While I’ve written a lot of types of fantasy, my contemporary fantasy kept getting feedback and my suburban fantasy kept not working, and I think I’ve figured out the problem. My magic needs a purpose.
The Purpose of Magic
Magic in a story can take on a variety of roles, often multiple roles in the same story.
- The setting
- The world-building
- The problem
- The solution
1. Magic as a setting
When the magic is used as a setting, it’s often a technology replacement or supplement. Sometimes, it’s a way to show issues in the real world while giving the reader a little distance — an analogy for climate change, or capitalism, or communism.
Other times, magic as a setting is used more to set the tone, with twinkling diamond trees and polychromatic pixies or skeleton trees filled with undead crows.
2. Magic as world-building
Once the backdrop starts to influence the character’s choices, you move more into the world-building category. This is where you’ll find your council of mages, your fountain of eternal youth, or your aetherstream that flows between galaxies.
3. Magic as the problem
Once magic comes into the foreground of the story, though, magic needs to be the problem — or at least the problem complicator. Whatever the stakes are though, the goal needs to be related to the magic in such an integral way that the plot wouldn’t work without it.
I haven’t fixed them yet, but this is my problem. I tried to keep the magic in my stories light as setting, or maybe tiptoeing into world-building, but it wasn’t working.
4. Magic as the solution
For readers to find a novel satisfactory, typically, you can’t just wave your hand and have magic fix everything, at least not without a cost.
If magic is the solution to the problem, you’ve got a few standard paths for those costs:
- Pre-payment — a quest or struggle to access the magic, be it learning a spell or finding an object/spell components/etc
- Sacrifice — they do the spell, but it costs them dearly. It could be their own literal death or a loved one’s, it could be betraying people or beliefs they once held dear
- Consequences — they fix the current issue but have set themselves up for a bigger struggle
What is your favorite role for magic to play in a book?
Are there any roles I’ve missed?
Got any story recommendations for using magic just right?
Oooh, thanks for this post. I think I’m riding the same issue. My urban fantasy lacks…something. And I think it’s that I haven’t really determined what the PURPOSE of magic is in my world. I know what it DOES. I know WHO can use it. I know roughly how it WORKS. But…why?
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