t know that punching buttons typically makes a microwave-shaped device do something, it would be pretty magical, but in modern Western society it’s decidedly mundane. The lightning bolt would fail the test because it can’t be controlled by an elite (yes, I know lightning can be simulated in a laboratory environment, but that’s not the same, and anyone can use a lightning rod).

So that gives us a bit of a sense of what magic is. Now why does magic—and this definition of magic—matter?

In part, it matters because it’s a genre marker. The presence of magic is one of the things that separates fantasy from other forms of fiction. Take the magic out of Harry Potter and you have a boarding-school story about a traumatized orphan. Take the magic out of The Lord of the Rings and you don’t have much at all—it’s that integral to the plot.

On a more technical level, magic provides an incredibly potent tool for creating a sense of awe—another thing fantasy readers often look for in a book. Because by definition magic works for some people and not for others, it will appear awesome (in the old, literal sense of evoking awe) to some people in your book, and that sense of awe, properly described, can evoke the same in a reader. John Tristan’s descriptions of dragons in The Sheltered City (I’m cheating here and citing something I worked on), are one of the most memorable parts of the book for exactly that reason.

Finally, magic provides you with a potent plot lever. I wrote recently about Jeff Vandermeer’s (over)use of a certain psychological principle as magic in Authority, but just because the tool can be overused doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. Power imbalances between characters, however they come about, create dramatic tension. You don’t need magic to create a power imbalance, and you do need power imbalances in your narrative that don’t come from magic. But when properly used (see Bayaz in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy), magic can create great interpersonal tension.

That’s why magic matters. How do we create believable magic then?

Like history and myth, magic comes from real-world analogues. I don’t want to go deeply into “systems” of magic here because not all magic is systematic, so I’m going to restate my definition again: magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t. One way to create believable magic is to find a potent force that fails the magic test in our world (like lightning) and give characters in your world the ability to control it. When you do that, you appeal to the part of your reader that yearns to control the uncontrollable.

Beyond that, anywhere you find a power imbalance in the real world, you find a situation that can be recast to believably inform the magic in your world.

If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to get their cell phone to send a text message while someone else uses theirs to check their e-mail, book a flight, and make a dinner reservation, you’ve seen one kind of power imbalance that could be used to inform magic in a narrative. If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to open a jar while the person next to them just twists and presto!, you’ve seen another. And if you’ve ever walked blithely through a building that no wheelchair user could enter, you’ve seen a third.

Those situations may not seem magical, but in their hearts they can be. The person who yearns to be able to understand that damn thing in their hand, or open the salsa without asking for help, or see the museum that ignored the ADA, is the person in a fantasy narrative who can’t use the magic. And the person who does those things without thinking twice is the mage who doesn’t understand their own power.

The flashy, common, external representations of magic (fireballs, lightning bolts, earthquakes, et al.) are just candy coating, and you can pick whichever flavors you like for them. What matters is the power imbalance that lies behind magic, and as long as you nail that, your magic will feel real to readers.

Continue reading the series here.

3 thoughts on “The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Magic”

  1. Huh. I hadn’t heard that definition of magic before, and from a structural perspective, I really like it. In my own work, I can see different ways I’ve used it to indicate power dynamics between characters, either thematically or as a part of world-building… and I like the insight that in a ubiquitously magical setting, the *reader* is the defined entity who can’t use magic.

    I wonder if we could say more about magic, though. Generally I’d think of magic as a technology where the mechanism being employed is personality. That is, even if magic has implements and formulas in the world, even if it relies on summoning or binding external forces, the delineation between empowered and disempowered, magical and nonmagical, means that identity is a tool, or a fuel. A spell of levitation is mechanically not too different from an invisible forklift, but anyone can pull the levers on a forklift. The key that turns it on is the identity of the magician.

    1. Good food for thought! I think that makes a lot of sense for most magics, but I wonder how it interacts with object-based magic. Take Excalibur’s scabbard, for instance—whoever has the scabbard can use the magic. So it’s still magic in the sense of “some people can use it and others can’t” because only the person holding the scabbard can control the powerful force., but the identity of the person holding the scabbard is immaterial.

      Or maybe we should think of magic as “power that can be accessed” rather than “controlled,” since in my scabbard example (and in much other magic) there’s not really any control being exercised.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *