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!

  1. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I haven’t thought a lot about magic systems, but I probably should, since I love reading and am planning to eventually try my hand at fantasy. On a related note, do you think it’s okay to have a fantasy creature, but take away any overly magical elements in the world? For example, in my WIP, dragons exist but no other form of magic does. Dragons themselves aren’t even considered “magic” in my story, but they are very sacred, and I suppose the reader could come to the conclusion that they are, though no one will say it, magical. I included dragons in my story to increase the stakes ( as they can be used for evil, they still breathe fire) I’M m just wondering if it’s okay if there not magical at all. Would that be to much? Boring? Any advice is welcome.

    • Emmeline Whitby says:

      Great post! I LOVE the idea about the Phoenix trees!

      -Kit Kat Kitty, I think it’s fine, not at all boring! Since you said dragons are sacred, you could make them a key part of your world. You could make a LIST! Some suggestions are:
      Inscribing images of dragons on furniture, walls, clothes (like dragon scale patterned fabric), decorations, etc
      Owning dragon scales as good luck charms/signs of status
      Keeping dragon fire burning in candles, fireplaces, lamps, etc (like in Chris Colfer’s The Land Of Stories, though it doesn’t have to have healing powers).

    • In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon Chronicles, dragons are central, but there’s no magic. It’s modern-ish, with cars, galaxy-control over the planet, etc, but the dragons are super important and completely normal for them.

    • BTW, thank you to everybody who said they liked the Phoenix Trees. I’d been feeling kinda burnt out and like I lacked imagination and didn’t really know how to write, and when I saw these posts I thought “Well, if people are getting enjoyment out of my random idea, I must have SOME imagination!”

  2. Writing Ballerina says:

    In regards to Mrs. Levine’s question, “Does fantasy need magic at all?”:

    Google defines “fantasy” as “a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.”

    But I don’t necessarily think fantasy automatically comes with magic. I would define fantasy as a story set in an alternate world created by the author. Whether or not the world has magic is up to the author.

    That said, I write primarily fantasy, and I love creating magic, so all my fantastical worlds have magic in them.

    Of course, magic can also depend on the subgenre of fantasy you write in. There are countless subgenres of fantasy, but I find most subgenres can be defined as sub-subgenres of either High Fantasy or Low Fantasy.
    High Fantasy is my preferred subgenre. Examples are Lord of the Rings and (sort of) the Narnia books. Wikipedia defines it as “set in an alternative, fictional (‘secondary’) world, rather than the ‘real’ or ‘primary’ world.”
    Low Fantasy is the opposite. It is set in the real world and includes sub-subgenres like Urban Fantasy (set in an urban setting).
    There is also Epic Fantasy, which can belong to either High Fantasy or Low. It’s when the external conflict involves more than just a small town, village, or home. With Epic Fantasy, the whole world is at stake. An obvious example is Lord of the Rings.

    Facts aside, fantasy is whatever you want it to be, magic or not.

    Anyway, that’s my take on fantasy and I had a lot of fun being super-super nerdy and learning all about it! Thanks for posing this question.

  3. My own two cents? If you include magic in your story, make sure it’s important. Don’t put in magic just to put in magic.

  4. On a different note, I’m stuck on titles (again) My current WIP is sci-fi, set in 2164-9. A meteor shower is seeded with alien pods that fall all over the world, and giant rats hatch out of them a day later, forcing humanity to live in emergency bases. The humans create camouflaged, sentient, talking cats to fight them, and one of my MC’s becomes an integral part of the research. The cats aren’t popular, and someone inside the base where they are arranges for it to be destroyed. The cats’ inability to defend their base is taken as proof that they can’t get rid of the rats, and everyone ends up going to the Moon. I want the title to be poetic sounding, but not too fancy (more like “A Solitary Night” than “Reaching for Apotheosis”) Some of the chapter titles are “From a Distant Star,” “A Night of Flame and Fury,” “Court of Dreams,” “And All My Dreams Torn Asunder,” “Acts of Sacrifice,” etc. Any suggestions?

    • future_famous_author says:

      Title ideas:

      A World Destroyed
      From My World to the Moon
      Sent Past the Stars
      Leaving Home
      Showering in Terror (or maybe Shower of Terror? I dunno I was just thinking about the meteor shower because it changes everything.)
      Falling Terror (once again referring to the meteor shower.)

      Another good ways to come up with titles is by thinking of these things:

      What do the character(s) want?
      What do the characters feel?
      What is the theme?
      What word do you think describes the story?

      Hope this helps!

      • I have 2 MC’s. One wants to know “Who am I?”, the other wants to know “What do I want?” They feel a lot of things over the course of the story, but I want them to be hopeful. I’ve been told (beta readers are awesome) it’s a story about how people react to change. I have no idea how to answer the last question. It’s like when someone asks you what your favorite book is and you have to decide between three or four. It’s rather nerdy, if you know where to look (I wasted about an hour reading the Wikipedia article on atmospheric re-entry to figure out how the meteorites could work, and 3/4 of the chapter titles come from Babylon 5 episodes) But it’s also hopeful, so I’ll probably go with that. BTW, the file the story is in is called “From the Earth to the Moon” Because if there is a pun, it must be made.

        • future_famous_author says:

          The last question is a hard one to answer. I totally agree. Though I do have a favorite book. The Wolf Wilder. Though if I read some of my other favorites after that, they might be up there instead.

        • future_famous_author says:

          More title ideas:

          After Falling Comes Rising (meteors fall, and they go up to the moon)

          What’s Out There? (I was trying to come up with something that went with the questions your MC’s are asking themselves, but it was hard.)

    • Song4myKing says:

      Rat and Cat
      The Cats and the Rats
      Falling Stars
      From Shooting Stars
      Stars of Terror
      Rats of the Stars
      Rats from the Sky
      Fury of the Rats

      The rats seem so integral, that I was trying to include them. Somehow, though, I’m having a brain block trying to come up with something poetic about rats… 🙂

    • Thanks for all the suggestions! We were out of town with no internet last week, so that’s why I didn’t respond. Some of these are really great. I’m currently thinking of doing something like In the Face of Catastrophe/Danger, but I’ll certainly keep these in mind.

  5. One of my favorite movies is Ever After, a Cinderella retelling that has absolutely no magic in it. Is it still fantasy? I certainly think so. It’s sort of portrayed as if it were historical fiction, but it definitely isn’t. I think as long as there’s a fantastical element to a story, it’s fantasy, and fantastical doesn’t necessarily mean magic.

  6. This comment has nothing to do with the blog post. But i looked on my shelf and realised that I had 5 of your books on my shelf (which i enjoyed all of them). But i never looked into it before. Keep doing good work


  7. future_famous_author says:

    My latest WIP is told in third person. There are five main characters, four boys and a girl. The boys are all orphans and call themselves the Lost Boys, and they find the girl, Charlie, in the woods. The first chapter is from he boys’ POV (third person but tells their thoughts and uses their names, but calls Charlie “the girl” until she tells them her name) and the rest of the book (this may change, this is just how I want it to be at the moment) is going to be from Charlie’s POV, but still third person.

    Does that make sense? And will it get confusing to the reader or do you think that will be fine?

  8. Song4myKing says:

    Just Ella, and the False Prince trilogy are great books set in “fantasy” worlds without magic or imaginary creatures. I consider them fantasy because the world, countries, etc. are made up.

    And there are other books that do have made up creatures or sorts of people but still don’t have magic. The Borrowers come to my mind. I’m working on several stories with tiny people like the Borrowers, set in my own back yard and stumping grounds. There’s no magic, and the only fantastical element is the people. I’m a history nerd, and I love imagining how these people have kept themselves secret throughout history, and how the actions of the normal sized humans have affected the tiny ones!

    • future_famous_author says:

      I always wished (and still do) that I could have a little fairy or person living in my old doll house, since I have always loved small doll stuff. I think it would be so much fun to have a little person living with me, and I could take it to school and everything- it’d be so tiny no one would ever know! That sounds so much fun to write about!

  9. Writing Cat Lover says:

    I need help with my pace of my WIP. It’s always either to slow or to fast, and I never can seem to get it just right.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I have been left this same comment (the one I am about to write) many times, and every time I sigh and think, “That’s not very helpful!” But it is, because some things just can’t be perfect- actually nothing can be -in the first draft.

      So, my advice is to save things like pace for the second, third, or even fifteenth draft (does anyone ever get to the fifteenth draft? ?) and fix it then. Are you the one who had the trouble with writing things that had no importance to the plot whatsoever? If not, I told her that it’s okay to write things that don’t need to be written, because they may end up important. And it’s okay to leave out description, because you add and/or take anything away in later drafts!

      One time, in one of my stories, there was an entire page that was all one long conversation, and it was almost all dialogue. Once or twice I would add stuff after what they said, like “Joel suggested,” or “Lea added,” but for the most part I just wrote the dialogue, and later on (if I ever edit that story because it was absolutely terrible and what was the twelve year old me thinking?) I can add more detail.

      Okay, that comment may have been really boring and confusing, but I hope it helps some!

    • Song4myKing says:

      I agree with Future famous author, that you shouldn’t worry too much in the first draft. But if you’re revising, there might be a few things you can do.

      If a section feels too fast, like you’re clipping along, touching only the points of action without a breath, you might want to slow down to increase tension, or to savor the action. Sit back and imagine the whole scene, like a movie. Who all is around? Is it just the ones you’re concerned with at the moment, or are there others in the room? Where is the scene taking place? Indoors, outdoors? Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Will your readers see it? Can you feel it, smell it, hear it? Not just the words people are saying but the other sounds around them. Don’t include everything, of course, but picture it in your mind, so you can show a little of the richness of the scene to your readers. Choose details that will add to the feeling or action of the scene.

      If a piece feels too slow, you’ll have to do the opposite. Cut out what isn’t necessary. If it’s a paragraph that’s necessary but slow, check every sentence to see if it’s needed or if it could be shortened. If it’s a chapter that’s slow, check every paragraph. If it’s a bigger section of the story, see if each scene is necessary. If each scene has something important, see if you can take what’s important from several and put all that punch into one scene.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I think all these pacing comments in this and the last post’s comments warrant a post, Mrs. Levine. 😉 😉 😛

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Not rude. I’m adding the pacing question to my list. I welcome being asked.

        But which one from the last post?

        • Writing Ballerina says:

          Okay, good :).

          Yes, Erica, just yours and Writing Cat Lover’s. I just noticed there were a lot of pacing questions recently. Here are the ones from the last post so you don’t have to go hunting for them:
          Erica: Honestly, I just get tired of writing the story when nothing much is happening, but when I pick it back up, I feel compelled to keep writing about nothing. Neither I nor my readers particularly care about the plot of the (completely made-up) movie my character is watching, and yet I describe it. Time in my stories tends to pass slowly when nothing is happening, and way too fast when things are.

          Writing Cat Lover: My story is waaayyy too slow as in I focus too much on the details and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get the plot going. Well, with the last paragraph I actualy tried to spead things up a bit but now it looks waaayyy to choppy and fast paced so that you can’t really catch whats happening.

        • One of my comments was along similar lines. “Basically, I have the big, important stuff written, but I don’t have anything building up and down from them. It’s boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, etc. They don’t lurch from disaster to disaster, but there’s really nothing to hold the tension between the major plot points.” Not exactly pacing, but similar. You know those tension graphs teachers use to show the five parts of a plot, with the smooth rise and fall? If I drew one of those for my story, it would look like a comb. Up and down and up and down and up and down instead of that smooth, gradual curve.

          • future_famous_author says:

            I don’t think you have to use that graph thing, as long as you can pick out the beginning and the end, and as long as there’s enough action and drama to keep the reader going. In a story I wrote about a dog, I’m not sure where the climax is. Is it the very beginning, when Stray Dog gets kicked by Uncle? Is it when Friend gets taken away? Is it when Enemy kills Beauty? All I know is that it begins with her family leaving and ends with Sister (a human) adopting her. I have no idea what the climax is, and therefore I have no clue what the rising action or falling action is either.

          • I mentioned the graph mostly to clarify what problem I was having. There are exciting parts where the tension is high, but there are also places where the tension is almost zero, and I need to figure out how to increase the tension in those sections without using foreshadowing in every other sentence. Does that make sense?

  10. future_famous_author says:

    Melissa Mead:

    I think that if the characters just understand and give advice to those who need, they will seem sympathetic. As long as they don’t not care, and their thoughts are like “oh that person’s hurt, eh, whatever” and more like “oh maybe I should go say something to make them feel better,” then the characters will seem to care more, but not be “too nice.”

  11. Writing Ballerina says:

    Katie W. Re: building tension.

    I think I’ve mentioned this book before (and maybe this particular section) but STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE by Steven James has a great take on building tension:

    “A story isn’t about something ELSE going wrong, it’s about something WORSE going wrong…. We intensify the struggles rather than just compounding them. [There are] three struggles — internal, external, and interpersonal [conflict with other people.] — [they] will all continue to deepen as the story progresses. Typically, they’ll reach their darkest moments right before the climactic encounter with the… forces that are hindering the protagonist from getting what he desires most.”
    I like this point: “Since things must continually get worse fro the protagonist, characters actually descend through difficulties and pain into transformation. They don’t slowly ascend into change.”

    Back to the graph (paraphrasing here), all that stuff about rising action is baloney. At least most of it. Rather than rising ACTION, you need rising TENSION. “Action does not equal tension…. Simply making more things happen doesn’t ensure the readers will be interested, but tightening the tension from unmet desire does….
    “Think of the climax of a suspense novel. Flashlight in hand, the detective slowly descends the stairs into the serial killer’s basement lair. Readers know that the detective does not — the killer is lying in wait for him deep in the recessed shadows of the next room. The author milks the scene: Step by step the detective slowly and cautiously makes his way down the stairs as readers’ hearts pound in anticipation of the climactic encounter that’s about to ensue. He angles the narrow flashlight beam into the darkness. Reaches the last step. And begins to search for the killer.
    “Is this rising action? Hardly. In fact, a man walking slowly down a set of stairs might be the least amount of action for the last fifty pages — but it can be part of the climactic scene of a book because of escalating tension.”

    Before I write the whole book down in this comment (it’s that good — go borrow it from your library!!) I would like to mention another very important and (I think) profound observation he made:
    “Repetition undermines escalation.
    “Every murder you include decreases the impact that each subsequent murder will have on readers. Every explosion, shootout, [and] argument… means less and less to readers because repetition short-circuits that crucial escalation that moves stories forward. The value something has is directly proportional to the amount of pain it causes when it’s lost.”

    Hope this helped!

    • I think it does. I’ll have to try it out to know for sure. I’ll keep an eye out for the book. Thanks for the tips!

  12. Writing Cat Lover says:

    My dad recently read my first person story and he says that it has to many I’s in it. I agree with him, though I’m wonder if we’re wrong or right.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Not sure. I is hard to avoid in first person. Maybe you have too many sentences starting with I, so it’s noticeable. You can rearrange the sentences.

  13. SluggishWriter says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question! I haven’t been keeping up with the blog as much, but I appreciate it! Really helpful

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.