How can you create an interesting form of magic for your fantasy story? Will magic, in your fiction, be like a tool? A technique? A language? An art? A gift? A shadowy force of nature?
Or will you have several forms, as Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings, where the dark forces use magic like a bulldozer to gain power, while the elves have a wonderful nature that is magic simply because everything they do is "more effortless, more quick, more complete" than the abilities of those around them?
In fantasy fiction, magic is the central nervous system. Done poorly, it makes readers roll their eyes and reviewers mouth the "genre" label derisively. Sophisticated, interesting magic, on the other hand, can fuel an amazing, wondrous story. It can add that unparalleled spark that elevates fantasy above other types of writing that have to keep their feet on the ground of plausible reality.
Magic doesn't need to be plausible, but it has to work well. Here of some of the keys:
Magic needs to work according to firm rules. Don't create surprises of magic out of the blue to save your characters -- the fictional equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Everything should be set in place long in advance. Then, the writer (and his/her characters) must stick by those rules of magic, even if difficult. Things set loose into the story must play out their full consequences. Like Rumpelstiltskin, if you lay down a magical challenge, you have to accept the logical outcome.
As Jane Yolen wrote in Writing Books for Children (1983): "The world a writer creates may have as its laws that the inhabitants are nothing but a pack of cards, that animals converse intelligently while messing about in boats, or that a magic ring can make its bearer invisible at the long, slow cost of his soul. But once these laws are set down, the writer cannot, on a whim, set them aside. They must work in the fantasy world as surely as gravity works in ours."
For dramatic impact, as important as the powers of magic are its limitations. If magic is all-powerful, if a wand is waved and all problems are instantly solved, the plot is pointless. Where is the narrative tension in that?
In the Harry Potter books, Harry's nemesis, Lord Voldemort, has great powers, but even so, those powers are limited. Lord Voldemort must plan his moves carefully. He must recruit minions to help him carry out evil deeds. He must retreat, wait, and choose to strike at just the right time. And he is constantly thwarted.
What will the limitations on magic be? To be effective, magic might require some very specific set of actions, tools, or knowledge, or the participation of multiple characters, or any limitation that makes the story more interesting and draws out the tension and builds our fears that things won't work out for our beloved heroes.
Perhaps magic loses its potency with distance from a source. Or perhaps it can only be used in certain conditions, or only for certain purposes. It might require a zen-like approach: a complete clearing of the mind, as in Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, where young Lyra must carefully put her mind at rest before she asks a question of the magical device.
These creative limitations can be as interesting as the magic itself.
As author Garth Nix has said, magic should be more interesting than using an electric stove or a rifle. Readers delight in inventiveness.
Curious variants of magic range from using origami for magical spells (Paper Mage, by Leah Cutler), or turning a man's head into the head of an ass (Shakespeare), or making a magical harp or fiddle from the bones of a dead woman that tells the tale of a murder (an old folktale found in many cultures).
On the other hand, any common device -- a mirror, a wand -- can be interesting if used in a fresh way.
In Ursula Le Guin's book Gifts, the magical talents of hill-folk families range from calling animals to the power known as "the unmaking," which is described with chilling effect in this passage:
This should be obvious. But I've seen too many manuscripts where magical events happen in a scene that is truly astounding to all, and then the characters go on to the next thing little changed, barely seeming even to remember the amazing things that just happened. Magic should have a considerable impact on characters to make the story more interesting, not just be a cool factor or a card to play and forget.
In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the likable Frodo carries the ring for a long time. It makes sense that he is increasingly affected by it, psychologically, especially as he enters Mordor. What are the effects of magic? Whether it is good or bad magic, the effects should not be indifferent.
Ask how the magic transforms the characters -- or even the entire world. Here is another passage by Le Guin, from A Wizard of Earthsea. Young Ged's mentor, the Master Hand, tells the fledgling mage: "A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow..."
[Canoc, Orrec's father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. "As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, 'Now!' And the power shoots out like the arrow."
That's a description of magic! It's rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry -- the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin's novels are hooked on.
If magic is so powerful, it follows that it is not always fully understood. Magic should be accompanied by mystery.
Magic is powerful, and often uncertain, even dangerous, even to its own practitioners. What are the costs, feelings, problems, weaknesses, mishaps? In some stories, this leads to comic results: magicians are absent-minded, prone to misconjuring, and sorely in need of malpractice insurance. In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the magic at first is helpful, but once let loose, causes havoc.
In the Harry Potter stories, magic is a long, complex learning curve. It must be done just so, or risk failure, at first with comical effects as the Hogwarts students botch their lessons and wrestle with unruly magical herbs, snarling creatures, and spells that backfire or fizzle. But as the stakes are elevated, any misstep risks loss of life, limb, happiness, or potentially total catastrophe.
In the end, human elements should prevail.
For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the end what prevails is Dorothy's most human desire, to go home to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, back to the dry but familiar Kansas plains. The clicking of the slippers (ruby in the movie, silver in the book) and the magical journey back are less important than Dorothy's true love for home and family. The magic in this case is indeed out of the blue, but the theme of home is not.
To build a magical system for your story, ask yourself how to create the most interesting magic. Play with all the options: mechanical devices, potions, spoken spells, acute senses, inner gifts, every possible tiny miracle or great tornado of magic.
Then, limit it! And make the magic more central to the story. See how your characters are influenced by the course of magic. Have fun with it!
But in the end, let the human elements win out. That is the real magic: to be able to create anything you can imagine, to create the most powerful magical wand in the world of fiction, but then figure out how to use it in a way to make a story more interesting, not less so.
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