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July 26, 2011


Throwdown: Magic and Fantasy

Posted by on Jul 26, 2011

One of the core elements of fantasy is that it contains the fantastical. What could be more fantastical than the inhuman powers of magic wielded by the denizens of the universe? Magic is often found in fantasy books, although its provenance varies widely. In some universes, magic is an innate ability of certain people; in others it is merely the ability to bend wild forces of the universe to one’s will. What cannot be disputed is that magic has a significant effect on the worlds in which it exists.

When authors write magic into their books, they have to make a choice about how much of a factor it will be. Whether this choice is made consciously or not, it must be made, and it can make a big difference in how well the universe holds together. Magic, poorly incorporated, can result in instances of the Superman Problem, and, in doing so, cheapen the quality of an otherwise good book. I’m not bashing magic here. I’m saying that the way an author treats magic makes a huge difference in how well the constructed world holds up.

I see two ways that the use of magic differs from universe to universe: the extent of its power and whether it’s structured. In terms of power, magic can either be powerful or limited. That magic is limited doesn’t necessarily mean it has no power, just that it doesn’t play a major role in the universe. The inverse is when magic represents a central element in the universe and is generally an engine of forward plot momentum. The other variable, the structure of magic, has two possible modes: occult or transparent. Occult magic is unexplained: the power exists but it is not clear how it is controlled. Transparent magic is understood by the reader: there is some explicit mechanism for controlling the forces of magic.

The combination of these two attributes creates four possibilities for the role that magic takes in the world. Without further ado:

Occult, but Limited

These are the stories that feature the struggles of men and women; the prime example is The Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth is a land of magic, not least displayed in the figure of Gandalf, but this magic does not shape the world. While Gandalf certainly has power of a sort, power which is most definitely occult and unexplained, he does not have the power to solve the problems that face them; he cannot drive the story forward. At the end of the Third Age, the magic of Middle Earth  is mysterious, but limited, and thus cannot help the Fellowship in its quest.

Yeah, he's got magic, but he still loses this one.

What magic there is in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is also of this type. While there are occasional displays of magical power, the armies that contend for the throne are not comprised of mages. When magic occurs, it can be powerful in the extreme (as those who have read the second book will know), but it does not shape the course of events.

Joe Abercromie takes an interesting tack on this paradigm in The First Law Trilogy. There are very few magic users and those that do exist are very powerful, with one caveat: the use of magic physically drains the wielder. At one point the greatest wizard in the world kills 20 men, and is rendered unconscious for two weeks as a result. There’s power there, but its use itself is dangerous.

This technique of dealing with magic basically boils down to this: don’t really explain how it works, but don’t make it a big part of the story either.

Transparently Powerful

In contrast to the previous paradigm, when Rand al Thor of The Wheel of Time wields Callandor, he can literally rip the world asunder. The One Power features prominently in The Wheel of Time - the entire plot is focused around its use. That’s the powerful part, and it’s unquestionable. However, the use of magic is also unquestionably explained; the 5 disparate elements that comprise it, the weaves that are made from those elements, and the angreal that enhances the magic’s power all are detailed at great length.

Mistborn also features magic of this type: that is, powerful but understood. Mistborn (magic wielding individuals) derive power from the ‘burning’ of certain metals (Author’s note: this is one of the more innovative forms of magic I have encountered, so you should check it out if you haven’t read the series). Here there are 16 different metals and each causes a different effect; tin enhances vision, while pewter bolsters physical strength, and so on.

The effect of a paradigm where magic is strong but operates transparently (at least to the reader) is that it is effectively limited. The metals of Mistborn are consumed over time, and you can’t carry a limitless supply of them. The ‘spells’ of the One Power are weaves, and while they can be very powerful, to use them you have to be able to create the weave and that is no easy feat (it’s like me trying to knit socks). Magical abilities operate within a strict framework, and while they can be powerful in the extreme, they must be explicable through that framework.

Occult and Strong

Which one is this again?

The final combination of consequence is best represented in the popular canon by Harry Potter. Magic is a huge part of the world and can do things of incredible power – think Voldemort’s death curse or the shield the professors erect to protect Hogwarts in the final hours. It is definitely a prime driver of the story. However, the magic of Harry Potter is also shrouded in mystery – what makes a wizard a wizard? Why are some spells hard to cast and others easy? Why do wizards sometimes need to speak the spell and at other times they need only flick their wrists? If two wizards duel, what decides who wins? All of these questions about the innards of magic go unexplained.

Transparently Limited

I’m not really going to address the case of limited and transparent magic. It’s rare to see in the literature and by its limited nature affects the story very little. Suffice it to say that it’s a world in which the reader knows how magic works, but it has little bearing on the events that take place.


Okay, so what gives? I would argue that authors of fantasy stories should be careful to operate within the bounds of one of the first two paradigms, because the third leaves one susceptible to the Superman Problem. Essentially, in the case of both limited occult magic and transparently powerful magic, its power is constrained by a set of rules.

In the first case, it’s either simply that the magic doesn’t factor significantly into the universe or that the side effects of magic prevent it from playing a major role.

In the second case, the very facts of magic that lend it transparency to the reader also circumscribe the boundaries of what it can do. Rand al Thor might be able to blast whole castles into oblivion with balefire, but he can’t fly. If Jordan (or Sanderson) wanted him to fly, they’d have to establish a method for him to do so within the confines of how the One Power works.

A paradigm where magic is both occult and strong places no limitations on how magic can be used. That’s a dangerous temptation for an author because it can lead them into tricky situations where the only option is escalation. It’s the Superman problem again.

Imagine your favorite character gets into a bind, and they’re locked in a prison cell; not a problem, they’ll just use magic to open the lock. Now, later, you capture an evil wizard but you can’t just lock him up since we’ve established magic can open locks without explaining how. So this time we’ll put a magical shield over him that prevents him from escaping. And when this happens to our protagonist? You guessed it – he’s immune to kryptonite all of a sudden.

Since there are no (or few) established rules about how magic works, it becomes all too easy to invent new magical solutions as the need arises. That makes for poor stories, because while you never know what’s going to happen, you always know that the deus ex machina of magic will jump in to save the day. Authors don’t need to spend time considering the consequences of what they write because magic always holds the trump card. This makes for contrived situations and absurd extrications from those situations.

So if you’re planning on writing a fantasy novel, make sure you think hard about how you deal with magic – because otherwise you’ll do your story no favors before you even get started.

[Editor's note:  Since publishing this article, the fine folks at Reddit have brought it to our attention that Brandon Sanderson himself has written an article on this very topic, making many of the same points that Chris does.  This has led us to the belief that Chris is a genius and should write awesome fantasy novels of his own.]

  • Third

    I think it’s interesting how the value of magic in a fantasy novel really boils down to the reader’s awareness of how much it can effect the story. In the end, the question becomes how well magic is integrated into the overall narrative experience. I’m a big fan of the Dresden Files series of novels; basically think hard-boiled detective novels with a wizard as the detective. One of the best things about the books is how the main character and narrator, Harry Dresden, describes exactly what he’s doing whenever he pulls out his magic, whether it’s small-time charms or big-time fire balls. And he always explains the limits as well, but that’s what makes it dramatic. He’ll say something like, “So trying to block this enormous firewall that this vampire is shooting at me might cause my hand to melt off – but I’m going to do it anyway.” It makes him a bad-ass, and makes the books highly enjoyable.

  • Crioca

    When creating a persistent fantasy world, I believe there are two truly fundamental problems that any system of magic *must* avoid. The first as you said, is the superman problem (which for me, was best embodied by Pug of Fiest’s Midkemia books), and the second is the limitation of consistency, wherein a creator of fantasy works sets up a limit for their magic in order to prevent premature conflict resolution, and then later is hamstrung by that same limitation when facing a new challenge. The creator has the choice to either retcon or take the jarring step of simply breaking what was apparently a hard rule. Either step does not say much for the consistency of the world and tears the suspension of disbelief into shreds.

    To create a believable system of magic requires the creation of and adherence to, axioms. Logical statements which are assumed always to be true. The trick is to create axioms which are significant enough to create meaningful limits when it comes to magic, but broad enough that they will not hamstring future developing challenges.

    • Chris

      Yeah exactly – it’s amazing how many people fail to do that though. Pug is a good example – I had forgotten about Feist when I was writing this. I think he eventually stopped having Pug be a major character because he just couldn’t deal with him anymore.