Magic in (Good) Fantasy Fiction

Magic, the root of all fantasy.

Okay, maybe not but it sure seems that way at times. In much (if not most) of fantasy, magic is a plot devise to solve problems. Sometimes those problems are otherwise insoluble, other times it’s just a shortcut to save the reader from a couple of chapters dealing with a minor point that not going to drive the story either way.

As the esteemed Mr. Rosenberg has said, "Fiction-mainstream or fantasy-is about people having problems. Magic is one way to solve those problems, but if unrestrainedly powerful magic can solve all problems, then there is no problem, and no story."1 This gets to what magic is about above all else: limits.

Despite the bad press most aspiring writers (like me) tend to give them; limits are not a bad thing. To borrow from Orson Scott Card, "the more you know about the limitations on magic, the more possibilities you open up in the story."2 To me, this has always seemed inherently counter-intuitive. C’mon, the less you can do the more options your story has? What kind of sense does that make?

Part of the answer, unsurprisingly, goes back to Joel’s quote. Simply put, no limits=no problems=no story. And while that’s a satisfying answer, I can’t but feel that the implications of that go a touch further than my feeble mind finds to be obvious. So, gentle reader, please bear with me a little longer.

At the heart of all of this is the root of the fantasy reader. In an average year, I would contend that more quality mainstream fiction is printed that quality fantasy. Given how much more mainstream fiction is printed than fantasy each year, I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. So why be a fantasy reader? One simple word: escapism.

I certainly can’t speak for the rest of you but the option to escape to another world or even a version of our world that isn’t and probably can’t be is what draws me to all of speculative fiction and fantasy in particular. When I pick up a new fantasy novel, I expect efficient solutions to problems written in a believable manner surrounding flawed characters to whom I can relate. Unrealistic you say; of course, that’s why they call it fantasy.

If one wizard in the world can solve any problem your characters have then, the story had better be about the trials and tribulations they had to go through to get his or her help. Take a look at Joel’s Guardians of the Flames series, the pervading theme is long-term elimination of slavery in the Eren regions. Arguably, this isn’t something Grandmaster Lucius, Deighton, the Matriarch, or even Titania could accomplish. This is deeper because it is a cultural change involving thousands-or perhaps even millions-of people.

For another example, look at D'Shai. Magic is far more commonplace but also more severely limited. A quick glance at Tir Na Nog from Joel's Keepers of the Hidden Ways series gives you something in between the other two. Examples from outside of Joel’s works reveal the same idea. Tolkien restricts magic to a very select group, Weis and Hickman typically restrict type of magic by individual and allow for a larger-though still small-group of characters with magical capabilities. The more widespread magic is the less of it that’s available for use by any given individual. It seems to be some sort of literary constant where the sum of all magic in your universe must not exceed X.

In the end, it’s just another limitation, another rule for magic in any fantasy universe. But then, that’s what magic is all about. It’s what keeps us coming back for more stories. Limits, the root of magic. Magic, the root of much (okay, I lied, it isn’t all) fantasy.

Quick References

1. Rosenberg, "The Fantasy Series: Tips, Pitfalls . . . and Joys", Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Sourcebook, 1996.

2. Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990.