Fantasy Writing Tips for Fantasy Fiction Writers 

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Creating Believable Magic
by Tina Morgan

What sets fantasy apart from other genres?

It can use the same setting as a modern day mystery or a historical romance so why isn't it either of these things? First, the tone or emphasis of a fantasy story isn't on romance or mystery though it can contain strong elements of both. The majority of fantasy works are going to contain some element of magic, be it inherent to the setting or the characters or something that can be manipulated.

The first step in deciding how to add magic to your world is who or what will have or use it. Will it be everyone or just a select few? Will it be accepted and commonplace or feared and outlawed? Will it be part of the inhabitants themselves?

Who uses or possesses magic in your world will greatly affect your plot and characterization. If magic is limited to a select few (Harry Potter) how will the rest of the world respond? Will a magic user be ostracized or persecuted? Consider the opposite extreme. In the first Xanth book, Bink was exiled for not possessing a magical talent. Your world can hold either view or be anywhere in between. The Harry Potter series is actually a mix of the two: in the "real" world, few hold magical talents and those talents are kept secret, but in the magical community, those who are born without magic are treated with pity and/or contempt.

Most fantasy stories limit the magic available to the characters for a very important reason: conflict. If everyone possesses unlimited magic then where is the potential for conflict? If a wizard can blast all of his enemies into dust at the first sign of trouble then it becomes next to impossible to build tension. The wizard (good or bad) needs the potential to lose or the suspense is lost.

Consistency is a major concern when developing magical systems. If Wizard Ickabette suddenly remembers on page 400 that she can annihilate her enemies with a thought then the world you've created loses its believability.

Many writers mistake consistency with inflexibility and feel there's no room for growth or change. This isn't true. A character that on page 3 has problems lighting a candle can still incinerate an entire city on page 300 IF the story supports that change by giving the reader the impression that the character is growing in power and ability. At no time should a character's abilities miraculously change to solve the story's final conflict.

In Lois Bujold's Curse of Chalion the main character does perform a miracle, but Bujold has built her world around the five god/goddesses and their history of granting their chosen few miraculous powers. The story builds masterfully to this conclusion and the reader isn't left feeling that the writer "cheated".

Where the magic in your world comes from can be vitally important. It can be a universal power (the Force), God/deity given (myths from around the world often use this form), nature based (Tolkien's elves), or life force derived (Holly Lisle's Secret Text Trilogy is an excellent example).

If your wizards, mages or sorceresses need special ingredients and herbs to work their magic then where will they find these ingredients? If magic is openly used can they find what they need in shops and in the market? If magic is feared or outlawed what lengths will they have to go to in order to obtain the required components?

Katherine Kurtz uses ritual magic in her Deryni series with the Catholic church as her inspiration. The amount of detail you use to show your reader how the magic works in your world will depend on your style of writing. Kurtz builds tension slowly and a good deal of the conflict in the first trilogy takes place within the characters and not externally. While Tolkien also moves the Lord of the Rings trilogy at a slower pace than some fantasy novels, he does not spend a lot of time explaining how his wizards use their power. Occasionally there are words spoken (ie: Gandalf on the bridge opposing the balrog) but often the magic is as simple as a wave of a staff.

The amount of power a wizard possesses will depend a great deal on the plot of your story and your wizard's role in that plot. Many stories favor puberty as being the moment of 'awakening' for magical talents or a time of extreme growth in talent. The reason for this is the inability of a young child or baby to understand the consequences of their actions (This is the reason we don't give pre-teens the right to drive cars in our own world).

No matter how your characters use their magic or how it interacts with other creatures and forces, it needs to follow a set of rules. Consistency is invaluable in the magical universe. Without that, magic becomes the miracle elixir that rives wounded plots and rescues poorly developed worlds.

Patricia Wrede has an excellent list of questions to consider when building your world and deciding how magic will work in your story. The list of questions is quite extensive but you do not have to answer every single one before beginning your story. The questions are there to guide and inspire:

Copyright Tina Morgan. All Rights Reserved.


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