If you haven’t read my previous posts on building a fantasy fiction world, you’ve missed out on discussions about using geography to support your story, integrating the history of your fantasy world without resorting to large information dumps, and creating dynamic inter-character relationships by developing cultural factors like race, religion, government and social mores. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fantasy world without magic.
Much like methods for world-building, how a writer handles magic generally falls somewhere between two poles: a system of extensive rules or no explanation whatsoever. Unlike world-building, where you can find a happy medium somewhere along the continuum, if you stray too far from the poles with magic, you’ll end up with confused and dissatisfied readers.
Rules provide consistency
Creating a system of rules does not mean turning your story into a RPG sourcebook. Establishing distinct boundaries provides consistency to the use of magic, and prevents the writer from creating a deus ex machina. Factors to consider include:
- Who possesses/uses magic and who doesn’t or can’t
- What is the source of magic
- How do the people that use magic access it
- What are the limits of magic
The SFWA has a lengthy (if not exhaustive) list of questions to ask yourself regarding magic and world-building.
I use two different systems of magic in the Chronicles of Jord. Dragon magic is a collection of destructive, manipulative spells and rituals. It corrupts those who use it, is forbidden by religious law and feared by the general populace.
The other type of magic comes in the form of specific powers granted by the blessings of Jord. I have yet to fully develop the rules for this system, as it doesn’t become a factor until the second book in the series.
The movie Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, centered on a fantastical event, wherein the author of a novel (played by Thompson) unknowingly takes control of the life of an IRS agent (played by Ferrell) through the narrative of her writing. The movie never attempted to explain this obvious magic. Yet I left the theater entirely satisfied. At no point during the movie was my suspension of belief disrupted. Why?
I could only conclude that the authenticity of the characters’ reactions to the magic sold me. The lesson for fantasy fiction writers: if you want to eschew consistency through the establishment of rules, you better have strong characters that generate plausibility through their interactions with magic.
I left magic mysterious and unexplained in my Janner Kohl stories. This is because magic is fading/has faded from the world, and the impact of it’s occasional appearance is heightened by the lack of consistency.
Consistency in how magic operates in a fantasy fiction world does not invalidate the wonder and mysteriousness of it. However, if you choose not to provide a framework of rules, make sure your characters’ reactions provide the authenticity necessary to keep your readers from feeling cheated. Magic is the element that separates fantasy fiction from other genres. It deserves as much consideration as the other facets of world-building. How would you implement magic in your fantasy fiction world?