A Lesson by Matthew Smith

An examination of this age-old theme.



From the spell-murmuring wizard to a miracle-working mendicant, this staple of the genre is as old as the genre itself. This supernatural blip on a fantasy writer's radar must (or should) be addressed in one way or another. Some, like myself, will avoid this topic like the plague, while others may rely on it more heavily than the other topics. It falls to you, dear reader, to choose between simple card tricks and age-old mantras that cause heroes to turn into toads.

There are benefits to having magic in your world, though the same came be said for its absence. With magic, things can avoid explanation. Without it, bits and pieces might need a technical how-to.

In a couple of my settings, blood is the bartering tool with which the supernaturally-inclined gain their powers. Sometimes they use their own, sometimes they use the blood of others, but that cost, the trade itself, acts as a buffer between a wizard and some kind of world domination. If there isn't a limit or price, a world with magic could ruin itself. In such a setting, sometimes the general public will fear and reject magic-users. Their power isn't enough to, say, turn a nation into a land of drooling, lobotomized zombies, but it does tend to generate a certain amount of distrust.

This sort of magic (or some variation) is seen in many published books, and if you're familiar with the genre, you'll be able to notice a few.  Other settings take a hush-hush stance on it. It is a jealously-guarded secret of hidden covens or niches of society, perhaps.

Here we go.

How did your world develop magic? Was it always there? Did something bring about its existence?

Are gods involved with the magic of your world? How?

How is magic fuelled? Does it have a cost? (“With great power comes great responsibility.”)
Is there a limit to its strength? Can your wizards conjure something as wild as firestorms? Perhaps something simpler, like a gust of wind?

How about this.  Is magic finite?  What happens when the well runs dry?

Remember, keeping a balance of realism might help your story, should you aim for it. “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Are there sorcerer-kings? This idea is often recycled as a cornerstone in the histories of fantasy worlds.

Are there different disciplines of magic? If so, do they come from the same source? Perhaps it can trickle down like a root-system, branching into the variations and schools.

Everyone knows of the classic wizard and the classic ideas of magic.  Spice it up!  Mingle in a dash of virgin's blood, a dragon's eye, and a spoonful of globby Orc snot.  Cook it on high, let it simmer, and when you have something relatively unique (or cleverly stolen), well... then you'll be doin' it right.

How does magic, if it exists, impact the common people? The higher class? (Imagine wandering healers and court magicians.)

Does it affect the arts of warfare? In what ways? This will surely deal with the scale of your magic. If fireball-tossing wizards are commonplace, why would armies array themselves in manners similar to that of Antiquity or Medieval Europe? 

If magic-users fight on both sides, how is it conducted? In a duelled fashion? Think of the traded volleys of gunfire in the Early Modern era armies.

What do most villains share?  Yeah, you guessed it.  Cool capes.

And magic.  Usually.  Give that a thought.  If you know your villains, are they magically-inclined?  Break the mould!  Sometimes it's a breath a fresh air when the villain isn't some ancient evil dork with a codpiece and an obsession for kidnapping beautiful princesses.

There's almost always an evil fortress involved, too.  "Gasp!  Gee Willikers, Batman, the fog sure is rolling ever-so-ominously over that spikey-looking castle!"

Oh, right.  Magic.

If your character is going to be using magic, you'll have to brush off the ol' brain and give these things a good run-through.  If the experience of sorcery is going to be exposed to the reader through a point-of-view character, it's a good idea not to betray that reader's time by skipping out on the details.  If you disagree with me on this, I disagree with your face.

Let's say magic once existed, but is now lost. How would you explain that? Will it come back?

The topics here are as broad and varied as your imagination allows.  What of a world that turns without sorcery?  That could be harder to describe, but you shouldn't need to look further than history for inspiration.

I have one more thought for you, and this is for the sake of all those Science Fiction sorts.

If you gave homo erectus an Iphone, how would he react?  What if he saw an airplane?  An M16?  At some point, technology can cross into the realm of the supernatural and fantastical.

Well, at least to simpler minds.

Imagine you're up.  Bases are loaded.  You have your bat in hand.  The pitcher launches the ball and before you can--BAM!  Bloody nose.  Beamed you good, he did.  That's a cop-out.  The pitcher is the writer, the reader is at bat.  The best method for revealing magic, or the uses of magic, is through subtle persuasion of one's dear readers.  Sure, you can hit a home run, understand it all right then and there, but that's typically because of an info-dump.  There's just... something fulfilling about rounding the bases and seeing everyone hit home.

Well, that's my opinion. 

Then again, I've never played baseball.

Previous Lesson


[send message]

Posted 1 Year Ago

awesome lessons!!! you did forget geography though.
Subscribe Subscribe


151 Subscribers
Added on January 21, 2013
Last Updated on January 21, 2013
My Rating

Login to rate this


Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith

Thereabouts, OH

Hello, I'm Matthew Smith. I write. I read. My main-stay genres are fantasy, science fiction, horror, and historical fiction. I haven't been on this site for a long time. I plan on revamping m..