Magic is one of the foundations of the Fantasy genre. From the subtle manipulation of butterflies in the Lord of the Rings to the epic showdown in Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows (part 2, for movie-go-ers). But not all magic is created equal. Let’s have a look at the different functions of magic in stories.
How to look at magic
Magic in a story is a way to set it apart from non-fantasy stories. Magic makes things possible that are normally not possible. Depending on how you employ it, it creates certain effects in the story. Specifically, there are two elements of a story that you can apply magic to: plot/characters and setting. Magic can play a smaller or larger role in either one of these.
If you take a look at Alice in Wonderland, for example, then the setting is very magical, but the main character, Alice, is not. The Dresden Files is the opposite, where the setting is normal Chicago, but the main character is a magician. The balance of magic among these elements is an important factor in the effect it has on your story.
Magic and plot/character
I’ve discussed the hero’s journey before. It refers to ‘magic’ in several. If you look at Harry Potter, Star Wars: A New Hope, and other coming-of-age stories, magic can be part of the protagonist’s journey. He or she can be chosen or gifted and has to learn to control or use their magic powers. In this case, magic is used as part of the conflicts in the story. The antagonist will often be a powerful magician themselves (Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader) that can only be overcome if the hero masters the magic.
If magic is an integral part of the character arc, it’s should also be a part of the plot and vice versa. This logically follows from the marriage of plot and characters I discussed last week. To apply magic in conflicts like this, it will need to follow rules. Rules that the reader gets to know before the plot is resolved by that magic. Brandon Sanderson came up with Sanderson’s first law regarding this:
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
I think this rule is actually more general: conflict can only be resolved in a way that the reader could have come up with themselves (but preferably does not see coming). If a writer doesn’t set up proper rules, plot resolutions by magic will feel like Deus ex Machina. If a writer does set up proper rules, the readers will feel that the resolution is valid, because they feel they could have seen it coming. Magic isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for a writer, it is a tool, and a difficult one to master at that.
Magic and Setting
If instead of using the magic as part of the conflict, you only want to instill wonder in a reader, magic is one way to do that, but then it should not be an integral part of the character arcs and plot. In this case, the viewpoint characters, and thus the reader, should not understand how the magic works. Take the Wizard of Oz for example, where Dorothy is awed by the great wizard. That is, until she looks behind the curtain, and finds that he’s a con-man. Or again, Alice in Wonderland, where Alice journeys through a magical land of which she does not understand the rules.
Lord of the Rings does this the other way around. It instills fear of an ominous almost-all-powerful evil. There is no explanation of how magic works in the Lord of the Rings, or about Sauron’s powers, or Gandalf’s powers. There are no clear rules, but one: the ring of power needs to be thrown into mount doom to defeat Sauron’s magic. The story would have been vastly different if Frodo had been Gandalf’s apprentice, learning the wizard trade, and Sauron would have been much less frightening if we knew how his powers worked because of this.
Fantasy is the genre of magical worlds, at least in the minds of a lot of people. However, there are a lot of different ways of applying magic to setting. Look at a Song of Ice and Fire, where magic has greatly affected the world, but in subtle ways, and the magic itself is as gritty as the characters. The conflict is mostly driven by characters struggling for power, and not magic. Contrast that to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight archive, where magic has shaped the world, the characters, and given rise to the epic conflicts that drive the story. Then there are stories placed in our own world, where magic plays only a small part. Here we enter the realm of urban fantasy and magical realism. A story like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is about a magical world that exists inside contemporary London. Sometimes the setting is in the past, but with magic on top, like Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. The possibilities are endless.
Of course, it can be done badly as well. Magic is often a game-changer. Depending on the way it is set up, it will greatly affect the story world.
For example, imagine a world where the Romans discovered a magic that allowed them to talk instantaneously over long distances (like the Palantiri in the Lord of the Rings). This would greatly simplify administration of the Roman Empire. It would make them far more effective at warfare. The empire might not have collapsed. No end to the Roman Empire means no dark ages, no crusades, no renaissance, no Napoleon, no world wars, and so on. The world would be a completely different place. A story set in a world where the Romans had this magic would need to be vastly different from our own, or it should explain these things somehow. A writer can get away with some of this, but not a lot, which makes fantasy a tricky genre to write in.
Magic is a staple of Fantasy stories. A tool that writers can use to shape their plots and settings. The possibilities are endless, but the pitfalls are as well.
In short, magic: use with care.