Within the game, the random magic was Great Fun. But does the same “anything goes” principle apply to magic in Fantasy fiction?
Unfortunately, one of the distinctions between a good Fantasy novel and a not-so-good one has a lot to do with the mechanics of magic. This phrase may seem like a contradiction in terms; but in fact, magic in Fantasy works best when the writer takes time to figure out How the Magic Works.
Here are some considerations:
What’s the source of the magic in your world? (I.e., are your magic-users dealing with forces or entities?)
Is the magic natural (involving impersonal forces like weather and tidal flux); alien (involving non-human agencies from elsewhere in our cosmos); or metaphysical (involving meta-human agencies from higher/lower/other planes of existence)?
For instance, in her seven-volume Hero series, Moira Moore’s central characters use their biophysical psionic abilities (ESP and personal empathy) to control the forces of nature on a planet where these forces are always in a state of upheaval.
By contrast, the Before They Were Heroes quartet, by Jane Yolen and Robert Harris, features in sequence four Greek heroes (Odysseus, Hippolyta, Atalanta, and Jason) as teenagers, in a series of adventures involving gods, demi-gods and mythical beasts from the annals of Greek mythology.1
Yet again by contrast, in her classic High Fantasy Deryni series, Katherine Kurtz’s noble Deryni characters work magic by soliciting the aid of angelic powers within a framework of mystical theology.2
Which brings us to another question: by what means do your magic-using characters tap into this power source? There are many interesting crosscurrent possibilities. In the later volumes of the series, Moira’s Heroes discover a form of ritual magic which operates differently from their inborn psionic capabilities. Similarly, Katherine’s Deryni often use magically-charged artifacts in ritual contexts.
And now an important final point: as a writer, you owe it to yourself to establish – and abide by! – a basic set of rules concerning when, where, how often, by whom, and to what effect the magic in your world operates. By the same token you need to impose some restrictions on what your magic-using characters can and can’t use their magic for.
Setting these parameters will help you overcome the temptation (which we’ve all felt!) to invent a bit of magic on the spot to bridge a sudden gaping plot hole or explain away a continuity breach.3 Readers will notice if, every time the going gets rough, you invoke magic to frog-march the action along an illogical plot line.
1 Available now on Amazon Kindle. (And yes, Robert Harris is my husband.)
2Anyone interested in writing High Fantasy should make a point of reading some of Katherine’s books. They are exemplary!)
3 If eventually a twist in the plot demands that you extend the parameters in a given direction, the plot twist had better be a good one! Otherwise, you will be awarded a wooden spoon along with the title deus ex machina!
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.