Magic Defined…Or Not

Magic and fantasy. That’s a couple whose relationship is as common as love and romance, science and sci-fi, murder and mystery…

My much younger, Photoshopped self caught-up in fantasy and magic.

My much younger, Photoshopped self caught-up in fantasy and magic.

For me, magic is another element that enriches the fantasy world. It possesses different looks, its place in the forefront or background varying with each writer. As a reader, if it’s placed front and center at the story’s expense I respond with rolled eyes and a sarcastic remark mourning lost plot and wincing at the textbook approach. If it’s too far in the background my suspended belief withers.

Magic is another element like maps, histories, and cultural facts that I work hard to create for my fantasy world, but utilize sparingly. A tool created to enhance the story, not rule it.

A tool that also requires consistency.

We’ve all encountered our own horror stories:

  • The character who shows virtually no ability for the entire book and then demonstrates near god-like talents that render all other powers in the universe useless.
  • The character who utilizes magic with no side effects, but then has side effects, but then doesn’t have them again.
  • The character who gains powers and loses them as needed to move the plot along.
  • The author who can’t resist naming one magical element after another until I suspect they possess no substance.

I’m sure I could summon other examples that are my personal irritations. Too, how much I allow such offenses to slide depends on the book’s overall quality.

This is how I slip it in when my protagonist has an encounter with the one wizard she holds dear…

The door above opened and closed. Footfalls upon the stairs. Palladon sat beside her and rolled his shoulders. “I assured the parents you were correct in your diagnosis.” Ergain’s small hand disappeared into the tall wizard’s grasp and additional strength flooded her system. “You’ve overextended your gift again and allowed a saturation imbalance to drain lifeforce.”

A laughed sputtered, but its brief life died on her lips and she shook her head instead. “Dear Genessa, only a wizard would explain exhaustion in such a way.”

Palladon nodded through his smile. “A terrible tragedy has befallen this home and, more specifically, the girl, but it should not have drained you so utterly since no cure exists.”

Ergain straightened her back, but refused to meet his gaze. “I simply returned the girl to her parents for a short time to allow for the proper parting words.”

He mulled her explanation and nodded again, though both bushy brows arched in skepticism. “I see. Of course, this simple act, as you’ve referred to it, was in reality you setting a healing ward about the mysquanmic concentration to temporarily contain it.” Ergain remained mute through an awkward silence. “Few possess the skill to perform such an act, an act that was a compassionate one.”

She reached for her bag. “It was the least I could do in the face of such unfairness.”

It’s their already-established relationship, his concern, her denial, and her anger that move the passage, but…

Hey, wait a minute, there’s some big words in there!

There sure are, but they’re all explained amidst the story’s progression and most of these are known before this passage. Though wizards tend towards haughty language, scenes such as this one are rare. Still, I’ll play fair…

  • Gift, as it’s used here is simply possessing magic. The degree is irrelevant.
  • Saturation imbalance is a big one with a simple explanation: it’s when the gifted overextends their gift and must pull from their lifeforce to make up the difference.
  • Lifeforce is a that which powers sentient beings. I have it. You have it. George Washington, Gandhi, and Napoleon Bonaparte did have it, but no longer.
  • A Healing ward sets a barrier between a concentrated ill and the host.
  • Mysquanmic is the term wizards prefer to magic. They’re magic scholars, after all. It’s derived from the word mysquan, which is a blue mineral that holds spells exceptionally well while retaining their full power for an extended period.


The bottom line is that because these terms are defined I don’t become confused when utilizing them. At the same time, it’s more entertaining to learn them via passages like the above rather than my mini glossary. Better to spend time with your romantic interest to learn more about them then to read a dry dissertation.

Developing all this took considerable time and even more trial-and-error, for I had to debug the magic in my world time and again when inconsistencies surfaced. It’s a lot of work and often frustrating, but it’s worth it if a writer decides to delve deep into magic’s operation. Many don’t—perhaps most—but that’s okay if they don’t flaunt a faulty system.

11 Replies to “Magic Defined…Or Not”

  1. You are right. Magic in fantasy, like technology in sci-fi, can be a sticky wicket with story telling. When used well it’s an amazing story-telling tool with all sorts of delcious implication and the potential to generate motivation. When it’s used as a get-out clause for real storytelling however, i flinch and put the book aside. It needs to supplement and inform the narrative, but not be at the expense of it, just like you’ve said here. Generally I’m not a fan just because I’ve seen it used poorly so many times, but I like the way Robin Hobb uses it in The Farseer Trilogy and the way you use it in these passages, so I now it’s possible. I know I’m missing out, in fact, and would be interested to hear any recomendations you might have for writers or series that have magic in them, but use it well to enrich their world and narrative 🙂

    • Loved your comment. I think I flinched anew when I recalled those moments from the past. If the book was good to that point I’d cringe and declare, “What? No, no, no…!” Robin Hobb writes The Farseer in first-person so the challenges are tackled differently, but still boil down to the same essentials.

      One essential you mentioned: using a character’s ability as a get-out clause. Why is it that one time we’re excited for the character when they utilize their talent and at another we’re appalled? It’s about how the writer sets up the moment. Was the ability mentioned earlier or at least foreshadowed? I prefer, as a writer, to slip necessary information in early and multiple times. Too, if the character has an epiphany and summons a previously unrealized ability the seeds should have been planted long ago! The reader’s reaction then is either, “I knew it!” or “Oh wow, I should have seen that coming!”

      Another essential is aforementioned consistency. You’ve jogged my brain and so I’ll add that it’s also important to demonstrate consistency. If there’s a danger tied to an ability it must be shown or mentioned before a critical event. This also helps add tension (it also serves to puncture the tension balloon if that danger mysteriously disappears).

      Last, I’ll mention what I’ll call “weave.” The magic MUST be woven so thoroughly into the story that it cannot be separated. These people were raised in a culture with magic. It’s either casual conversation (if condoned) or discussed in hushed tones (if condemned)…perhaps both depending on who’s present. Of course, casual conversation differs from explaining. That said, I’ll mention that casual means different things to different characters. In sci-fi a ship’s designer would discuss transport differently than a passenger.

  2. Great post. I worry about my magic system because I’m trying to show that magic is common place in my world. Characters with powerful magic casually levitate things to them while talking or fire runs along their arms when they get mad. Others show no restraint about using a spell to help with an every day event like cleaning something or cooking. It’s really hard to find that balance between magic being present and magic being too much.

    • You’re exactly right and your concerns are the correct ones to have. The scary stories are those where the writer didn’t have those worries—and it shows. One area where I have difficulty is patience. When I first became serious about writing I wanted to explain everything right away, I wanted the reader to know everything I knew. As my writing progressed I became more aware as a reader and found I more admired those writers who eased me into “their system.” Those who did a “mind dump” on me early left me overwhelmed and then I’d forget half the information anyway.

      Sometimes bringing magic in through the backdoor is a more subtle and effective means to educate the reader. When my protagonist first uses her ability it’s overshadowed by the news she receives at the same time. The second time comes right before the exert in my post when emotions are running high and the tragedy she’s witnessing overshadows her efforts.

      Still, you’re right that the correct balance is difficult to achieve. I’ve scrapped more writing than I care to recall because it felt forced. Thank you so much for the comment, Charles.

      • I kind of did a few mind dumps when I introduced magic. The casters had to explain themselves to those that didn’t understand. I found that it’s a hazard of writing in present tense. I can’t really use narration to explain things, so I have to use dialogue to keep the flow going. Otherwise, it comes off as everyone freezing for a bodiless narrator to do something. One of these days I have to think up a book where the character messes with the narration. Just for laughs.

        • That’s funny. Now I’m visualizing the characters standing around waiting for the narrator to speak or jumping when the disembodied voice begins. It’s tricky to convey information in a fantasy, to be sure. I write in 3rd, Past and there are times when I simply have to convey information via the narration, especially early in the story. When I do I restrict it to 1-2 sentences, if possible. I know that’s “telling,” but you have to strike a balance between that and having the story bog down because you’re inventing situations for the reader to learn “the rules” or you’re creating unreal dialogue. That balance is also magic. I tried writing in 1st, Present recently and it was a disaster. It isn’t my cup of tea and the experiment showed me that we each have a particular voice.

          • I naturally gravitate toward present, but with 3rd person omnipresent. It’s worked out for me so far even though traditionalists tend to cry at the mention of it. I’ve done my explanations through characters asking and others answering. It always struck me as odd that warriors never asked a wizard how magic worked. It was always played off that they didn’t care, but at least one warrior has to be curious.

          • I agree that there should be a warrior who’s interested. My word, there ought to be warriors who are interested in more than fighting. Though they may have many similar traits, they aren’t all the same.

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