Magic is a mainstay of fantasy stories. In practically all fantasy novels there will be some power or ability that certain people/creatures have that could be considered magic. The mechanics for each world and setting tend to be varied, sometimes significantly. In some stories, the magic system is well-defined, in others, it can be vague and even inconsistent. In some worlds everyone understands magic, in others only a select few are graced with knowledge while the rest believe only in folklore.
Some of the first books I started reading where fantasy novels and I must say they made a strong impression on me. There were the classics of Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, but there were also quite of few fantasy novels set in worlds based off role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. There have been books with high fantasy and low. Worlds filled with magic and those that barely have any at all. The vastness of the different approaches to magic is one of the things that can make reading fantasy such a new experience with each series. However, it can also turn me off the story if I don’t like how the mechanics work.
I’ve played a number of different role-playing games over the years, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. However, I’ve always found D&D‘s concept of having to re-memorize spells each time they are cast to be a bit of a kludgy mechanic and it is one of the reasons I have not read many books in recent years that are set in a game based world. I understand the need to balance the power of character classes, but I tend to like systems bases on the patterns we see in nature and this mechanism cannot easily be explained as a natural process.
In worlds where magic is more free-form, there can be massive disparities in how magic works from situation to situation. It does not mean the story is ruined, but it can be distracting. Harry Potter is a series that I really like (so much so that on one of my trips to London I bought the English version of the books and shipped them home). However, the story has balance issues for me. With a few wand flicks time and space can be collapsed and none of the “muggles” will notice the extra block of flats where Harry and the others hang out just sprung into existence. A charm can allow you to travel back in time. A boy can turn into half a shark with ease. However, a master of the art doesn’t use his powers to repair injuries and counter snake venom, perhaps by using a transformation to reform his body without injury.
Some stories surprise me in a lasting way. For instance, Barbra Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk series introduced me to the idea that invisibility was not actually making something transparent where light will pass completely through it. Instead, “turning invisible” was done by influencing the minds of the viewers to simply disregard the fact the person was there. It is something we do all the time in our own world when we are paying attention to one thing and miss noticing something right in front of our eyes. It was a subtle magic where the power was the influencing of a person’s mind instead of altering the physical properties of an entire person. It conserved energy in the universe and I must admit, I loved the idea.
A large problem for a writer with magic in his or her world is balancing the power of those with it against those without it. It can be a fundamental game changer in wars and political structures as well as everyday life. There are so many aspects of life that magic would permeate and impact such as healing and life expectancy as well as the mundane, such as heating food for dinner. Our understanding of tactics in wars and conflicts could be completely changed. A fantasy world, even one like mine set in what would be described as a medieval setting, cannot truly mirror our own history. Therefore, the impact of the power should have some evidence in the history of the world and the cultures of the people.
The magic that most appeals to me is one that mirrors patterns we see in nature. A conservation of energy and matter, effects being proportional to cost, and for those who are physics and chemistry majors, magic systems that build off the four fundamental forces: strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational. By knowing some basics around the forces in our own world, a more proportionate system of magic can be constructed in the writer’s. By its nature, magic cannot exactly mirror the physic of our world, but if it borrows ideas and builds on them, I feel it can lead to a more balanced world.
To be honest, magic is hard to manage while keeping the story interesting. Sometimes as a writer, we may want something to happen one way, but the magic system we devised will pop up its little head and say, “Hey, did you forget that I, the elephant in the room, counter that?” It can mean creating little plot twists to get around the magic or even big changes in the story to avoid the plot hole. But regardless if the system of magic requires ceremonies around woodland pools, potions and wands, or just mental exercises, being consistent is a key to successful management of the power.