The Substance of Magic in Fiction

What is magic? A working general definition goes something like this: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

The Rules

But from there on the field is wide open. There are so many ways to interpret the “rules” of magic and how it fits into a world. So many different authors have tackled the concept of a fantastic, reality-altering force. From Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series to the The Kingkiller Chronicles of Patrick Rothfuss, every author has a different system and set of rules for how magic should work in their own enclosed world. In magical realism novels like the works of Sarah Addison Allen, the very existence of magic may become a central theme. The inclusion of supernatural forces is much more subtle, yet they still serve an important purpose in moving the story along.

Magic in fiction is a device used to further the plot. If it's not doing that, then you may want to evaluate its inclusion in your story.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America published some guidelines by Patricia C. Wrede way back in 1996. They offer a few questions for authors to ask as they build their own brand of magic. A few of them include:

  • What is the price magicians must pay in order to be magicians?
  • Where does magic power come from: the gods, the “mana” of the world, the personal willpower of the magician?
  • What do you need to do to cast a spell — design an elaborate ritual, recite poetry, mix the right ingredients in a pot?

The Price

To keep things interesting, magic often incurs a cost of some kind from the user, even if it's only years of study or effort. If anyone in the story could do as they pleased without any obstruction, the author would have nothing left to create dramatic friction with. As a result, magic is a trade or a switch; to produce one thing, some sacrifice must be made on the magician's end. Sometimes the repercussions are physical, sometimes they're psychological. 

Magic and Class

Who is worthy of practicing magic is another question that warrants some examination. Perhaps magic is accessible to the general hoi polloi. Maybe it's a natural force, like air or water, something that's difficult to limit to a particular social class, or perhaps performing magic requires supplies that exclude its use to the wealthy. Either way, those limitations can be honed further still. If everyone can use magic, what prevents people from wand dueling in the streets? If only the aristocracy has an in, is there some way that peasants are getting a foot in the door? Is there a underground magic market?

It's easy to establish a broad working definition of what magic is to the general populace, but it means something slightly different to writers. In a writer's hands, magic becomes a tool. To keep it short and sweet, magic in fiction is a device used to further the plot. If it's not doing that, then you may want to evaluate its inclusion in your story.

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Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a bibliophile and bookseller from the frigid North Shore of Massachusetts. A graduate of the journalism program at UMass Amherst, she spends her spare time blogging about books (of course), history, politics, and events in the Boston area. Occasionally, she spits out something resembling fiction, and has previously served as a contributor to Steampunk Magazine. She collects typewriters and old novels and laments the fact that her personal library has outgrown her apartment.

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Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 31, 2016 - 8:26pm

I think Sanderson's 3 laws of magic (or future-tech) is the best set of guidelines I've seen.