On Magic in Fantasy – 1

What is the genre of fantasy without magic? That is hard to say, actually. I suppose it all comes down to one’s personal preferences.

Certainly, it is quite possible to tell a fantasy story with next to no magic, such as Tolkien did. For being the author that basically created the genre as we know it, there is a surprisingly spare amount of magic in his world: a few magic rings and a couple of old doods with walking sticks that talk about magic more than they ever use it.

I remember when I first began consuming Tolkien, at about nine years old, I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing what a proper wizard could do. My mother told me that the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were the definitive fantasy stories, and gave me a Lord of the Rings picture book based on the animated movie from the 70s. (Yes, a Lord of the Rings picture book! Of course, it made almost no sense, but some of the pictures were pretty cool.) She said there was a real wizard in the story: Gandalf the Grey.

I recall being quite keen on finally seeing what a real wizard could do. I had been reading my King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, and while the characters went on a lot about what a powerful cunt Merlin was, he did not seem to do much of anything in terms of magic. So, finally, I was going to crack this magic nut.

Well, not so much, it turns out. Gandalf was really just another letdown like Merlin in this regard. He talked a lot of shit, but when it came down to it, what did he do? Pretty much nothing. Some parlor tricks to wow the hobbits in the first act, and then he lets the Balrog take him into the deep where we don’t even get to see his big fight.

When you’re a kid looking forward to seeing some real magic power being flexed, LOTR is a real letdown.

Now, as a creator of fantasy, I understand the problem that Tolkien faced in dealing with magic. How do you incorporate magic into your story and realm without it breaking everything?

This may seem a pointless concern these days, I know. It is apparent that in this day and age, creators and fans don’t generally worry about such matters. The superhero genre has bludgeoned the audience senseless with the bluntest of storytelling.

Real world consequences? Consistency within the game theory of our in-world superpowers? Any plausibility or even logic to our stories? What are these things? We have no such need!

When Superman was given his superhuman powers, no stories told about him could be interesting to any but the most childish. Without jeopardy there is no tension. And without tension, there is nothing worth telling. So, enter kryptonite, the magic storytelling trump card to counter Superman’s magic. As a vehicle for telling stories to children, it works.

However, for adults who want a story that can hang together with the slightest semblance of proper form, this kind of shit is tedious at best. So, when seeking to tell a fantasy story, how does one incorporate magic in a way that does not turn its utilizers into another form of Superman?

That is a question for each author to answer. Generally, most creators seem to use magic as sparingly as possible. This is probably for the best.

As I stated earlier, I approach my own fantasy endeavors from the solid foundation of the Dungeons and Dragons gaming system. What this gives me is a coherent system of magic for my characters to use. It might not be perfect, but it is moderately balanced and something I understand well. So, why not use it?

Now, once one has incorporated magic users into their realm, all manner of storytelling possibilities open up. The problem is, the freedom this allows can give you enough rope to completely entangle and throttle the story you are trying to tell. We are, after all, attempting to tell a story, one hopes. And stories must be relatable. So the elements within the realm must be familiar enough to the reader that they can imagine themselves in the story and its world.

When we are talking about the magic used by our characters and their foes, logical and consistent tactical and strategic game theory should inform their encounters. If a character has the ability to use a certain spell or power, they will use it whenever they need to. Why wouldn’t they? So it is of vital importance that a writer not give a character a superpower just to overcome problems of lazy writing. For then at every next peril, the readers will ask why the hero does not repeat the trick.

However, if our readers come to understand the powers that our characters have, and that these are balanced by the internally logical system of their use, this becomes a satisfying element of the story. It becomes like a battle card game. Our hero plays his ring of fire, but the villain counters with his spell of ice water. Parity is reached and we maintain jeopardy. Whatever works; just remember to be as consistent as possible.

So, to bring things back around to roughly where we began: as fantasy storytellers we can certainly avoid having to deal with the problem of magic in our story by making magic scarce, or our principle characters people that cannot use it. This is viable. It worked for Tolkien, after all.

We need not limit ourselves to this, but we must be careful and mindful of the choices we make, lest we fall into the worst pitfalls of the genre. Because everything we do in this regard spreads ripples through our realm entire. (That, or we just ignore it and tell a shitty story for dummies that don’t care.)

Magic in a fantasy narrative, then, could be likened to sex in a normal one. It is titillating and fun, but to be used sparingly. We wouldn’t, after all, want to be getting all smutty with it, now would we? Unless, of course, we are intent on writing smut.

Next time we shall explore this further by investigating what magic using characters can potentially do to your story’s setting.

read part 2

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