• Phil Parker

Exploring the Tropes: #3 - You can do magic!

The 1982 hit single by America, 'You Can Do Magic' went like this:

I never believed in things that I couldn't see, I said if I can't feel it then how can it be, No, no magic could happen to me and then I saw you.

You can do magic, you can have anything that you desire Magic, and you know you're the one who can put out the fire.

They're words conjured up by every speculative fiction author who searches for the right magic system for their story. How will magic work in my story? Magic is a standard trope and we all search for a factor which makes our system that little bit different to what everyone else has done. Otherwise we risk the accusation of being unoriginal, or worse, copying a premise that's gone before. This post aims to identify some of the systems and explore how you can make them for you in your Work in Progress. So, if you've got your magic wand ready? Abracadbra!

Let's address the basics first. There are two kinds of magic. Soft Magic is generic, undefined. It makes things happen for no apparent reason. It involves a wave of the hand, the twitch of a nose, a sardonic look. It's the magic of most fairy tales and Disney films. Hard Magic has rules. There are limitations and consequences in its uses. It must have a credibility, consistency and often requires training to use effectively. Hard magic is not that different to science. This is the magic that requires a system and it is the form that appears in almost every modern story in our genre. So where does it come from?

Magical Sources

Magic can't just appear. We don't believe in it. How would it work if we just wished for things and they appeared? Life would be so easy, indulgent even. Magic needs a system. Systems need sources.


A common form of magic, it is summoned from a source just like any energy. Most often it comes from two sources:

The Natural World: Magic is harnessed from the elements; fire, air, water and the earth. (In far eastern cultures you can include metal and wood here too). The recent trend for fantasy stories located in Japan, China or parallels of those places use this kind of magic. Rob Hayes' Never Die, ML Wang The Sword of Kaigan, Virginia McLean's empowering story The Blade's Edge. These are all finalists in SPFBO5 so I mustn't overlook the mega-exciting Beggar's Rebellion by Levi Jacobs which uses magic this way too. A favourite of mine is the 7 book Alera Codex series by Jim Butcher where the natural world features heavily in its magic.

Talismans, Amulets and assorted objects from the natural world: The extension of the natural world source is when an object possesses the energy. The most famous example, you could argue, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborne's saga. Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy are ways in which metallic elements are used. But there is a huge range of stories where gems, crystals and other objects provide the energy needed to access magic. There's Garth Nix's 'Seventh Tower' series where families possess sunstones which empower them magically. I'm going to come back to his topic later because the advantage for the writer in this concept is this: ownership of such objects can be problematic!

Higher Beings

The existance of gods as sources of magic frequently comes at a cost. These are folk who don't give away the goodies to just anyone - or for free. I love this trope. Some of my favourite authors have used it: Mike Shel, Cameron Johnston, Brent Weeks (more of him later). Gods may be inaccessible, distant but they can grant magical power by varied means: often by devotion to their cause and study of their magical processes. Their power also makes them seemingly impossible to defeat in the final, climactic battle. Real jeopardy!

I'd include in this section an associated source: Reality Shifts. You can find this trope in Science Fiction as well as Fantasy. Where power comes from other places, other dimensions or where the world as we know it is shifted in new ways. I watched Josh Trank's Fantastic Four film again (it truly is awful) but this premise is used in that story (and wasted!).

Spells and Magical Lore

The magic wand has been around for ages, I've never been convinced of it being a feature of Hard Magic but more likely linked to its softer cousin.

Magical sources can be found by conjuring - 'to make something appear by magic, or as if by magic'. It is the process of accessing a source. This may involve casting spells - ritualised processes which can include objects/substances with magical abilities. This is where science comes into it - the spell is a result of the "chemical reaction" of these substances. There are runes too. Designs which, like alorithms require computer coding, need an agreed set of rules to operate. A wonderful example is Peter V Brett's Demon Cycle of stories where runes are the only means to keep the demons at bay.

Constraints and Limitations

Magic can be all-powerful. When used against normal human beings it certainly is. The author is faced with a choice here: to have protagonists and antagonists who are equally matched or to provide some constraints to their power. The latter is the popular way to go because it offers unpredictability, suspense and routes into characterisation. Here are some constraints to consider.

Limited Usage and Rationing

I mentioned Brent Weeks earlier. His LightBringer series (a favourite of mine) has a wonderful premise that illustrates this concept well. Magic users manipulate light and turn it into a substance called 'luxin'. However they can only produce limited quantities of the stuff. To go beyond that limit causes them to "break the halo". Their eyes (through which we see colour) change, a visible sign of their limit. If ignored the individual goes mad, becomes a wight, using their magic in ways that break social conventions. To prevent this chaos, the individual has to be executed. Drastic measures eh?

The constraint then is the risk of insanity and death when (not if!) the rationing is exceeded. It leads to wonderful dilemmas; having to execute loved ones, using luxin excessively to protect others even though it causes that individual to 'break the halo'. Constraints in this form generate the conflict that drives the story.

Mental Strength

Following on from the previous limitation, those wights I mentioned lose the mental capacity to control their magic. This often leads to insanity or evil deeds - think of Willow in series 6 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Magic has the potential to warp minds. This mini-trope is perfect for your antagonist, someone whose need for magical power exceeds the ability to control it and they go crazy. The consequences of extreme magical power combined with irrational behaviour leads to whole societies suffering. Mike Shel's Sin Eater is a classic example of 'when magical minds go wrong'.

Access Denied

Another constraint is when magic isn't readily accessible. In another Garth Nix series, magic users need a charter mark to operate. Another trope is the need to study the magic and the knowledge is jealously guarded by those with the magic. There are always lofty towers, complex libraries and mazes which ensure only the select few gain access. Protagonists get there by accident, deceit or pure luck. A strength of this trope is how society works. As in the Sanderson example earlier, families with sunstones have the highest status possible, magic users (usually) are the ones with prestige. But not always. Magic can be denied because socially, culturally, it is perceived as wrong, evil even. In which case, they become the outlaws. So the rules around magical access offer a wide range of narrative options and vivid characterisation.


"With great power comes great responsibility!" Magic can lead to entitlement. Four tropes for you:

  1. Rare knowledge - when magical ability is discovered, having been lost for aeons.

  2. Prior exposure - (like Spiderman) magical ability is the result of 'an experience'

  3. Talent and Study - a latent ability that is recognised, the individual is sent to a school to study and refine their talent.

  4. Genetic hand-me-down - the individual is born with the magical ability which might pose problems for them socially, especially if magic is illegal or unrecognised and needs to be hidden

Stories in this trope always need a social or cultural context that involves sophisticated uses of magic. Often it comes from different sources or the rituals/knowledge/practices are diverse; "white" magic often refers to healing methods, "red" magic is associated with blood rituals, "black" magic uses death and necromancy. So society and world building in general becomes a major maguffin in these stories.

Disadvantage, Pain and Risk

Magic can be painful. Not just physically but mentally too. Why not emotionally as well - if it leads to you being isolated, abused and outlawed. The physical cost of magic hasn't been exploited as much as it might but what if the expulsion of magic causes intense pain, even shortens the life energy? Also worth considering, if the materials needed to create magic requires expensive source materials, how is it paid for? Do you need to be rich? Or a good thief?

Not to be overlooked either is the risk element of magic. This is explored in lots of stories and TV shows (back to Buffy again!). It can lead to the accidental escape of demons who invade the magic user's world (urban fantasy tropes abound here!). It can lead to other accidents (explosions, changes of space/time, killing of unintended victims etc.). Variations on zombie and vampire tales exist from this trope. I haven't mentioned magic linked to fairies either but you've only got to read Jim Butcher's Dresden Files to see how many possibilities exist in this trope when it comes to magic problem-causing.

One final thought about the use of magic. Speculative fiction works on the assumption of "What if..?" The pursuit of a story where the writer assumes a possible situation and explores the consequences that develop from that position. Magic is the perfect tool, or maguffin, for such narratives. Magic enables to writer to break normal conventions, to explore possibilities without real limitations imposing barriers. But if we are to do this, it's best to bend those conventions rather than break them into pieces.

In other words, magic must be credible. We have to believe it works within the setting of the story so that we can believe everything else. We may be open to considering the potentially impossible but we must be convinced by the author's attention to detail that makes it all real. That detail must not only exist within the world they create but also the characters that inhabit it.



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