For the next two weeks, and another week later on, I’m going to poke and prod at the most common element of all fantasy novels: magic.
It’s the defining trait of fantasy, more than dragons and more than knights and more than princesses. Magic comes in a dozen forms, with a dozen ways to write it, describe it, show it, and mess it up completely.
I love fantasy. It’s my favorite genre, the genre I hope most to be published in. One of my favorite parts of fantasy is the magic, and the amount of diversity that comes with it.
So let’s jump right in.
What is Magic?
Next week, I’ll talk about Structured vs. Free-form, but this week I wanted to take the time to really get into “what is magic”. And then in a few weeks I’ll talk about actually writing the magic into your story.
So what is magic? You can pull a handful of books of the shelf that supposedly have magic in them, but there’s no real clear component that says “magic” that runs through all of them. It’s not like dragons, where something specific can be identified as “a dragon”, even if it looks a little different every time.
Magic, in essence, is something you cannot experience on our world because of the laws of nature. Whether it defies the conservation of matter, ignores the proportionality of density and weight, screws with entropy, or summersaults around gravity, it could not take place in this world because this world does not work that way.
For instance, an elemental form of magic in which the user can summon a fireball from nothing breaks the laws of nature. It creates energy, heat, and light with no discernable source. Even if the author attempts to explain it, there’s not physical way for them to completely do so.
Telekinesis, telepathy, spells cast from wands, muttering incantations to open doors that are invisible when closed and shine in the moonlight, walking on top of snow even though you’re Orlando Bloom, clairvoyance, elemental magic, and even “potions” are forms of magic because they’re not possible in this world.
(I realize some might dispute a few of those more “mental” forms of magic as being un-real, but this isn’t really the place for that. If you really want to debate me on it, you can find my email on the “Contact” page, and I’ll talk with you there. Yay.)
An author by the name of Daniel Schwabauer terms the magic of fantasy as “Otherness”, and I think it’s a fantastic way to sort of describe what magic is. It’s something Other. It’s foreign, unknown to us. Different. Out there.
There’s literally no other limit you have in creating your specific brand of magic. It’s just something that’s not possible in our world.
The Big Four
While magic is generally very diverse and unique to each case (unless it’s a case of one case stealing from another case), there are a few basic structures that magic follows:
-Incantational magic requires spoken words. This is much like the spells in Harry Potter and much of the magic in Lord of the Rings. The person with the magical abilities says a specific word or words to achieve some action or result. When you use this type of magic, the possibilities are endless: all you have to do is come up with a phrase and assign it to something you want your character to do. Summon a lightning bolt in the middle of a blizzard to bury your foes in an avalanche? Saruman knows the right words. Make an unconscious person float? It’s wingardium leviOsa, not levioSA.
-Extrasensory Perception is the most common magic in Urban Fantasy, but can also be found elsewhere. It’s the kind of magic that is closest to our own world, because you’ll find fringe science out there that delves into the possibility of telekinesis and telepathy and clairvoyance. Regardless of its truth or untruth in our world, it’s the sort of magic that can be used to great emotional and conflict-creating affect.
-Mental Incantational magic lies within the mind, but isn’t ESP. It’s much like incantational magic, but requires only a mental sort of “grasping” at whatever sort of magic there is. The best example of this would be the True Source in The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan or Metallurgy in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. It’s all within the mind, sometimes requires words (usually thought, not spoken), and is usually more constrained than the Incantational Magic. It’s often from an outside source that the character “connects” with mentally.
-Exterior magic is something outside of your characters which contains “magic”. A good published example would be Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive and the “Stormlight” infused spheres which convey the power to those who can use it. My recently finished novel Agram Awakens uses this sort of magic. The “mystical object”, as it’s referred to, can be anything: a potion or a wand or a broomstick or an ark of the covenant.
There are other, more specific types of magic that you might bring up, such as elemental magic (your standard go-to for online RPGs and RPG fanfiction… don’t ask me how I know, 10-year-old me was weird), mythological magic (such as in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series), or even real magic (communing with spirits… which is usually a frowned-upon magic in conservative circles, and often the backdrop for horror stories in liberal circles). But the four I outlined are the “big four”, the ones you’ll find in the majority of fantasy novels out there.
The Importance of Developing Your Magic
There’s quite a bit of discussion (sometimes friendly, sometimes not) about how structured your magic system needs to be. I’ll talk a little bit about that (and how both ways can work well for your story) next Friday, but for now, I wanted to say this:
Using free-form magic doesn’t excuse you from developing it. That would be like choosing not to develop a character or not to form a plot. You still have to decide “okay, my characters can do this with the magic”. Even if you don’t set strict boundaries like a structured magic has: “you can’t do this”, you still need that “can do”.
Your reader can tell when you’ve developed something. They know the time and effort you’ve put into it. Because when you right it, a developed magic system can shine as brightly as a well-developed character.