Magic for Beginners: 5 Tips for Fantasy Writers

I make my living as a freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction, and as such, I've seen a whole lot of freshman fantasy efforts. 

It's not uncommon for fans of SFF to try their hand at writing it without giving a whole lot of thought to the craft of fiction, just as it's not uncommon for fans of comics to try their hand at drawing one without having invested in art classes. To my mind, that's part of the beauty of these forms—they're egalitarian, and creators still largely come to them by way of voracious fandom.

But beware, young magic users: fearsome chimerae will arise if you don't observe the following precepts. Because there are certain things that good storytelling requires, regardless of genre—and many ways that magic, if wielded carelessly, will cause your freshman effort to fail.

1. Magic Needs Rules

A magic system, like a game, is really no more than the system of rules that govern it. Those rules might dictate that a magic user can levitate objects at a distance, which will no doubt come in super handy during your next big battle scene. But if you don't take the time to define the rule that limits that power, your reader will be asking questions like, "If Xerlius can levitate rocks, why not boulders? And if he can do it from fifty feet away, why not a mile? And hey, wouldn't this whole thing be a lot easier if he just picked up Sir Galador and dropped him on his ass?"

Magic needs rules. Moreover, novels that contain magic need to reveal those rules, directly or via implication, sooner rather than later. Because if you don't set some clear limits on your characters' powers toward the beginning of your book, you'll find yourself inventing rules as needed later on to keep your hero from too handily overcoming every challenge. ("But Xerlius, it seems you've forgotten that your powers don't work on those wearing magic chain mail!") 

Maybe magic in your world can't cross running water. Maybe it runs in the family but skips a generation. Maybe it's boosted by the presence of trees and nixed by the presence of iron. Whatever your rules are, think carefully through their implications, establish them early on—and then play by those rules for the rest of the novel, or your reader will cry foul.

2. Magic Isn't Always the Answer

Hey, I get it—magic is fun! You can use it to fold time and space, find lost objects, make people or things look like other people or other things, even wash the dishes. But if you're not careful, you can easily wind up like the sorcerer's apprentice, with all that fun spinning out of control.

Good fiction is about people facing tough situations, getting stuck between a rock and a hard place, and being pushed in ways that force them to use every tool at their disposal to overcome these challenges. If having access to magic makes things too easy for your protagonist, your novel will lack the essential tension and suspense that is basically the gluten in the bread of fiction. Without it, your book will fall apart.

Also: every time your protagonist gets stuck between a rock and hard place and figures out a way out of it, via smarts, muscle, intuition, sex appeal, or what have you, you've revealed character, another essential element of fiction. Generally speaking, you can't do that if every problem in your story is solved with the wave of a wand.

3. Less Is More 

Magic is a power, no less than technology, and power has everything to do with who rules, who is ruled, and what the long-standing conflicts in your world may be.

Sure, there are fantasy novels in which magic is used on nearly every page (those of J.K. Rowling and Lev Grossman come to mind). But personally speaking, the magic I find most convincing is the magic that isn't always in the open—the magic that is mysterious, the stuff of myth and legend that may just be real.

Ursula K. Le Guin's Gifts is a great example. In this book, magical abilities are handed down through the ruling families of various clans, in a territory reminiscent of the old-school Scottish Highlands.

One family possesses the ability to maim with a look; another can communicate with animals. All of these clans are engaged in power struggles with one another, but you don't see people getting their legs twisted out from under them, or being attacked by raging beasts, left and right. In this world, merely knowing what the members of another clan are capable of is enough to affect alliances and machinations, plots and counterplots. 

Another example is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Here the magic is more overt, but again, it's not as if you've got magical showdowns (or even magical dishwashing) on every page. This allows for much subtler and (to my mind) more wondrous uses of magic, such as illusory ships that might turn the tide in a (otherwise mundane) war.

Too often, newbie fantasy authors overuse magic, and they often do so as a substitute for the more difficult work of worldbuilding. Don't get so caught up in the thrill of spellcraft that you neglect the bigger picture.

4.  Consider the Implications

Another thing I see is that new writers of fantasy often haven't considered the ways that magic may have shaped their world, culturally, sociologically, and politically. 

For instance, if magic users are scarce in your world—if it's a rare gift, or arcane knowledge—it stands to reason that the ruling class would seek to control such people (or perhaps magic users are the ruling class). On the other hand, if magic is common, it might be those who've found a way to negate the effects of magic, protecting themselves from it, who long ago gained the upper hand. 

If magic spells can't cross running water, perhaps the ruling dynasty's castle was built a thousand years ago on an island in the middle of a river. If all beasts can speak, and they speak to each other, farmers might know what's going on in far flung lands—or, at least, they might know as much as the birds know. If moonstones magnify the user's magic, you can bet that wars have been fought over the lands where moonstones are found.

Magic is a power, no less than technology, and power has everything to do with who rules, who is ruled, and what the long-standing conflicts in your world may be. Once you've established the rules regarding magic in your world, make sure you consider what the implications of those rules might have been over the long term.

5. Magic: More than a Weapon

That said, I've seen enough of sorcerers blasting away at each other with energy, like magic is no more than a kind of directed-energy weapon you control with your hands. Sure, everybody does it. But as far as I'm concerned, this lacks imagination, in a genre that's supposed to be defined by imagination—and if I'm sick of seeing it, there are no doubt a lot of agents and acquisitions editors who feel the same.

There's shape-shifting, telepathy, empathy, visions of the future, magical familiars, and objects both blessed and cursed—and those are just the obvious examples. Dig deeper into the truly weird mythic traditions that are the origins of story itself, and you'll find far stranger things: magical servants who might just be insane, trees that used to be people, reincarnated mystics who can travel in space and time, sentient mountains, wizard poets, a single word that will make you one with the mind of God.

The list of truly weird magic to be found in myth and folklore goes on and on, and given a little imagination, any of the items on this list could become stranger still.


All right, fantasy fans, it's your turn. What are your favorite forms of magic? And what are your biggest pet peeves? 

Image of Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore Book 1)
Manufacturer: HMH Books for Young Readers
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Image of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Manufacturer: Bloomsbury USA
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Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she was born and raised in rural west Michigan and spent fourteen years in the high country of Arizona before moving to Portland, Oregon, where she has served as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications since 2010. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a 2017 Gold IPPY Award; her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in more than thirty journals and anthologies. She enjoys mysterious books, strange weather, thinking machines, and sketchy characters.

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Comments

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal July 12, 2017 - 10:45am

I think #1 is only true sometimes. After all, what exactly were the rules of Gandalf's magic?

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa July 16, 2017 - 12:07pm

I'm glad you asked about Gandalf's magic. Here's a link to a fine discussion about it: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/29164/what-are-gandalfs-powers