Writing Fantasy: The Creation of Magic

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Magic, the mystical element of fantasy writing, can add incredible beauty and power to a story and take it from the mundane to the divine.   When done well it is an asset to any work of writing, but done poorly can ruin the entire story.  To simplify the reading of this article we will use the terms magic and magicians to represent special powers and those who use them. Here are five steps to creating functional magic (according to me):Step one:  Figure out the source of your magician’s power. You hopefully already know who needs to use magic and why. You also need to know exactly why they have it and incorporate those facts in the story. The explanation doesn’t need to be complicated, it does need to be there.

  • Genetic: In Harry Potter magic ran in families.  If both parents were wizards than their children would be as well. However it was possible for non wizard parents to have a wizard child such as Hermione Granger.  In the world they had a name for it suggesting that it wasn’t all that uncommon and the reader doesn’t question why.

  • Spontaneous: In Robert Jordan those who held the One Power entered the world randomly.   Although Wheel of Time groupies might be able to state a concrete reason why this happens,  I don’t remember reading a clear reason.  He makes up for it by making the One Power one of the most complex examples of literary magic out there.  All the cultures of the world, and there are many, have found a different way of handling those who possess this power.

  • Divinely (or other) appointed: This variety of magic isn’t used as often due to it’s religious overtones.  With a bit of creativity it can be made to work in any situation.  In the Eragon series, Eragon was given his powers through the association of his dragon.  Saphira the dragon can be viewed as a type of divine being, as she is greater and more powerful than man.  A malevolent being can also bestow powers on his or her subjects.

  • Race Characteristic: Wizards, fairies, elves, pixies, etc are all races of beings that have innate abilities to perform magic.  When using these races in writing it is expected for them to have capabilities beyond that of their human counterparts.  Those capabilities still need to follow the “rules” of magic discussed below.

  • Industrial accident: These are accidents that give characters their powers.  Think Spiderman and the spider or any number of superheros that have graced comic books.  The essence is something happened that changed them and gave them superhuman powers.  Technically this is more in the realm of science fiction but it could be adapted to work in a fantasy setting.

Step Two:  Pick a power source. Just as you can’t create something from nothing, magic must have a source of power.  The character will have to produce it from somewhere and you need to know where. Here are different sources that can be tapped into.  Most magic is not purely from one source but a blend of some or all.

  • Personal strength – Those who rely on their own personal strength to use magic need to be very aware of themselves and what they are capable of.   Using magic will make this character tired and too much might kill them.

  • Earth energy – The character is focusing the power found around him, can be something as physical as the sun’s energy or the energy found in plants or it can be a more mystical force like an unseen ever present flow of energy.

  • Magical item – Wands, powders, books, amulets, crystals, etc, can all be used to enable the use of magic.  Their presence can be mandatory or just desirable.  They can amplify existing magic or be used on others.  The topic of magical items could be it’s own article.   There is no limit to the creative ways that magical items can be incorporated into a work, as long as they follow the rules.

Step Three:  Select a teaching system. No magician masters a skill without practice and guidance, at least most of the time.  Like any skill it must be learned from someone or something else. Unless your character is a fairy, who I don’t imagine as being very teachable, they need some back story about how they learned or are learning to use their magic.

  • School for magic – Young magicians (mages, wizards, etc) go to a special school where they learn to harness their power safely.  Skills are learned level by level and greater ability to learn can result in greater powers although not necessarily strength

  • Mentor or apprenticeship – The magician is assigned a mentor who’s responsible for teaching all they know any way they wish.  Their special skills are passed on and their student gets personal attention and guidance through the process.  However, if they don’t have a certain skill then the student will be lacking in that area also.

  • Books – A magician wishing to learn more can look in a book or scroll to gain more knowledge.  This can be  a school or library or separate, if the magician had discovered their powers without any source of guidance.

  • Innate ability – the exception to the rule.  Yes, the magician can just know how to do something.  They can’t explain why or how it works it just does.  This is the case with fairies and other magical beings.  If the character is human be ready to do some explaining, your readers will need to know why this person can do magic, even if they don’t themselves.

Step Four:  Determine what the magic can and cannot do. No magic or power can do everything and stay believable.  Here is a partial list of abilities that fall within the realm of magic.  No character is strong in all areas, it is not realistic and gives no room for magical growth. I strongly suggest that they specialize in a few and have limited or no ability in the others.

  • Magical Healing
  • Defense and attack
  • Open portals to other places, worlds, times
  • Create magical items
  • Transmogrification (changing one item into another, i.e. people into frogs)
  • Communication
  • Travel

Step Five:  Set limits and consequences. Let’s face it, an all-powerful, undefeatable, character is pointless to have in a story.  They have to have a magical weakness or Achilles heels that allows  failure. This weakness is usually tied where their power comes from, but there are exceptions. Magic without limits weakens the story as it creates an easy solution to problems.

  • Rules – If your magician happens to live in a society where there are many other magicians then there needs to be a set of rules governing it’s use.  A lone magician should have a personal code of ethics dictating what they will and will not do with their power.

  • Death, Physical weakness – a natural result, especially for those who rely on their own strength to work magic.  There also are many interesting ways to have a magician accidently kill themselves – transform themselves into a lump of gold, transport into solid rock, blow themselves up, etc.

  • Balance of “universe” – More for magicians who use external energy than personal strength, the improper use, perhaps when it is not necessary or when overused, would cause an imbalance triggering undesirable events to occur. Of course it will occur during the writing, it makes a great story element when someone does something foolish with magic.

  • Availability of element – For those whose magic requires the use of an element, such as magical pixie dust or whatever. Ideally the element is difficult to make or find forcing the magic user to be very careful not to waste it.

Hopefully this has been helpful for those working to incorporate magic into their writing.  I love a good story where the magic is seamless and functional but still fills me with wonder.  Magic can be a beautiful and powerful element in a story, adding suspense and the unexpected.  But, like dragons, it must be handled with care.

Happy Writing!

Another great article talking about the use of magic in fiction: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_in_fiction>

Magic, the mystical
element of fantasy writing, can add incredible beauty and power to a story and take it from the mundane to the divine.   When done well it is an asset to any work of writing, but done poorly can ruin the entire story.  To simplify the reading of this article we will use the terms magic and magicians to represent special powers and those who use them. Here are five steps to creating functional magic (according to me):

Step one:  Figure out the source of your magician’s power. You hopefully already know who needs to use magic and why. You also need to know exactly why they have it and incorporate those facts in the story. The explanation doesn’t need to be complicated, it does need to be there.

  • Genetic: In Harry Potter  magic ran in families.  If both parents were wizards than their children would be as well. However it was possible for non wizard parents to have a wizard child such as Hermione Granger.  In the world they had a name for it suggesting that it wasn’t all that uncommon and the reader doesn’t question why.

  • Spontaneous: In Robert Jordan those who held the One Power entered the world randomly.   Although Wheel of Time groupies might be able to state a concrete reason why this happens,  I don’t remember reading a clear reason.  He makes up for it by making the One Power one of the most complex examples of literary magic out there.  All the cultures of the world, and there are many, have found a different way of handling those who possess this power.

  • Divinely (or other) appointed: This variety of magic isn’t used as often due to it’s religious overtones.  With a bit of creativity it can be made to work in any situation.  In the Eragon series, Eragon was given his powers through the association of his dragon.  Saphira the dragon can be viewed as a type of divine being, as she is greater and more powerful than man.  A malevolent being can also bestow powers on his or her subjects.

  • Race Characteristic: Wizards, fairies, elves, pixies, etc are all races of beings that have innate abilities to perform magic.  When using these races in writing it is expected for them to have capabilities beyond that of their human counterparts.  Those capabilities still need to follow the “rules” of magic discussed below.

  • Industrial accident: These are accidents that give characters their powers.  Think Spiderman and the spider or any number of superheros that have graced comic books.  The essence is something happened that changed them and gave them superhuman powers.  Technically this is more in the realm of science fiction but it could be adapted to work in a fantasy setting.

Step Two:  Pick a power source. Just as you can’t create something from nothing, magic must have a source of power.  The character will have to produce it from somewhere and you need to know where. Here are different sources that can be tapped into.  Most magic is not purely from one source but a blend of some or all.

  • Personal strength – Those who rely on their own personal strength to use magic need to be very aware of themselves and what they are capable of.   Using magic will make this character tired and too much might kill them.

  • Earth energy – The character is focusing the power found around him, can be something as physical as the sun’s energy or the energy found in plants or it can be a more mystical force like an unseen ever present flow of energy.

  • Magical item – Wands, powders, books, amulets, crystals, etc, can all be used to enable the use of magic.  Their presence can be mandatory or just desirable.  They can amplify existing magic or be used on others.  The topic of magical items could be it’s own article.   There is no limit to the creative ways that magical items can be incorporated into a work, as long as they follow the rules.

Step Three:  Select a teaching system. No magician masters a skill without practice and guidance, at least most of the time.  Like any skill it must be learned from someone or something else. Unless your character is a fairy, who I don’t imagine as being very teachable, they need some back story about how they learned or are learning to use their magic.

  • School for magic – Young magicians (mages, wizards, etc) go to a special school where they learn to harness their power safely.  Skills are learned level by level and greater ability to learn can result in greater powers although not necessarily strength

  • Mentor or apprenticeship – The magician is assigned a mentor who’s responsible for teaching all they know any way they wish.  Their special skills are passed on and their student gets personal attention and guidance through the whole process.  However, if they don’t have a certain skill then the student will be lacking in that area also.

  • Books – A magician wishing to learn more can look in a book or scroll to gain more knowledge.  This can be in connection with a school or library or can be separate, if the magician had discovered their powers without any source of guidance.

  • Innate ability – the exception to the rule.  Yes, the magician can just know how to do something.  They can’t explain why or how it works it just does.  This is the case with fairies and other magical beings.  If the character happens to be a human be prepared to do some explaining, your readers will need to know why this person can do magic, even if they don’t themselves.

Step Four:  Determine what the magic is meant to accomplish. No magic or power can do everything and stay believable.  Here is a partial list of abilities that fall within the realm of magic.  No character should be strong in all areas, it is not realistic and gives no room for magical growth. I strongly suggest that they specialize in a few and have limited or no ability in the others.

  • Magical Healing

  • Defense and attack

  • Open portals to other places, worlds, times

  • Create magical items

  • Transmogrification (changing one item into another, i.e. people into frogs)

  • Communication

  • Travel

Step Five:  Set limits and consequences. Let’s face it, an all powerful, undefeatable, character is pointless to have in a story.  They have to have a magical weakness or Achilles heels that allows the possibility of failure. This weakness is usually tied where their power comes from, but there are exceptions. Magic without limits weakens the story as it creates an easy solution to problems.

  • Rules – If your magician happens to live in a society where there are many other magicians then there needs to be a set of rules governing it’s use.  A lone magician should have a personal code of ethics dictating what they will and will not do with their power.

  • Death, Physical weakness – a natural consequence, especially for those who rely on their own strength to work magic.  There also are many interesting ways to have a magician accidently kill themselves – transform themselves into a lump of gold, transport into solid rock, blow themselves up, etc.

  • Balance of “universe” – More for magicians who use external energy than personal strength, the improper use, perhaps when it is not necessary or when too much is used, would cause an imbalance triggering undesirable events to occur. Of course it will occur during the writing, it makes a great story element when someone does something foolish with magic.

  • Availability of element – For those who’s magic is based on the presence of an element, such as magical pixie dust or whatever. Ideally the element should be difficult to make or find making the magic user very careful in it’s use.

Hopefully this has been helpful for those working to incorporate magic into their writing.  I love a good story where the magic is seamless and functional but still fills me with wonder.  Magic can be a beautiful and powerful element in a story, adding suspense and the unexpected.  But, like dragons, it must be handled with care.

Happy Writing!

Another great article talking about the use of magic in fiction: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_in_fiction&gt;

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About Jodi

I'm an aspiring novelist working in fantasy and suspense, for now. I also have two pretty awesome blogs! https://myliteraryquest.wordpress.com and http://jodilmilnerauthor.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Character Development, Concept Creation, World Building and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Writing Fantasy: The Creation of Magic

  1. jingle says:

    wow, jumped over from Julie’s blog,
    your blog is fancy,
    loved the taste of the content…

    😉

Comments are closed.