World Building: Magic


Let’s talk about magic. While magic is probably of little concern to writers of contemporary fiction, science-fiction, techno-thrillers, and similar genres, when it comes to fantasy stories, few would argue that magic is one of the most important subjects. Poorly conceived, magic can ruin a story; well conceived, magic can add such depth to a character or setting that the reader simply cannot put the book down. But why is magic so integral to fantasy? Can we have fantasy without magic? What kinds of magic are found in fantasy? How much magic is too much magic? How little is too little? And what about the arguments from critics that magic is just a cop-out for patching plot holes and escaping impossible situations?

But before we begin, let’s define what we mean by “fantasy”, and the kinds of magic typically found in fantasy fiction…

How I Define Fantasy

For me, fantasy is simple “that which is not real”. This does not including things such as “that which we have not proven to be real, but suppose could be real”, such as life on other worlds and faster-than-light-travel. This, in my opinion, is what separates Fantasy from Science Fiction. Of course, a lot of what passes for sci-fi these days in really just “futuristic fantasy”, but that’s an entirely different topic for discussion. Regardless of the setting being in the pasts or the future, or on an entirely different world all together, fantasy (as a literary genre) is “that which is not real”.

Would a setting with dragons constitute a fantasy? Most would argue yes, but I require more. Are the dragons just large flying reptiles whose physiology obeys the known laws of biology and physics, or do the dragons exhibit some fantastical power? For the dragons to be fantasy dragons, they must exhibit some kind of fantastical power. After all, we have dragons on our world–namely, on the island of Komodo–but no one would suggest they have magical powers.

Fantastical elements usual involve magic of some kind, be it a wizard who casts spells to help the hero, an evil sorcerer who is trying to dominate a kingdom, an enchanted sword or artifact that must be found (or destroyed), or an encounter with a supernatural being such as a fairy, spirit, demon, or god. If any of these criteria are fulfilled even once in a story, it is by definition a fantasy story. Lacking such a supernatural, mystical, or magical factor, the story is not fantasy.

Of course, even within the genre of fantasy there are myriad sub-genres, including High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Fairy-Tale Fantasy. I shall leave the determination of such classifications to the critics and experts (who are not always the same), but it is crucial to understand that not all fantasy is equal when it comes to treating the subject magic. In some fantasy stories magic is just “in the background”, perhaps wielded by a few powerful wizards or found only in special magical items. In other tales, magic may be ubiquitous throughout the world, with magic shops at every corner and countless wizards-for-hire pining for scraps in an over-saturated job market. Most fantasies, of course, fall somewhere in-between.

Different Kinds of Magic

If I was to define the types of magic found in fantasy stories, I would divide them into three kinds: constrained, limited, and plot-device. Beginning in reverse order, plot-device magic is the simplest kind, and is the sort found most in traditional medieval tales (such as the Arthurian legends) and fairy-tales. Plot-device magic is never wielded by the protagonist, but may be employed by his mentor or alley, or by the adversary as part of the over-arching plot. Plot-device magic may also be used to move a story forward, such given by the example of Merlin who used magic to secret Uther Pendragon into Lady Igraine’s bedchamber to facilitate the birth of King Arthur. Most fairy-tales exhibit plot-device magic as well, usually in the form of a magical item or magical adversary who can do any number of magical thing, but is destroyed by particular susceptibility (such as a common bucket of water). Few fantasy stories written in modern times exhibit plot-device magic, unless they are attempting to reconstruct the style of fairy-tales and Arthurian stories. The One Ring in the Lord of the Rings is an example of a plot-device magic item.

Limited magic, on the other hand, is magic which, while not a plot-device, is extremely limited in scope. Usually this takes the form of a few well defined but narrow abilities. A wizard with only the power to talk to animals, a seer who has vague dream-like visions of the future, or a shaman who can shape-shift into a few set animal forms, are all examples of limited magic. Some limited psychic powers can also be considered limited magic in this sense, such as a telepath who can only hear the active thoughts of those around him, or a psychic who can only see flashes of psychic impressions on objects. The essence of limited magic, then, is to clearly define a character’s few abilities and not deviate from those abilities unless certain story events dictate their acquisition of a new magical ability. This is probably the most common form of magic found in literature, primarily because it is the safest route to take. The reader (as well as the writer) knows exactly what to expect from the character with a few limited abilities, and will be delighted to see how they use their limited magical abilities in various creative ways to solve problems. There is no danger of “deus ex machina” in the form of a sudden miraculous spell being cast out of the blue to resolve a seemingly impossible situation (such as: “We’re trapped–but don’t worry, I’m a wizard! I’ll teleport us all to safety!”). Limited magic, combined with some plot-device magic, can make for a very potent combination.

Finally, there is constrained magic. Constrained magic is short for what I term “unlimited but carefully constrained magic”. Without constraints, purely unlimited magic becomes a childish flight-of-fancy free-for-all, such as given by the previous example of the spontaneously teleporting wizard. Put simply, constrained magic is the kind which usually take the form of “spells”, and which can be learned through study (although in many cases an innate magical talent may also be required). In this sense, constrained magic is the sort found in the Harry Potter series, the Earthsea series, or in most video games and role-playing games. The Lord of the Rings series also demonstrates some constrained magic wielded by Gandalf and Saruman, as well as a few of the Elves. In my world of Mythania , magic is best described as being fairly ubiquitous but constrained, although there are several different schools of magic, each one with its own constraints. Of course, in all settings where constrained magic exists, there remains room for both limited and plot-device magic as well.

Constraining Magic

In a world where anyone can learn spells for throwing lighting bolts, teleporting, slowing time, seeing distant events, reading minds, raising zombies, or any other innumerable magical powers, magic-wielders will quickly overshadow all other characters, and “deus ex machina” will run rampant. There must be some physical mechanism that constrains magic-wielders from becoming demigods. Perhaps the constraint is the amount of time and training that is required to learn spells. After all, if it takes years just to master a handful of spells, no one magic-wielder will overshadow anyone else. Perhaps the constraint is energy, and casting spells may be physically exhausting (or painful), and may even be mortally dangerous if a mistake is made. Perhaps the constraint is in the form of special ingredients needed to cast a spell, such as rare herbs or precious stones. Or perhaps magic is constrained by some combination of these and other limiting factors.

But whatever the constraint, it must be clear to the reader what that constraint is, as well as what spells are known to the key characters–especially the protagonist and his companions. The author and play-write Anton Chekhov once said: “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” I follow this rule, but also interpret it the other way around, saying: “If in the final act you use a gun, it must be shown in Act I (or at least a few chapters prior)”. And by “gun” I simply mean anything that makes a difference in the story, including magic, gizmos , or special skills and talents. Never use a magical power (or anything for that matter) at its first introduction to resolve a critical plot point. It is fine to introduce the power earlier (several chapters earlier at least), and perhaps use that power from time to time doing some routine or inane thing to reassure the reader of its function. Then, and only then, can the power be used to resolve a critical plot point. If no other constraints on magic exist in your story, this alone will provided the most effective means of constraining magic.

All Things Being Equal

Another excellent way to constrain magic is to simply set “all things equal”. What I mean by this is that a non-wizard person could equal a wizard if given sufficient devices or training in other areas. Let us compare a “standard fantasy wizard” with a “non-magical adventuresome hero”. The wizard has four impress spells he likes to use: a light spell to brighten dark passageways, a charm spell to sway people’s actions, a magical shield of protection to ward off damage, and a searing energy bolt to dish out the hurt. Lacking magical powers, who could possibly equal that? Well, our “non-magical adventuresome hero” happens to have a rather charming personality, always carries a flashlight (or lantern) with him, wears an armor plated vest, and has pair of six-shooters at his side. When we actually analyze the capabilities of the wizard verses the adventurer, they are in fact identical.

Another good example of “all things being equal” is simply the fact that wizards and magic-wielders are mortal too (unless they really are demigods, as is the case with Tolkien’s wizards). A gunfighter could easy shoot a wizard dead where he stands before he event gets a chance to utter two syllables of an incantation.

One of my rules of thumb is simply this: as long as there is (or can be) a non-magical analog to a particular magic power or spell, I am fine with introducing it into the story or allowing a main character to learn and use the spell. But if a spell or magical power is just too miraculous to have a non-magical analog, then it’s probably treading dangerously close to “deus ex machina”. Of course, my world of Mythania is fairly advanced technological speaking (steam-age with a bit of weird science), so the gadgets, gizmos, and machines give more non-magical analogs than would typically be found in traditional fantasy. Thus, I have no qualms about wizards throwing blasts of energy and lightning bolts since cannons and firearms are commonplace.


In the final analysis the treatment of magic in any given setting is entirely up to the author, and largely dictated by scope, style, plot, and characters of a story. Most modern fantasy stories incorporate some combination of limited magic, plot-device magic, and constrained magic. Some authors may choose to push magic safely into the background, introducing only a small scattering of simple magic items and potions from time to time. Other authors will wish to go all-out with the magic, making it a key aspect of the story with wizards and magicians of all kinds dueling it out with one another. But most of us will find a comfortable spot somewhere in-between. After all, magic is just another hammer in our big red toolbox of story-telling.

1 Comment

  1. cirellio says:

    Clever rule you have – not allowing magic that rises above technology.