Magic in fiction

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Magic in fiction is the endowment of characters or objects in works of fiction with powers that do not naturally occur in the real world.

Magic often serves as a plot device and has long been a component of fiction, from the days of Homer and Apuleius down through the tales of the Holy Grail and King Arthur, to more contemporary authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, J.K. Rowling, Mercedes Lackey, and Derek Landy.

Plot function

Within a work of fantasy, magic helps advance the plot, often providing power to the hero or their opponents. The use of magic frequently manifests itself in a transformation of the character, if not the transformation of the fictional world.[1]:143

For magic to carry out its function, it often comes at a price equal to its value.[2]:143 (See Fictional magic below.)

Historical beliefs

Historically, witches such as the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, wizards such as Prospero in The Tempest or characters like Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play of the same name were widely considered to be real.[3]:1027 Contemporary authors tend to treat magic as an imaginary idea, opting to world-build with a blank slate where the laws of reality do not carry as much weight.[3]:1027

Fictional magic

Fictional magic may or may not include a detailed magic system, but when the author does not bother to systematize the magic or create rules, it is more likely that magic will be used simply at the author's convenience, rather than as a necessary plot element.[citation needed]

In any given fantasy magical system, the magical ability of the character is limited. Limitations can add conflict to the story and prevent characters from becoming all-powerful with magic.[3]:616 Fantasy writers use a variety of techniques to limit the magic in their stories,[4] such as limiting the number of spells a character has,[4] restricting a character's magic to the use of a specific object,[4][5] limiting magic to the use of certain rare materials,[6] or restricting the magic a character can use through its negative consequences.[4]

Hard magic is a magic system with specific rules and regulations and a soft magic system is usually much more vague and undefined with a mysterious aspect to it.

The Crystal Ball, 1902 by John William Waterhouse: studying magic


Authors introduce magic into their stories, and to their characters, in varying ways. Although there is great variation in how spontaneously magic occurs, how difficult it is to wield, and how the guidelines to the magic are implemented, there are a handful of methods for introducing magic found in many fictional works. In many fantasy works, writers depict magic as an innate talent, equivalent to perfect pitch.[3]:616 Magic may also be gained through a pact with a devil or with other spirits, a characteristic common in folklore.[7] In some works, such as fairy tales, magic items either endow the main characters with magical powers or have magical powers themselves. They are often used as plot devices or MacGuffins to drive the plot of a story.[8][page needed]

Wands and staves are often featured in fantasy works in the hands of wizards.[9] Italian fairy tales put wands into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages.[citation needed]

Different types

In some works, types of magic are divided by color.[10] Some works feature magic that is performed through using words to cast spells.[citation needed] While many works use this method without offering an explanation for it, others do offer an explanation.[1]:134[2]:167–168

See also


  1. ^ a b Martin, Philip (2002). The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value (1st ed.). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Writer Books. ISBN 0871161958.
  2. ^ a b Attebery, Brian (1980). The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253356652.
  3. ^ a b c d Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312198698.
  4. ^ a b c d "The Limits of Magic". The Victorian Web. Archived from the original on 2004-08-23. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  5. ^ "Comic Relief live chat transcript, March 2001". Accio Quote!. March 2001. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  6. ^ Card, Orson Scott (1990). How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1st ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. pp. 47–49. ISBN 0898794161.
  7. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. p. 279. ISBN 039473467X.
  8. ^ Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520035379.
  9. ^ Frye, Northrop (1971). Anatomy of Criticism; Four Essays (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 152. ISBN 0691012989.
  10. ^ Bonser, Wilfrid (1 January 1925). "118. The Significance of Colour in Ancient and Mediaeval Magic: With Some Modern Comparisons". Man. 25: 194–198. doi:10.2307/2840849. JSTOR 2840849.

External links

  • Lawrence Watt-Evans, "Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy", Starlog
  • Patricia C. Wrede, "Magic and Magicians", Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions
  • Anders, C.J. (2011) "The Rules of Magic, According to the Greatest Fantasy Sagas of All Time" (includes 7x51 chart)
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