Last updated on January 3, 2020
Fantasy magic stories are high on my “love it” category as a reader and consumer of books. At the same time, I love science of all sorts and cut my teeth on the sci-fi greats Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. These led me to the awesomeness of techno-thriller masters Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. History has always been a huge draw for me, so found a sense of home reading the likes of James Clavell, Mary Stewart, John Jakes and Colleen McCullough. Aside from being widely considered the father of the fantasy genre, Tolkien will always hold a special place in my heart along with other masters in their respective genres. All spoke to the various bents in my personality as I matured.
They were all magical in their own ways, it seemed to me. Steeped in this wondrous, magical energy soup of perspectives and ideas, I learned what it meant to wholly embrace the call of the bard.
Now as a writer, I write for no other reason than producing what I love to read. The end result is often a mishmash of these same influences. Crossing genres and producing unexpected results, I only do it to amuse myself. If anyone else takes a shine to it? I mostly consider that a bonus.
Magic in fantasy stories, though… Now, that’s something special to me.
There’s rules of the created worlds and rules of science. Rules of perspective and writing. Rules of elements, fictional or otherwise, and a million other kinds of rules that constitute the brick-and-mortar of a story. All the stuff behind the curtain. All the things no one should see, but they feel the effects of, nonetheless. And I love them.
It’s a challenge to me, you see. To conjure the fantasy magic and have it hold together. And do it without allowing the curtain to slip and reveal what’s going on in the background. I never could back down from a challenge and love the fantasy genre in its various forms for that reason.
There’s more to it than that, though.
To me? The magic isn’t just the magical elements I might include within the story. The biggest magic is weaving it together into a story to begin with. To make those magical elements so believable, to fool so well, no one will even wonder what’s going on behind the curtain. That’s where I always want to remain. Where no one will question it. Ever. I want to illicit enough belief and trust in my wand-waving that I can make the reader see or believe anything is real. If I slip along the way and make the reader have to think about something for a minute? That’s the kiss of death and I know it.
There are things I consider while I’m writing, usually during editing once I get the story out. I actively work to hold that place. And don’t get me wrong, because I’m in no way perfect and it doesn’t always work. It’s something to strive for, though. In the absence of perfection, I hope to achieve at least enough wand-waving or have strewn enough fairy dust about that it obscures any brief drop of curtain. If it can allow forgiveness or at least indulgence? Then I’ve done it right.
The Essence of Fantasy – Magical Worlds
The essence of a fantasy story assumes the world in the story doesn’t operate the same as ours. It’s made up. When addressing the story element of fantasy magic? The thing to keep in mind is it must operate according to what’s possible within the parameters of that world. This means, you need to be very knowledgeable about the world you create. This requires you to take note during your world building.
The important part to focus on is that the magic has to make sense. For example, if there’s a particular plant in your world and only people who acquire this plant can use magic, you have to stick to that. It’s part of continuity. A component of the mythology you created.
Pretty basic. Several chapters in, you can’t then have random people popping up using magic who don’t have this plant. When you do things like this, the entire premise falls apart and the trust relationship that you entered into with the reader is eroded. And when that happens? They won’t continue to suspend disbelief. From that point on, every time you have someone else using that same fantasy magic, they’re going to step out of the story. It makes them ask questions, “Now, wait a minute, does this guy have that plant?”. If you have readers doing this as they’re reading, the illusion is ruined. At that point, the story becomes no longer enjoyable and they’re looking to pick out your mistakes rather than remaining lost in the fantasy you hoped to create for them.
There’s ways to write yourself out of this, of course, because it does happen. I mean, who hasn’t had the most awesome idea for some magical happening or ability arise out of the continued development of story? Once in a while, you get these flashes of brilliance and they’re just too good to waste.
Just remember, if you do this and it breaks the earlier premise, you have to come up with another plausible explanation. This explanation has to make sense and be bound by what’s possible within the parameters of the world you created. Don’t go overboard with it, you don’t have to beat the reader over the head with it, but make it plausible. Without going into a history lesson the reader doesn’t need, a simple explanation will do. You pull that off? And that wispy, elusive veil across the scaffolding supporting the story will hold together enough it allows the reader’s eye to pass over it and move on. If you provide too much detail in this situation? It begs more questions and poking and prodding and they won’t feel secure enough to allow you to continue fooling them.
Ranges of Fantasy Magic
Range? Rather than defined types of fantasy magic, the “types” fall into a range between two extremes. Where your magic system falls in this range is dictated by the type of story and the world you create.
The range runs from wonder on one end to actual science on the other. The wonder end really has no “system” or hard rules and on the actual science end, the rules are too strict and the magic is pretty much gone. On that end of the spectrum, you’re getting into hard science sci-fi where you’ve left the fantasy genre if that helps define that for you.
Once you’ve figured out where in the range the magic in your made-up world lies, ensure you stick with it. And I mean all the way through your story. Don’t deviate. This adds cohesiveness.
The reader doesn’t need to know this part, but you do. It’s very important. Having these parameters in your head allows you to narrate with confidence and your characters to speak and act from very definite positions. All of this add believability to your story. If you believe in it very firmly? Your characters will and then so will the reader. And better, they will without you having to lapse into long explanations.
Magic of wonder or whimsy doesn’t have a lot or even any stated rules. It’s just really cool. We don’t know why it works and neither do the characters really. No one ever explains it and while it’s talked about within the story – the characters accept and know about it -no one is writing a dissertation on its mechanics, especially you. Some characters may know the basic rules, but they don’t expound on them for the reader. You see this in Alice in Wonderland where the mushrooms can make you grow larger, though no one tells you why. This type of magic is a bit primordial. It gives the impression it’s so mysterious it can’t be understood by regular people, so there’s no point explaining. This adds a sense of mystery and underlying tension to fantasy stories.
One of the most obvious recent examples is the Harry Potter magic created by J. K. Rowling. All fabulous, wonderful and mysterious and no one has a bloody clue how any of it works, including J. K. Rowling. But no one cares. Why? Because of the presentation!
In the Harry Potter series, the only explanation anyone really gets are the children. They’re taught to be very precise with their spoken magic spells and waving their wands in particular ways. But other than that? No one ever tells you what it is that makes that magic work. And that’s okay, because it’s a wonderful, fairy-dusted explanation. No one wants to know and it doesn’t matter. There’s just enough info to give it credence and the outcome or the results of using that fantasy magic is the focus. This maintains a lovely magical thread through the entire series holding it together.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have things like mechanical magic based on alternate systems of physics. This is a useful kind of magic for believability and creating relatable worlds when they differ from our own. You’ll need to know how the magic works, though ignorance through the narrative and in the characters is fine. The ignorance creates suspense since it’s no fun if everyone knows everything right off the bat. The way it works, though, can be revealed throughout the story. As it’s revealed to individual characters, the readers can learn, too.
P.O.V. introduction to some element of magic by one of the characters is a good method of explanation. Show, don’t tell, right? This saves lapsing into narrative explanations that kill the flow of your story. Watch it, though, because once you’ve got that explanation out there, you’ll need to stick to it from then on. If you don’t? It’ll be noticed and again, you’ll break the trust relationship with the reader with the break in your mythology.
The Physics of Fantasy Magic – Putting Limits on the Power
Just as important as the magical world framework holding the story together, limits on wielded power add to dramatic impact. If the wizard is too powerful? If the fantasy magic is without bounds? Then there’s really no point to the story at all, is there? There would be no conflict. Whoever got hold of the magic could solve every problem with the wave of a wand or by reciting an incantation (or whatever other vehicle for delivery you came up with). The story would be over. The End.
For fantasy magic, it’s the limitations that make it interesting. The limitations are part of the physics of that power. Getting too far away from the source might weaken it. Characters might need time to recharge. A particular element might be used up and need to be reacquired before using the power again. Impose any number of limitations on the use of that magical power. The only limits are your imagination. The creative way you incorporate limitation can be as interesting as the magic itself and adds another layer to your story.
It’s also important to ensure that the fantasy magic never becomes larger than the characters’ story. Coming up with huge systems of magic is so much fun, but these should still remain story elements. Remaining part of the background system your characters’ story plays-out over means the characters stay in the forefront where readers can relate to them.
Let the magic be part of what drives your main character’s development. Use it as a vehicle for innocence to awareness or similar. Explore how the magic influences each character and how it changes the way they interact with each other. Let it add stressors to situations that can become showcases for your characters’ ingenuity or drive to triumph over adversity.
Remember, the magic of story creation is within you. Conjuring magic systems out of thin air and using that fantasy magic to drive your story to another level is your challenge. No matter what you come up with? As the writer, you must believe it and know the limits of that system and world you create. Even if it only ever remains in the back of your mind and never comes out in the story. This allows you to speak with conviction from beginning to end.
It’s all in the delivery, right? Use your solid understanding of your made-up world to draw the reader in. Don’t make them stop to think about what you’re doing behind the curtain.
Check out my other articles on writing fantasy magic and magic systems: