When you write, you don’t aim to recreate reality. Instead, you excitedly create a secondary world. Although a few aspects resemble reality to make the story understandable, other aspects are intentionally unrealistic to make a point. If this describes your work-in-progress, you know I’m talking about speculative fiction.
A magic system comprised of unique rules and risks is an expectation of this genre. It enables otherwise-ordinary people to accomplish miraculous feats and sets events in motion. But when it also supports a theme, readers (and characters) won’t soon forget the experience.
Characters acquire magic through one of two main sources, and each one complements some themes better than others. Certain types of magic are controversial in Christian circles, so I hope to sidestep the arguments by examining how characters connect with magic rather than analyzing how it functions. How you build your magic system is up to you.
1. Divine Grant
What It Is: Characters receive special abilities from a higher power. I’m being unspecific because not all stories include an exact representation of God but still have spiritual beings or deities.
A famous and popular example would be Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. He is a self-professed wielder of the flame of Anor, which is the “Imperishable Flame” (a clear analogy to the Spirit of God) that the Silmarillion refers to. Gandalf, along with a handful of others, were sent to Middle-Earth to help keep evil’s influence at bay. They’re not human, and from what Gandalf says when fighting the Balrog in Moria, their magic doesn’t originate from within themselves.
How to Use It Thematically: Since the magic these characters possess is directly linked to a higher being (who could be good or evil), they’re particularly suited to bring attention to the spiritual realm and the virtues or vices of the rulers within it. When Gandalf motivates Frodo to travel to Rivendell, he’s promoting selfless action. Throughout the rest of the story, Gandalf demonstrates both great power and great mercy, even to someone as irredeemable as Sméagol.
This magic source is highly effective at contrasting the effects of good and evil. Because of the clear moral overtones, novels containing a divinely gifted character can sometimes fall into the category of speculative fiction that features angels, demons, and other real-world spiritual elements.
This magic source must be divided into two subsets: expertise gained through study, and pre-existing skills increased through scientific training. Both are forms of education, but magic learned via the former is often softer and simpler, whereas the latter tends to involve a complex magic system that’s vitally important to the plot.
What It Is: This is the most traditional form of magic, so think of spells, potions with crazy ingredients, steaming witch’s cauldrons, and wands. The user just needs the proper incantations and rituals—which usually requires extensive instruction.
How to Use It Thematically: Since the magic arts are so dependent on knowledge, you could go in a number of directions. First, you could explore the theme of forbidden territory—magic that nobody should practice—and draw lines between good and evil. You can see glimpses of this in Harry Potter, where the villains are the only ones to venture into dark magic. Rather than making the magic/knowledge arbitrary, you have the opportunity to communicate a theme with the boundaries you put in place.
Second, magic arts are often protected by a close-knit, secretive community. This can serve as a reminder to readers of how we all yearn to belong. Within such a small group of people is the potential for intimate relationships. If handled properly, you can move readers’ hearts and minds upward to the ultimate fulfillment of our desire to be fully known (which will happen in heaven).
This magic source best showcases a growth arc. Mentor-student relationships are a staple for characters seeking to master magic, generating the perfect atmosphere for coming-of-age stories.
What It Is: Some modern fantasy has an almost scientific quality (as evidenced in Brandon Sanderson’s works). The magic can be explained as biological and operates according to a series of laws. But without training, it’s of little benefit to the characters. They have to learn how to start, stop, and balance it just like riding a bike.
The magic systems these characters find themselves in are born from what-if questions that alter real-world physics. What if people could control colors or metabolize metals? What if starlight produced supernatural abilities? From the first to the final detail, these magic systems must be internally consistent and seem semi-normal within the context of their worlds.
How to Use It Thematically: Characters with genetical magic can portray a myriad of themes. Some exercise their abilities based on geography, glyphs, or physical rituals. Others rely on enchanted objects or sheer force of will and emotion. Different systems naturally integrate better with some themes over others. But consider three universal themes these characters can highlight:
A. Power. With great power comes great responsibility—and, conversely, great irresponsibility. Power is dangerous in anyone’s hands, enabling you to display the results of wisdom versus foolishness. A superhuman can’t act on a small screen. His abilities create a larger-than-life canvas on which he wrestles through the dilemmas of being both powerful and fallen. Some characters falter under the burden, struggling with their inadequacy. Others abuse it. The power itself may even be a corrupting influence (as in Lord of the Rings). When you give a character magical abilities, you’re also giving yourself an ideal chance to zoom in on how people interact with power.
B. Identity. When a character discovers she has magical powers, her view of herself shatters. Unlearning her old identity and replacing it with a new one tills the soil for character development. She’ll grapple with what it means to be human—especially if her powers separate her from others. This chasm between her and normalcy allows you to accentuate the unchanging attributes humans have as bearers of God’s image.
C. Balance. Magic that’s exercised through mental processes can illustrate the relationship between logic and emotion. For instance, in Star Wars, the Jedi philosophy casts nearly all emotion as a path to the dark side. This imbalanced worldview pushes Anakin to reject Jedi teachings and embrace all his passions. A character’s contact with magic can reveal how to maintain equilibrium in mind and heart—and the costs of swinging too far in either direction.
These three themes may be universal, but they are far from a comprehensive guide on the topic. To narrow the concepts down to one takeaway, this magic source coincides best with an arc of personal change.
A Peculiar Advantage
Magic is a central motif of speculative fiction. But you shouldn’t tack it on for that reason alone. Rather, include it with an awareness of its specific strengths and relation to your story’s themes. Each type of access has its own pros and cons, and this article merely scratches the surface. As you strive to use each component of your story to its fullest potential, remember to dive deep.
Before you make choices about your story, three big questions need to be settled: Are you effectively aligning your character with the theme? Should a trope be turned on its head, or is it universally powerful? How are you best implementing individual story elements?
Asking these questions will unearth weaknesses in your ideas before you spend hours upon hours writing them out, only to realize that they fall flat. It will also help you diagnose what isn’t working—and more importantly, why.
Sometimes you may feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle. Many of these front-end storytelling decisions are made by instinct and honed by practice. But the more determined you are to understand storytelling, the more clearly you’ll discern the patterns that succeed or fail. And that, my friends, is priceless intel.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.