Magic – Part 1

Although I’ve mentioned magic in most of my blogs, I’ve been a bit remiss in writing specifically about this element of fantasy fiction.  Why else do people read fantasy if not for the magic; that chance of the impossible, the enticement of a character doing something us ordinary mortals can only dream of?  But magic is not just one single thing, it is incredibly complex and in the real world what we think of as magic has morphed and changed through the ages.  If you were to look at electricity, modern medicine, aircraft, X-rays, nuclear power, etc. through the eyes of a person 150 or more years ago, your concept of magic would be quite different.  Knowledge and science takes away the magic from  the modern reader.

However, there is still plenty of magic to be had.  No matter what perspective you intend to draw into your work, be it historical, contemporary or otherworldly, your readers just need to be able to believe that the magic is “real” in that world.  But this can be the tricky bit.  Simply having a character stand up and throw a few lightning bolts around is all very entertaining, but where does the magic come from and what can they do with it?  We need to understand this as part of the story and that magical character’s development – whether it’s revealed right from the outset or is fed to the reader in bits and pieces as the mystery is gradually unveiled.  Many great fantasy writers create a unique form of magic  that they have derived from a more familiar form of magic, such as a person having the unintentional ability to time travel in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife or the supposedly ‘dead’ wood of a ship coming to life in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy.  You could try using some of the creativity techniques from my blog ‘Writer’s block’ to help create and expand on an idea for magic based on an older one, and I will look at other areas of real world inspiration in Part 2 of this blog.

But for now, as you start to form the type (or types) of magic you wish to have in your story, try asking yourself the following questions to help round it out and make it more ‘believable’ for your readers:

  • Where does the magic come from?  – I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is a key question.  Even if you only casually allude to where the magic comes from, there is a greater sense of satisfaction in knowing a little bit about its origins, whether the magic is very new or ancient.  For example, while reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings did you wonder where the darker power of the ring came from?  And how did you feel when you discovered that it came directly from the central villain Sauron in an effort to control people who wore the other rings?  Giving this type of background context to the magic helps to deepen and add new dimensions to your story.
  • What are the boundaries of this magic?  – Constraints on magic can provide an assortment of interesting difficulties and challenges.  What if the wielder of the magic has no control over it, or is reluctant to delve too deep or has actually plunged so far into the magic that they will be lost?  Even if you have a character who seems to have no qualms about or constraints upon their magic, there’s always going to be something that’s just a bit too much for them to do or to overcome (whether it’s magical or not), otherwise they’ll essentially be invincible, which may not help if they happen to be the bad guy and you’re trying to wrap up the story.  Magic is always that little bit more alluring if it has an Achille’s heel to watch out for.
  • Who or what will wield the magic? – The one able to perform the magic need not be a person.  It may be something inanimate, or godlike, or something spooky like a living fog.  There may even be another character pulling the strings of the wielder, feeding magic into them.
  • How will it be delivered? – Pointing a wand or muttering a spell is OK, but magic can be delivered in whatever way you wish.  For example, in my book Cry of the Elemental, the Elemental in the title delivers her form of magic through song, while the ‘bad guy’ in the same novel prefers to lick his fingers and use damp, direct touch.  Keep in mind that the delivery may also require tapping into some inner or external strength based on where the magic originates from – essentially all of these questions tend to link back to where the magic comes from.
  • What form will it take? – When the magic is released, can people see, smell, feel, touch, hear and/or sense it?  So if they can see it, what does it look like (and so on for the other senses)?  Giving the magic a shape means that the reader can now recognise it as it crops up again elsewhere in the book.  If the wielder heads for a bowl of water your readers then know the character is going to search for someone in the water again, or if there’s a cold air in the room that leaves the characters listless the reader will know magic caused by a specific wielder has occurred.
  • What does it feel like? – Making magic isn’t just a matter of saying “she raised her hands and fire burst from her fingertips”, there has to be a sensation with it that either tempts, exhilarates or repels the wielder.  When they call upon their magic (or it comes upon them involuntarily), what has brought them to this point, do they feel enraptured, drained or shamed while the magic is being released, and how do they feel when the magic is gone?  This helps the reader to understand the character better and to make sense of their form of magic.
  • What is the impact?  – No matter what form or function you wish the magic to take, what is the final outcome?  Is the frog now a prince?  Is the bad guy just a pile of dust?  Has the good guy put himself into danger?  Is there now a portal open to another world?  Who suffers and who wins?  What was discovered and what has been lost?

So that is Part 1 of “Magic”.  In the second instalment of this blog I will look at where you can get inspiration for different forms of magic from the real world, both ancient and modern.

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