No, not the magic of writing. Well, maybe a little of that. Mostly it’s the magic of your fantasy world. Come on – you know you’ve written that next Lord of the Rings fantasy epic. You’ve done away with Orcs (Orks) and Elves and come up with something completely new and fresh. You’ve got an epic hero, who while still being “the chosen one,” manages to break all the stereotypes of fantasy literature and maintain the mythic cycle. You’re sure that Joseph Campbell would be bouncing with delight at your clever five act novel. You know that Ed Greenwood has nothing on the intricate fantasy realm you’ve created.
But there’s a problem. Your magic isn’t internally consistent. You might not even know it’s a problem. You might think it’s just some awkward scenes. Maybe you let your D&D group read the piece and they’re scratching their heads about the difference between Sorcerers and Wizards. Or maybe it’s something deeper, more subtle yet intrinsic to the plot.
Magic is a very slippery slope for a writer. Once the die is cast (or spell, in this case) there is not going back. If you’ve introduced magic to your world, your novel cannot ignore it. No one would. A magic-rich setting changes all the dynamics as well. Suddenly there’s no need to plow the fields – magic can do it. Suddenly, everyone carries a magic sword; your flaming scimitar of ass-kicking isn’t so special anymore. In fact, if everyone is walking around with a magic sword, mighty swords like Excalibur and Stormbringer suddenly become less wondrous. Even the Sword of Omens (Thundercats ho!) becomes more of a trinket or gimmick if every character has a magic sword. By the way, who is making these magic swords? If every man in the Evil Count’s Army has one, there’s no time for the Wizards to be casting their magic spells to plow the fields. Which puts us right back to where we started from.
You begin to see the problems with magic as a storyteller.
Finally, there’s the worst mistake a writer can make with magic – the dreaded Deus Ex Machina! Yes, one must never rely on magic to wrap up your plot. We see it all too often. For example, when the Prophets from Star Trek Deep Space Nine intervene (for unknown, undisclosed and unrealistic reasons) by destroying a force of thousands of Jem Hadar starships – we can call this a writer’s cop out, or a Deus Ex Machina Moment. Don’t do that.
Be the master of the magic in your world, not vice versa. Here’s how:
- Be internally consistent: establish and understand the limitations of magic in your fiction setting. Stick to these limitations.
- What sort of magic is it? Pick one or many, but know them, the origins of your magical disciplines, how they function, how they fail and who can tap into this great power.
- Vulgar Magic: This is the showy, splashy fireball tossing magic of Tim the Enchanter from Money Python’s The Holy Grail, Elminster from the Forgotten Realms, Micky Mouse from Fantasia.
- High Magic: Gandalf is a great example of high magic; subtle, powerful, but almost incomprehensible in its workings. The Mad Wizard Dworkin from Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber is another good example. These mages and sorcerors require a keener sense of limits than in most fantasy pieces.
- Summoning and Sorcery: Elric of Melnibone is a sorcerer-king and summoner of spirits and fiends. Notice how, in Michael Moorcock’s fantasy setting that the act of summoning and parleying with fiends and spirits and demons always has a cost. This is a great (and fundamental) limitation.
Take the time look at these fantasy works and their use of magic. There’s no end, of course to the examples you can find but where ever you look, determine the limitations and capabilities of your world’s magic. If it’s part of the natural system, then do the laws of thermodynamics and energy conservation apply? How about inertia? These are petty details that will make your fantasy setting all the more real and believable because you’ve established an internally consistence cosmology. Trust me, I watch a lot of TV and read a lot of comics.