Magic in Fantasy World-Building

Fantasy is often considered a free-for-all in terms of creating worlds. Anything goes - magic spells, anthropomorphic animals with swords and weird accents, demigods, mind-reading. Right? Well, sort of. It is true that fantasy’s main appeal lies in making the extraordinary ordinary in terms of universes. But laying down the rules and laws in the world is one of the most difficult and important tasks of any fantasy (or science fiction) story.

Every good story needs rules for how the world functions. If the story is realistic fiction or fanfiction, these rules are already set according to what the author knows. But if the story’s universe needs new rules, they must be carefully designed to be plausible and work with the plot. For example, the magic in Harry Potter is well-explained as the story progresses, what with Horcruxes and portkeys and so forth, and is a fundamental part of the story. But phenomena not explained fully throughout a story is irritating because it makes the universe seem half-baked. One of the most widely-used elements in fantasy is magic.

Explaining magic in a fantasy universe is identical to explaining science: some things simply are known to exist from the beginning: atoms make up physical matter, energy from natural elements can be harnessed and captured in stones. The rest of it has to be discovered through logical reasoning and experimentation. A well-established fantasy world will have this science of magic run throughout its history (often through references to famous alchemists and so forth), so that the reader knows that magic is integral to this particular universe. Such a scientific approach to magic is also the reason why magicians are often depicted as studious scholars and researchers: they are scientists. They try to figure out their universe’s laws. In addition to the professors, it may be a good idea to have some magicians skilled in law because navigating deals with those crafty demons and genies and so forth can be tricky. The New York Times has an excellent article about magic and science/law.

Magic and science/law are often considered dichotomous: one is ethereal and nonsensical, while the other is logical and practical. Yet an examination of magic in fantasy reveals that the best magic is logical and natural (and ideally useful). Perhaps this logic is so appealing in fantasy stories because humans like their worlds to be neat and orderly. Whether they are on Earth or Middle Earth, all humans want to uncover what makes their universes tick.


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