Magic Central

On April 24, 2019, SluggishWriter wrote, I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot-wise and scene-by-scene-wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliché in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

Two of you responded.

Christie V Powell: Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author, teaches a university class and has posted all of his lectures online. Here’s his lecture on magic systems:

Melissa Mead: Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing.

Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
And magic in this world relates to the trees–eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

I love the phoenix trees ideas! I’d love to see one.

And I’ve watched many of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, which I’ve found very interesting. I marvel at how methodical and rational he is about writing–where as I count on intuition and muddling to get me, eventually, where I need to go.

So here’s a weird question: Does fantasy need magic at all? Please weigh in.

I don’t know if it does, necessarily. Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinners, which I recommend heartily, is a fresh take on the framing story of The Arabian Nights. It feels like fantasy and comes entirely out of fairy tale land, but there’s no magic.

As a child–and to this day–I love to read fairy tales, which I did not get from Disney but from the old versions that I found in my child’s encyclopedia and in the Lang fairy tale books (which are all available online for free, since they’re in the public domain). If you don’t know the original tales, I’d suggest going to Lang. (The books are named after colors: The Blue Fairy Tale Book, The Lilac Fairy Tale Book, etc.–there are lots of them.) I still love the magical apparatus in fairy tales: the flying carpets, the dead horse who can talk, genies. So I’d suggest an afternoon spent reading fairy tales and, if you like, taking notes. Think about how the magic functions in these stories.

Not that I have anything against Disney. But Disney and fairy tale novels like mine and others’ are too filled in. The old fairy tales that you’ve read or are about to read are short. Nothing is dwelt on, so the magical elements aren’t, either. The flying carpet in these stories is just transportation, but what does it feel like to ride one? The dead talking horse merely delivers its messages, and the tale rattles on, but how does it sound? Does it sing? Does spittle fly? It’s in the details that we get away from the ordinary.

Regarding clichés. Sure these old fairy-tale devices have been done before, but readers–and writers–go to them because they love them. There’s comfort in their familiarity. I use them.

I don’t think we should worry about cliché anyway, as I’ve said more than once on the blog. The worry tends just to fuel our self-criticism. If we tell our story as we alone can, the clichés will shrivel up.

What technology does for us today, magic does for the characters in fairy tales, and we can use it that way. Your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry? Bring in the seven-league boots. Your character needs to see what’s going on a hundred miles away? Give her a crystal ball. And so on. We just have to pay attention to the opportunities.

We can complicate things. Our MC has a crystal ball, but it works only when she’s calm–and she needs it only when she’s not calm! Notice also that we’ve introduced two magical elements here. The crystal ball can see into the distance, and it’s psychic, too. And we’re moving into plot as well, because our MC has trouble controlling her emotions, a liability in a hero.

Of course we can’t let the magic solve the story’s problems. We have to limit its power and/or make it a source of trouble.

Magic is part of our world-building, as Melissa Mead’s phoenix trees demonstrate. Hers is a world that accommodates that sort of flora.

An easy-peasy way to introduce magic is to include a magical creature or a species of magical creatures in our world. These can be ogres, dragons, elves, and so on. Or we can bring in a kind of creature never before seen in the pages of a book, as I did with brunkas in my mystery Stolen Magic. As soon as the creatures are in, the world becomes magical. They don’t even have to do much that’s magical. They can live among humans. Broad-minded humans and elves can seek out diversity by living side-by-side. Some ENT doctors can specialize in diseases that afflict pointy ears. We can let our plot make room for a creature or two. If our MC is on a quest, she can bring a dragon along, and we can decide in what ways he’ll make things easier for her and in what ways harder. She can encounter evil gnomes, who stand in the way of her fulfilling her quest.

The problem at the center of our story can be magical, as I made it in Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted, both of which revolve around a fairy’s gift, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is about a magical illness, the Gray Death. If magic is at the core, it won’t be an appendage to our story, it will be central.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has found a crystal ball in a cave. Inside the ball is a tiny person who is wringing her hands and muttering incomprehensibly. Your MC needs to know if it’s safe for her to leave the cave, and she can’t just go to the opening and peek, because the villain who’s after her may be there. She needs the crystal ball, and she has to figure out how it works. Write the scene.

∙ We’re in the world of phoenix trees. Suppose the tree produces a single fruit every 300 years, and whoever eats it will live until the next fruit ripens. The 325-year-old who ate the last fruit wants to keep it from ever ripening. Your MC wants it for her beloved cousin who’s dying of an arrow wound, and other people want it, too. Write a scene. Write the whole story.

∙ List ten other plot possibilities that center on the phoenix trees. Pick one and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!