Friday, June 21, 2013

Magical Mechanics in Fantasy Fiction

Years ago, while playing Dungeons and Dragons, my character acquired a Magic Ring – without the user manual. The results of using it were randomly generated by the Games Master using percentile dice. One time, I unleashed a stream of butterflies into the face of an attacking ogre. Another time, my character metamorphed into a griffon and clawed a party of orcs to ribbons.

Within the game, the random magic was Great Fun. But does the same “anything goes” principle apply to magic in Fantasy fiction?

If only!

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.


  1. Love this topic. I've just spent 18 months dealing with the consequences of magic use in my book's universe. I actually had a ton of fun setting up the rules of the magic first, and then working out the plot accordingly. It came up with a good few juicy twists and surprises for me :-)

  2. Just had this conversation the other day. When the story's logic breaks down, they lose me.

  3. One of my crit partners writes fantasy with magic. He's a computer programmer by day, and he's very good at keeping all his rules logical. (But not perfect, so when he confuses us with those "convenience" applications of magic, we jump on him--but with a smile. And he thanks us.)

  4. Every time you post about the intricacies of fantasy writing it reminds me of why I don't delve into it. Creating the world and the magic and keeping it all believable is a challenge I don't care to take on, but I do admire those who can do it well.

    That said, the reminder that all stories, fantasy or otherwise, do need to be logical, is a good one to keep in mind.

  5. As Maryann said, your posts on this are always so insightful (and why I don't delve into it either). One thing I'm always working to get across to my writers is that Fantasy world-building is difficult, and has to be impeccably maintained. You are so great at delineating that!

  6. This is a wonderful post, Debby, and the subject is one I wrestle with. Many of my characters possess and use powers that might be considered magic. The fun for me is when they can't use them, so then I have to figure out a non-magic way to resolve the issue at hand.

  7. I have my hands full trying to keep things 'logical' in my regular, run-of-the-mill fiction ... I shudder to think what would happen if I sashayed into fantasy fiction ... might flash me back to some bizarre episodes in the sixties ... ah, but that would be another story.

  8. Only fantasy I have encountered was from Poe, Lewis Carrol, Tolkein, and C.S. Lewis, all of whom invented very complex universes. It would seem that editors would be justified in charging more to edit fantasy because of its detailed requirements. (By way of disclosure, I'm not an editor.)

  9. We should charge more for fantasy? Wow! Hadn't considered that possibility. :-)

    Fantasy readers, like readers of historical fiction and a number of other genres, are very detail-oriented. They also have incredible memories for the minutest of details. Hence, writers spend countless hours in research, character and plot building, continuity, and a host of other areas to make sure it all comes together as a consistent, credible, and cohesive whole. Then, of course, the editor double-checks the whole thing to make sure from a professional and objective perspective, that it all works. Now about that higher price for fantasy... :-)

  10. Deborah Turner HarrisJune 22, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    Many thanks!


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