Magic defines the fantasy genre, but I have no fewer than nine problems with magic. Sure, you can have fantasy without magic, but some readers will feel cheated. How does magic affect the story? When does it add wonder and when is it simply plot armour?
The problems start with the kind of magic…
One: Too Generic
To engage your reader, magic has to be, well, magical. It has to feel special, important, awe-inspiring and, in some way, cool.
Magic that is too generic won’t cut it. Magic that’s been done to death – wishes, wands, abra-cadabra-mumbo-jumbo, cod-Latin incantations, the four elements – isn’t cool. It’s not impressive. It becomes ho-hum, seen-it-before, deathly dull. Where’s the twist? The unique spin? Where’s the Prestige?
Two: Too Specific
Contradictory it may be, I have an issue with Sanderson‘s magic systems. Allomancy in particular. You swallow metal and then you can invoke some dodgy physics to push or pull against metal around you. In Mistborn he has a whole magic-using community of Magneto’s from X-Men. In later books the magic gets even more complicated. Sanderson likes to take science as his jump-off point.
You can invent highly plausible magic systems this way. You can also disappear down a rabbit hole of detailed rationalisation. Magic isn’t rational. It’s not science.
The more detail you pour in, the less magical it becomes. And the reader gets bogged down in the detail.
Three: Not enough Rules
Here’s a question: how does magic work in The Lord of the Rings? I have no idea. It is the softest of soft magic systems. Gandalf has enough magic to take down a Balrog. How? No idea. How do the Palantri work? What’s the cost of magic to the user? What can the Witch-king do? What’s the hierarchy of magic between Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond?
Magic for Tolkien isn’t so much a system as a plot device. Do I care? As a casual reader, no.
Four: Too Many Rules
Back to Sanderson. He’s a gamer. He’s so far along a geek spectrum, he has to be able to codify everything. And then explain it. Endlessly. And I can’t remember all the rules.
Five: The Price of Magic
When there’s no cost, there are no stakes. Magic breaks and bends the rules of existence. All too often, your magic-user gets a free ride. The universe simply doesn’t work that way. What does the use of magic cost the user?
Here’s a couple of examples.
- Using up life energy; the user ages rapidly or becomes physically weak.
- Deal with the devil; use magic and someone close to you dies.
Bad magic systems throw vast amounts of pyrotechnics at no cost to the user. In the Wheel of Time, magic comes from ‘channeling’ the energy of the universe. Where does it come from? Is there an endless supply of magical energy?
Evidently there’s enough to wipe out entire armies and conquer whole continents. With enough left over to make you immortal.
Thanos collects some magical gee-gaws in the MCU, snaps his fingers and wipes out half the life in the universe. That’s some trick.
Six: Scarcity Value
What makes magic ‘magical?’ I don’t meant the fake magic of stage illusionists (sorry, spoiler). I mean the jaw-dropping awesomeness of actual magic that can bend, break or challenge the rules of reality.
Part of that comes from scarcity. The more rarer the magic, the more impressive it becomes.
If every Tom, Dick and Harry Potter can wield magic, that becomes part of the everyday fabric of the world. People being people, they will abuse it to self-advantage.
This is my issue with Harry Potter. In an entire society of magic users, people being people, there will be chaos. Ego, vanity, greed and hubris produce enough destruction in our own world. Now multiply that by the power of magic. People will try to evade, bend, or break the rules. You need a quasi-fascist police state to regulate all that magic. An entire school of magic-using children will turn to anarchy one second after lights-out. Yet somehow the majority of people stick to the rules until one wannabe dictator tears up the rule book.
But if you have only a handful of wizards and some vaguely magical creatures, magic remains magical and impressive.
Seven: Impact on Society
This is related to scarcity and scale. If a small group of people control all the magic, why don’t they just take over? In many stories they do. In others, there’s the threat of mutually-assured destruction and a cold war struggle for advantage.
Scarce but powerful magic will create an elite of super-beings. There’s no need for kings and governments when witches and wizards can exercise direct rule. This is why the Brotherhood’s dubious chess-games in The Witcher don’t work.
If magic is small scale and common-place, then said magic affects the way society operates and thinks of itself.
When magic gets too big and too dangerous, it wipes out civilisation.
Magic should affect important aspects of the fantasy world: government, religion, the economy, the military.
Any magical elite will take over because of privilege, narcissism, ambition and greed. And because they can incinerate any opposition.
Are magic users worshipped? Do they undermine conventional religion? Are they hounded and persecuted for their abilities? Are there trials and witch burnings?
How did King Midas deal with the inflationary pressures of all that gold? No idea. Do magic users indulge in economic warfare? Blight crops or make them super abundant? Create scarcity or glut? Monopolise markets or destroy them?
How does battle magic change military thinking? Does one wizard on the battlefield equate to a tank, a regiment or a tactical nuke? Does magic make conventional armies redundant or unstoppable?
Eight: Plot armour
This can include bending, breaking or ignoring aforementioned rules. Magic can turn the hero into a god, the villain into an incompetent fool. How often does the rookie magician pull some earth-shattering power from nowhere for the sake of the climax? How often does a tried-and-trusted power fail for the sake of a cliff-hanger or escalating stakes? See how many flimsy, manufactured excuses produce or suppress the magical rabbit in time of need, according to the plot?
Frequently magical solutions appear for a specific plot challenge and never feature again. An example? Hermione’s time-turner could have fixed so every problem in Harry Potter. Didn’t see that coming? Oh, just jump back and fix it.
This harks back to consistency in the rules of a given magic system. Rules are meant to be rules, not advisories.
The one thing the fantasy genre riffs on endlessly is the impact of magic on character. It makes the antagonists a bunch of arrogant a-holes and leaves the protagonists endlessly soul-searching the rights and wrongs of magical powers. Rarely do they discover they’re ‘special’ and join the ranks of the arrogant a-holes. Power and humility rarely go together. Selfless and benign use of magic just doesn’t fit with human nature.
Power corrupts. Magical power corrupts in magical ways.
Yet all too often, despite trials, suffering and loss, our magic-using protagonist emerges as ‘the one’ to save the world without a flicker of Messiah Complex.
Frank Herbert got it right in Dune. Tolkien got it right in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron, Saruman, Isildur, Denethor, the Nazgul: all corrupted by magic. Gandalf doesn’t dare try to carry the One Ring; Galadriel passes the test in one scary moment and retreats from it. The One Ring slowly eats away at Frodo’s resolve.
Elsewhere? It’s all pyrotechnics and teleportation. Without a care in the world.
What’s a Writer to do?
So what can the aspiring author do about these nine problems with magic? Here’s my strategy:
- decide on a hard or soft magic system
- work out the ‘rules’ of the system, even if those aren’t explicitly described in the story
- put it in the context of the fantasy world (government, religion, economy, military)
- question each and every use of said magic
- follow through the consequences of each use
- test for mis-use (plot armour)
For my fantasy series, my soft magic system is deliberately vague and thinly described. I don’t want the reader to dwell on the mechanics, only on the outcome. There are no explicit boundaries to trip over. It preserves some mystery. And I can escalate powers or invent new ones as I go without having to reset my entire magic system.
Magic in my world creates suspense, tension and a little bit of a ‘wow’ factor. Low-key and localised, I’m not blowing s*** up every five pages. Now that’s magic.