Power to the People: Magic in Fantasy


The idea for this column came while I was working on a novel. The novel was an expansion of my story, “Card Sharp,” which features a main character with a magic deck of cards. I’ve written other stories in the universe, but I’d never quite figured out the full system behind the magic. Was it that the cards were magic and anyone could use them? Or was the magic specific to a few individuals and the cards were just the way they accessed it?

My seat of the pants writing style aside, I could see the possibilities of both approaches. So I did what any indecisive writer would have done in my position—I took it to Twitter.

I specifically asked (in < 140 characters), “Do you prefer magic that anyone can use? Or magic that only works for someone special?”

I should preface the responses by saying that the vast majority of my twitter friends are writers or editors (or both). Most of the rest are readers. They’re familiar with fantasy. And still the response was split.

The first responders were overwhelmingly on the side of magic that anyone can use. Pritpaul Bains (@pritpaulbains) said the chosen few example was “played out.” Editor Steve Berman (@thesteveberman) of Lethe Press said, “I dislike the 2nd [chosen few] as it smacks of elitism.” It does seem that this has become a well-worn trope and maybe readers are looking for something new. And it seems that we’ve come to a place where class issues and privilege and access are being explored in fiction, and the special person who has all the power is an ugly reminder of the inequalities in many societies, ours included. 

Do you prefer magic that anyone can use? Or magic that only works for someone special?

For me, at least, I think there was a change that came from maturity. As a child or a teenager, I loved the idea of the chosen one, or the chosen few, because I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to find out that I had some hitherto undiscovered power or ability of my own. It’s a potent metaphor for someone at that age, still figuring out who they are, what they have to offer, still craving power over their own lives.

As an adult, however, I’m in a different place. Sure, I’d still like to have magical power, but I have a more macro view. Why would I want to prevent others from having it? Surely what matters more is not whether you have the power, but what you do with it. 

It’s important to mention a few caveats, though. Real life has variation. Writer Chris Barzak (@cbarzak) answered, “magic anyone can use but that some people use better or with more innovation than others.” Which of course makes sense. The majority of people can draw, or throw a ball, or sing a tune, but there is a variety in skill level. Some people have the capability to sing opera, but not everyone does. And it still takes a lot of practice. @rattlyfleef said, “I like magic that takes WORK, like the martial arts :) Anyone can draw a bow, takes long training to be a crack shot.”

@thefennec brought up an interesting point, though. “Even if anyone *can* there has to be some reason why everyone *doesn't* —danger, high difficulty, secrecy, etc.” Which is, of course, another good point. Magic, in order to be special, should have a cost to use or master. Or else David Levine’s (@daviddlevine) point comes into play: “ ‘Magic that anyone can use’ risks becoming a technology, losing the numinous and mysterious. Magic should be personal.”

Which is important to me. Magic should be special. Wondrous. Magic that functions as technology essentially is technology, just using different means. A system where magic chills your food and flying carpets take people to work, still operates like real world technology. Still, there are levels to this. Let’s say that magic is every day, that people use talismans and amulets, magic rings and hats and other items to do normal, mundane activities. There still could be special uses of magic that aren't typical. There can still be people who are capable of things beyond the norm. 

So I started looking at examples in fantasy fiction, of course considering some of the most well known. Unsurprisingly, much of it falls on the “magic for the few” side. Here are a few examples from a much longer list:

  • The Lord of the Rings is an interesting case because despite being magical, very little magic is demonstrated in the books. Most of what Gandalf, the chief wizard of note, does is light up his staff. Still, the majority of magic is in the dominion of the Istari, the five Wizards. The Elves have a type of magic, but it’s not something that the rank and file use.
  • In the Wheel of Time series, channelers use the magic in the world, but they are rare (despite the number of them in the books) and they must be trained in order to use their abilities.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire has very little magic and that seems tied to dragons or to worship of certain deities.
  • In the Malazan books, those who can access Warrens are in the minority.
  • In David Edding’s Belgariad, sorcery is only practiced by disciples of Aldur and Torak (and are few in number).
  • In Blake Charlton’s Spellwright, magic is accomplished through the use of language, but while anyone can understand regular language, only certain people are born with the ability to use magical language (though he has a really cool system of magic and you should check it out).
  • In The Dresden Files, only certain people demonstrate magical talent (though training is still important to hone this talent).

So where are all the books with magic that the average person can use? I found a few that come close.

I can’t believe I’m going to use this example, but Piers Anthony accomplishes this in his Xanth books (yes, yes, I read these voraciously when I was a teen). Magic is everywhere, everyone has access to it. Indeed, everyone has a magical talent that is unique to them. But that is what sets Xanth apart. Each talent is unique. Some people can do nothing more than change the color of their hair at will. But others have immense power, say the ability to transform other creatures. I’m not recommending these books (they have a lot of problems) but I think they have an interesting approach. Keeping magic unique and wondrous despite its being so common.

In Steven Brust’s Dragaera, sorcery, the magic that the Dragaerans (elves) use, is quite common. There’s a mechanism in place (the Orb) to allow them to channel their abilities. Dragaerans can use this sorcery for a variety of effects—teleportation, telepathy, and more. Brust balances this, though, because the POV character in the series is Vlad Taltos, a human (or Easterner) living in a Dragaeran world. Additionally, Vlad has his own version of magic, or witchcraft, which has different abilities and different limitations. The end result is a world where there’s plenty of magic but it’s applied very differently.

In the Harry Potter series, not everyone can use magic. There are all those Muggles, after all. But in the bubble of the Wizarding world, everyone CAN use magic. Since the majority of the story happens in the Wizarding world, it feels as if everyone can use magic. Yet, because Harry and the others are still learning, magic retains its sense of wonder. And there continue to be surprises. 

In the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, while not everyone can use magic, bending of the elements is a fairly common occurrence. Regular people in the villages and towns use their earthbending, for example, for mundane purposes,  though becoming great at it takes work. Of course, there is also a chosen one, Aang, the Avatar, who can master all the four elements, but I think this still counts.

In the Dungeons & Dragons setting of Eberron, low-level magic is quite common and incorporated into society, though not everyone can create it. Here is an example of magic becoming technology. There’s higher level magic as well, and people who can wield it, but not everyone can create the magic.

Can you think of any more? Are you tired of the magic being restricted to the chosen few or do you like it that way? Are we ready for a more egalitarian magic system?

Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Martin Jul Post's picture
Martin Jul Post May 7, 2013 - 1:30am

Although I enjoy fantasy, I'm not really into the kind of explicit magical systems. To me, one of the great things about lotr is the way magic is an integrated part of the world and is always present in the form of various artifacts, magical creatures etc. but it doesn't dominate the story (Okay, I'll admit that the basic plot revolves around a certain magical artifact. What I mean is that the interaction between characters rarely involves magic). Characters like Gandalf and Saruman are only hinted at, as forces to be reckoned with. You get a sense of the power that lies beneath the surface but you really never get to see it. For me that's great because I get that sense of mystery about their characters and abilities without questioning the plausibility of the magic-system. It's just there, providing some color to the universe and still opening up space to what I really care about: The historical and spatial vastness of Middle-Earth and the characters challenges whether it be overcoming fear, facing your destiny, recognizing an "enemy" as a friend (the whole Legolas-Gimli love-story). If everyone in Middle-Earth had magic, I think characters like Gandalf would be less intriguing.

On the other hand I've read some of the Mistborn-series and the magical system in the series was really annoying me (It's a chosen few system like lotr). Although I think it's clever and all, the whole allomancy-thing is just really explicit, even to an extent, where it simply loses the sense of mystery. I think I would have enjoyed the series more, had the magical system been used more subtle, providing background for the world or a few characters instead of having them using and explaining the system constantly.

Finally, I don't really think that the 'chosen few system' is outplayed when it's used right, by wich I mean used with subtlety. 'The magic for all system', to me at least, often overuses magic in a way where the story gets clouded and I'm supposed to be fascinated by all the cool stuff magic can do in this world, but often I'm just not. 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago May 7, 2013 - 6:56am

Thanks for the enjoyable article.  I'll split the difference.  I like the idea of magic that is accessible to most people but requires discipline and training to use.

hcwalker's picture
hcwalker from Kansas is reading To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf May 7, 2013 - 10:18am

Sunshine by Robin Mckinley uses magic in an elitist/criminal way that I quite like.  It's set in a quasi post-apocalyptic small town where there are under-the-table instances of magic.  There's almost a don't ask don't tell treatment of people with a small modicum of magical skill.  However, the people with a lot of magic juice are viewed with fear and hatred.  Yes, there are vampires in this novel (I know, spare me.  I'm over it too), but the use of magic in this novel has always captivated me.  Definitely worth a read.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David June 23, 2013 - 5:22pm

It depends on your fictional universe.

In mine I try to restrict magic use; whipping it out at the right time, and even then it doesn't always work the way the character intends, and there are always consiquences for using it.

But that's my universe. 

I love Harry Potter's world where he and his friends are taught magic, but it's not a kind world I would write for myself. I need magic to be dangerous to use with the risk of self-destruction for the user if they cross a line. I approach my stories asking "If this were real, how would it work? Why doesn't everyone know about it? Why do the people who use the magic keep it secret?", and the story flows from there.

Judd Fetters's picture
Judd Fetters June 27, 2013 - 2:41am

It should be pointed out that real world magic is almost always something anyone can use.

Take prayer for example. Anyone can call on God to fix whatever problem they need fixing. However, it's extremely unreliable (depending on who you ask) since God doles it out as He (or She) sees fit.

Even in animist religions where the shaman, witch doctor, priest, etc, has to be born with the power to commune with spirits, the magic itself, i.e. talismans, potions, wards, etc, can be used by anyone.

Then you have magical traditions such as Kabbalah, Houdou, some forms of Wicca, LaVey-style Satanism, and others. Basically these traditions believe that with the right (secret) knowledge and a little (or a lot) of willpower anyone can alter reality to suit their whims.

I find it highly interesting that, in contrast, most fictional work that involves magic, seems to gravitate toward the elitist magic-only-works-for-the-gifted model.

Lucas Valente's picture
Lucas Valente from Brazil is reading Five Weeks in a Balloon July 4, 2013 - 5:50pm

I'd love to see a world where anyone can use magic in some way, some magic more massive but weak, others more strange and personal, also the incredible and powerful few. As a long term RPG player, and like many in such context, i love the possibility of a story with the classic D&D group (Cleric, Wizard, Thief and Warrior), at least half-well magically equipped.

I mean, i'm not sure if it's just me, but i've always had the impression that magic in scenarios like the Middle-Earth is quite decadent, it once was an incredible power that moved the world but in the present time of the story it's fading away, in such way, that the elves, being the magical race that they are, have to leave the Middle-Earth simply to retain their eternal life.

I'm not saying that Gandalf for example is weak! Tolkien is incredibly skilled in showing otherwise without having Gandalf throwing fireballs all around, his mere presence is magical and imposing. But it's like in Star Wars, the Jedi Order of Episode I (as awful as i think it is as a movie) pales in comparison with the Jedi of the Old Republic.

I see the lure that the "declining of power" story line has, even more when the intention is to make the point of how much can humans throw away by mere greed, arrogance or other negative emotions. It seems that it's in the bleakest of times that an author can best explore the dephts of it's characters.

I can't stop wondering about the other way around, a scenario where magic is being discovered, or re-discovered, a world where it blasted into existence, for anyone to see, untamed, wild and uncontrollable, as the characters struggle with the lure of such power and the catastrophes it can wreak.