No, this isn’t about throwing fireballs and calling lightning. Today, I’m going to be talking about the goals and purposes of magic in fantasy.
Many people would argue that the fantasy genre is defined by the inclusion of magic or other supernatural spirits. This definition covers the vast majority of fantasy. But a lot of books don’t quite fit into a specific genre, and they are lumped in with fantasy. Mainly, these are secondary world historical fictions stories, which aren’t “historical” fiction by virtue of taking place on a planet that is not earth. Because this discussion is about the uses of magic in fantasy, I hope you won’t mind if I ignore this sub-genre for the sake of simplicity.
So, magic. What is it good for? Pretty much everything… if you use it right. But here are a few specific uses with examples:
1. Creating Wonder—
One of the major enticements of magic is the sense of awe and wonder it can create, the feeling of whimsy. In a purely escapist sense, it allows you to do things you couldn’t do in real life—or, at least, it allows your proxies to do these things.
Magic lets a character create fire and lightning, wipe out monstrous hordes with the wave of a hand. In many cases, it is a balancer. A mage might be weak and frail (or not), but magic lets him stand his ground against the most accomplished fighter. In the most basic sense, it grants a character power above and beyond the abilities of a normal person. It means you don’t have to be strong or fast (or smart!) to make a difference. Magic can create a sense of control, and this is quite attractive to many characters—and readers.
The Lord of the Rings uses magic to create a sense of wonder. Vast landscapes, deep history, and the magic behind them create a fantastic picture of Middle-Earth. And Tolkien doesn’t explain it. One of the common arguments against scientific magic is that it isn’t magic anymore if you explain it. And, in a sense, this is true. But then the other side will argue back that you can’t generate real conflict unless the reader knows what’s what. Later, I will talk about the Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding. (Here’s hoping I get credit for this on TV Tropes!)
2. Generating Conflict—
In plot terms, this is one of the most important uses. The Dark Lord uses his magic to conquer the world, and the Hero uses his to save it. Of course, there are other ways to generate conflict with magic. In Mercedes Lackey’s Mage Storms Trilogy, a magical cataclysm echoes back across time and threatens to destroy the world. This is not the conscious action of an enemy power. This is a Man vs. Nature conflict. Magic can also cause internal conflict. A character with uncontrollable powers can fear hurting others or themselves. The uses are pretty much endless, but those are the big three.
3. Solving Problems—
This is probably the most controversial use of magic in fantasy. Many argue that solving problems with magic is somehow “cheating”. If magic can solve all problems, what’s the point of putting the heroes through so much pain? Blogs and books and articles on magic for the past twenty years have tried to answer this question, and many would argue they still haven’t succeeded. We’ll delve into this issue more in the next post.
On the other hand, if the hero has magic, doesn’t it make sense that they should use it? What else is it there for but to do something? Why should magic only create conflict, when it has the ability to resolve it as well? Personally, I think it is perfectly fine to use magic to resolve conflict. But it should do so in a way that makes sense in context. Having a God–or a powerful spell or artifact—is a commonly used method to solve problems in so-called “bad” fantasy. And if all it takes to solve the problem is the application of a quick spell, then maybe the plot had some issues in it already. But again, that’s for the next post.
So, to sum up, this post is not so much about what magic does in the story as it is about what magic can do for the story. Next time, we will discuss how to design a system with the desired proportions of these three effects.