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What's the Magic Word: Defining the Sources, Effects and Costs of Magic
by Lital Talmor

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

So we have a hero: tall and handsome, with a mysterious past, a claim for the throne and an arch-enemy. Oh, yes, and he can do magic. Poof! With a flick of his fingers the nemesis turns into a lizard, an army of genies wins the crown for him, and the ghost of the late king appears and proclaims him the rightful heir. The End. Not only of the story, of course, but of the reader's faith and interest in it.

When writing fantasy fiction, especially when magic is involved, you get to set all the rules. Such freedom is tempting, and while most writers instinctively avoid the above example, other pitfalls await the unwary creator. On the other hand, a carefully crafted concept of magic can add layers of depth and interest to your work. When to use it, how to cast it, and what can it do: this article will help you decide.

Magical By Definition

There are, in general, two types of magic: passive and active. The former is covered by the dictionary definition of magic as an adjective: "Possessing distinctive qualities that produce unaccountable or baffling effects". This category includes magical abilities (like an innate immunity to fire),

magical creatures (dragons, manticores and the sort), and magical phenomena (such as storms of crystal raindrops). While members of this type have a magical existence, they do not necessarily use magic. Their form of magic is a "natural" trait, in a world where magic is a part of nature.

Active magic is defined as a noun: "The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural". In other words, the control of mind over matter, or - more rarely - mind over mind. When you set out to write a magical world, it is this form of magic you will have to define. This is best achieved by breaking the definition of magic into five key elements: Source, Technique, Range, Effect, and Cost.


What allows certain people to manipulate reality at their will? The source of magic can be either internal or external.

If internal, then magic is a function of either the body or the mind. It can flow within the very veins of the magic-user, or suffuse the labyrinth of his brain. Alternatively, it may be a simple facility of the mind, like reading or doing calculus, without any tangible existence. The source of magic remains internal even if it can be enhanced by outer means, as long as the magic-user is not dependant on them.

External sources may be The Spirit of the World, a God, a magical artifact, and the like. In this case, one must draw on that source before using magic. This can be done through a specific action, such as a prayer or a ritual, or through a conduit, either an object or a person; depending on the nature of the source.

When working with an external source of magic, you can make it more distinctive by applying certain restrictions: How often can one draw on that source? Can one hold a certain amount of power and use it gradually, or only enough for the magic he is performing at the moment? Will the external source always come through and provide magical power, or can it decide to hold back?


Once in command of magical energy, how does the magic-user release it to do his will? From mysterious chants to magic wands, the technique of casting a spell will play a major part in your writing every time you deal with magic. The four basic components of any technique are thought, speech, gesture and material, of which any combination can be used.

Thought is what separates passive and active magic: the conscious, intentional use of the art. The magic-user may be required to simply fix in his mind that which he intends to do, or call up some complex image. Thought is always a key part of active magic, if only in the form of concentration.

The speech component can appear as a single word, an incantation, a song, etc. It can be said in the common tongue of your world, or in an arcane language of magic (which you can either create by yourself, or borrow from the ancient languages of our world, like Latin or Sanskrit). Pronunciation and intonation may determine the chance of successfully casting a spell.

Gestures can be required as anything from a wave of the hand to an intricate dance. This can lead to interesting situations, such as having a physically disabled magic-user whose magic, for lack of grace, is powerful but crude. It may also limit the magic-user in situations where he cannot free his hands.

The material component includes magical artifacts and ingredients, such as a special jewel or a flask of holy water, or ordinary ingredients which gain magical traits when used in a specific way. These can be plants, minerals, even substances from the animal kingdom - such as the fang of a weretiger or the heart of a harpy - though this kind of ingredient is usually associated with dark magic, as it normally entails the death or injury of the original owner. Using materials may also mean the inscription of a symbol in the air or on the ground. The magic-user may have to hold the ingredients in his hand, lay them out in a pattern, burn them or offer them to the winds, or simply be in their presence (as with an altar).

Aside from these four basic components, there may be a significance to time and locale. Certain spells might be cast only when the sun is at its zenith, or only within the boundaries of a forest, and so on.

As a thumb rule, the more canonized and focused the magic in your world, the more detailed its technique will be. For example, if there is a specific spell for turning arch-enemies into lizards, it may require a special chant on a moonless night, while throwing the tail of a gecko into a pond. If the magic you create is more like a raw power of the mind, it may require only the image of a lizard in your mind's eye and a brief gesture.


Can your magic-user, with a thought, make a flower burst into life somewhere halfway around the world? Not likely. Deciding on range restrictions helps making the magic more acceptable.

Though not recommended, you can determine the exact range of magic in whatever measure units being used in your world. This method might work well with a scientifically or mathematically oriented form of magic (yes, there are such things), but otherwise, it might be better to define the range as "within eye-sight", "within touch", or "within the same hemisphere".

This, again, raises questions. If your magic is based on eye-sight, can one use magic on a hidden target or when he's blindfolded? Will the magic lose power beyond the specified range, or simply fail? If magic requires touching the target, will binding a magic-user's hands disable his power? Try to think of more situations where the range becomes a hindrance. They will give you some new ideas as to how to get your magic-user into troubles.


What can magic do? Basically, everything.

You may want to keep magic as a raw, flexible power, or create schools of magic that specialize in achieving certain effects: creating items, altering items, controlling the weather, summoning creatures, imbuing objects with certain powers, moving through time and space - the options are limitless.

You can also choose to restrict magic in any number of ways. Magic that does not work on metal. Magic that cannot bend the mind or will of another. Magic that will remain effective only ten minutes, an hour, a day. Magic that can create but not destroy, or vice versa. Magic that can only change that which exists. And what happens when someone goes against these restrictions? The magic could die out, bounce off, or have much nastier side-effects - all up to you.


Perhaps one of the most important elements of magic is the cost of using it. It's one of nature's basic rules: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; for every power, there is an equal weakness.

The price of magic can be paid in many forms, from tiredness and temporarily helplessness to downright illness. The cost may be one-time or cumulative, or both. It can drain a magic-user's stamina, mental ability or health; it can cause him headaches or nausea; it can, if you so decide, lead to his death.

The price paid for the use of magic usually correlates with the magnitude of the desired magical effects. The grander the magic, the more it would cost. This allows for powerful magic to exist without disrupting balance. It may be a bad idea for a hero to raise an army of genies with a flick of his fingers, but much more acceptable if he'd sacrificed for it, say, ten years of his life.

Also, think of magic and time. If one uses magic to bind an enemy, how long will the enemy remain trussed up? Will his bonds remain in place until revoked by magic, or will the magic-user have to constantly support the spell? Will the spell be draining his power that entire time, or only once, when it is cast?

Experiment with your method of magic until you find the right balance between effect and cost. If you want magic to be common, cut down on the cost. If you want magic to be a thing only a few would attempt, boost up both cost and potential effect. By tweaking these two factors, you drastically influence the place of magic in your world, and consequently the appearance and nature of your world.

Magic in Society

Now that you have defined magic in itself, take the time to define its place in your world. A crucial question is, Who can use magic? Is it a skill, like drawing, that can be learned by those with a talent? Is magic innate? If so, is it hereditary or arbitrary? Is it common or rare?

These questions will make a great impact on your world, especially when you determine how magic is being regarded among the non-magical folk. The history of mankind shows that if a small group possesses great power, it will either use it to gain dominion or be hunted down for it (or both). The stronger and more unique your magic is, the more likely it will be considered as a threat, and be a source for conflict among the population of your world. The type of magic you choose to define also affects public opinion - a dark art will rarely win its followers acceptance, unlike a power used for healing and profiting others. Keep in mind that in a world where nature is a part of nature, it will not meet suspicion and disbelief as it does in ours.

Once you've determined how those who have no magic react towards those who do, you can decide how those who do have magic consider those who don't. In a world that's hostile towards magic, magic-users will gather in secret to protect their art and lives. In a world where magic is openly accepted, magic-users may obtain key positions in society.

Read on for a glossary, or set out to design your own concept of magic - you're on your way to hold your own readers spellbound!

Terminology of Magic

There are some nuances between the terms used to define and describe magic, and while their usage may change from writer to writer, some have a specific connotation. The following list might give you an idea how to name some magic-related concepts in your world.

Forms of magic:

  • Magic - the most generic term for anything supernatural.

  • Spell - a form of magic consisting mostly of a speech element, sometimes combined with an additional element of material or gesture.

  • Charm - a form of magic consisting mostly of a material element, as in an amulet.

  • Conjuration - a form of magic consisting mostly of a speech element. Usually related to the summoning of ghosts.

  • Sorcery - the use of spells and divination, sometimes in an evil way.

  • Witchcraft - the use of hexes, potions and divination.

Users of Magic:

  • Mage/Magician - a person who is versed in a generic form of magic.

  • Sorcerer - a spell-caster or a user of sorcery, sometimes associated with evil arts.

  • Enchanter - a magic-user who uses enchantments, charms and spells, usually to lend magic powers to object or influence other people's mind.

  • Wizard - a male spell-caster, usually with a positive connotation. Derives from the word "wise" in Middle English.

  • Witch - a female spell-caster who specializes in hexes and potions.

  • Necromancer - a magic-user who uses invocations and conjurations to commune with the dead in order to predict the future. Also in a broader sense, a magic-user who is capable of raising the dead as obedient servants, or in any other way acquire their help.

  • Warlock - a male sorcerer with a negative connotation, usually a master of destructive magic. Derives from the word "oath-breaker" in Old English.

  • Shaman - a priest who is capable of summoning the good or evil spirits of the world. Shamans usually use incantations, visions and material elements when performing the ritual of summoning. Derives from the word "ascetic" in Sanskrit.

Find Out More...

Creative Uses of Magic in Your Fantasy Story, by Philip Martin

Copyright © 2003 Lital Talmor
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Born and raised in Israel, Lital Talmor was literally forced into the Fantasy and SF genre by a caring (albeit tactless) friend. She's been hooked ever since, and is now the proud owner of an extensive collection of books in both Hebrew and English. Lital's favorite pastime is creating fictional worlds and falling hopelessly in love with her characters. Her work occasionally crops up over the internet, in the form of short stories, poetry and articles.


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