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Worldbuilding 7: It's a kind of magic


It's a kind of magic

In the first article on magic in fantasy writing we looked at power scaling, plot armour and plausibility. Here we will look at the different types of magic and, more importantly, the cost of magic. Like many other elements in a constructed world, magic is, effectively, a technology; and technology always has a cost.

Browse online and you will find any number of sites offering a list of types of magic; and, as is often the way with these things, any number of categories of magic. However, I think it's best to keep things simple, so I will suggest a few basic types. Most systems and uses will fit either directly into these categories or into the grey areas in between (which feels pretty apt given the topic).

There are, I think, four main areas of magic:

Learned magic: magic that requires training, and usually involves spells (language) or rituals (observance)

Natural magic: this includes witchcraft, elemental magic, plant lore and animal magic but its power comes from natural forces.

Psychic magic: as the term suggests, this is largely about the power of the mind, but it also includes chaos magic and divinely inspired powers (and divination)

Magitech: this ugly little word denotes magic that is either created by technical means or is a by-product of a technical process (some might feel that the current scare over AI belongs to this category)

Clearly there is some overlap here and no doubt there are examples of magical systems that don't fit any mould; but this broad list covers most of what you find in fantasy novels. You can also see that each category requires a different kind of approach from the practitioner; study, exposure to nature, spiritual exercises, or nuts and bolts.

These approaches will be determined by - or in some instances determine - the wider worldbuilding in the novel. Learned magic implies learning in general; a society where empirical study is the path to knowledge and power. Natural magic suggests that nature in your world has a dominating influence on the world and its denizens; one is exposed to magic, immersed in it, rather than studying it.

Psychic magic is the most likely to occupy those grey areas I talked about. Its sources may be internal (power of the mind) or external (divine or demonic). It includes more wilful magical traditions such as chaos magic (a system of what one might call weaponised wishes).

Magitech is pretty much a grey area in itself. Building magical machines is not a central aspect of traditional fantasy and in fact some of its roots lie in science fiction. It's also relatively new in the market, which means that it is not as heavily delineated (or perhaps circumscribed) as the other forms. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the fantasy writer: an opportunity because tech can be added, steam-punk style, to an otherwise regular fantasy world; a challenge because you may have to establish the ground rules without external help or advice.

For all their variety, these systems of magic have one important factor in common; magic is not free, and cannot be tapped endlessly. This is where magic bumps up against power scaling and plot armour. In the context of conventional narrative, magic is a form of cheating, of subverting the normal rules for advantage. If this happens without cost to the user it is the ultimate plot armour; and it puts non-users at the mercy of the cheats.

A world that the reader can believe in is one where cheating, in any situation, may provide short-term gain but also carries long-term consequences. An unfair advantage, used without risk, upsets the balance of power between character groups and makes the world your story inhabits less plausible.

So how do these costs accrue? The simplest and most basic cost is physical energy; the effort required to use magic takes a physical toll on the user. This is by far the most common cost mechanism in current use and you can see why; it's a simple equation and it makes sense. We can all understand that effort requires energy and leaves a deficit; it holds true in the real world and translates neatly to fictional contexts.

There are other ways of making magic costly. The energy required for magic may come from the surrounding world: elemental magic belongs to this type of system. Or it may be stolen from others. In the Eregon books, the characters that use magic draw the power from the creatures (and sometimes the fauna) around them. This makes the cost less personal but introduces a moral dimension that, I think, adds a layer of complexity and nuance to the mix. If gaining an advantage entails killing or disabling others (others who will clearly not share the gain), decisions are harder and more open to doubt.

Behind all these considerations is another, larger, imperative. Whichever system of magic you choose, and however you calculate the costs involved, you must do so in the framework and logic of the world you have created as the vehicle for the story. Learned magic is implausible in a world without formal education of some sort. Magitech looks very odd in a world where most things are done by hand.

Magic is always a distorting factor in a story; it always breaks at least some of the rules. But to be credible to the reader, it must inhabit a world that is capable of both handling the distortion and recovering from it. If you get it right, the whole world you have built becomes magical; get it wrong and it's just a cheap trick.

When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels

Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction

Worldbuilding 3: geography and physical location

Worldbuilding 4: technology

Worldbuilding 5: culture

Worldbuilding 6: magic