M is for magic

What else?

Magic can be big and flashy or small and quiet. It can follow such clearcut rules it’s almost a science, or you can leave the book wondering what exactly it’s good for. (Years on, I’m still trying to guess what Radagast the Brown might do, as well as what other colors of wizards there might be in Middle Earth.)

Brandon Sanderson talks a lot about how he thinks about magic systems. His first law is an attempt to avoid deus ex machina situations, while his second discusses the relationship between abilities and limitations. His posts are definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in creating your own magic systems.

When you’re reading, do you like high magic or low magic worlds? Ones where the magic has rules or is mysterious?

This is a post for the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. My theme is epic fantasy, and blog posts will cover authors, books, tropes, themes, or anything else I can think of to fill the alphabet. Check out some of the other bloggers participating or follow my blog by e-mail if you like what you’ve read.

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  1. Having toured with magic shows and been around the stage magic industry for many years, I tend to think of magic in a theatrical sense. I haven’t thought about using fantasy magic in fiction.

    Places I Remember
    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

    • Funny — I’m so steeped in the fantasy side of things, it’s where my brain goes straight away now (although when I was in elementary school, I grabbed a copy of Dickens’ David Copperfield from the library, thinking it was about the magician).

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

  2. I pretty much like both. I’m good for rules and mystery. Do you have a favorite example of both?

    • Some good choices for rules include Mistborn by Sanderson, Name of the Wind by Rothfuss (going to talk about that tomorrow), and the Recluce series (starting with Magic of Recluce) by Modesitt.

      It’s been a while since I read it, but I think that the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Williams doesn’t explain the magic, leaving it mysterious.

      I may have other recommendations by the end of the month — have a few more books I want to get read to talk about. 😉

  3. I’m definitely a fan of rules. Give me rules and costs so that I, as the reader, have no choice but to question if this is really worth using magic. That’s one of the reasons sacrificial magic is such a popular tool in fiction, I think. Is it worth the end result to sacrifice your blood/hand/baby? What if magic can’t achieve this effect, but the character doesn’t know that (Of course, the reader would, so they could feel the despair.)?

    So, in short (too late, I know), I like my rules. They make me happy, as a writer and a reader.


    • I’ve always thought sacrificial magic — even if all you’re giving up is your energy — is related to the basic idea that you can’t get something for nothing. If magic doesn’t cost anything and you can do anything with it, why would anybody do anything else?

      Thanks for giving me an alternative way of thinking about it! 🙂

  4. Thank you for the links! As a reader, I like to know the rules. As a writer, my magic has been somewhat vague, not knowing how to structure it or afraid of “copying” someone else’s rules.

    • I’ll admit that one of the reasons I try to read broadly is so that I can see what others have done and work to make my ideas different. Some people just have a flair for magic systems, I think — Sanderson’s metal-based magic in the Mistborn books might have some links to alchemy, but the way he implements the magic is unique. Even when something’s been done before, though, you can make it yours — magic wands were around long before Harry Potter, but Rowling made the wand choose the owner, crafted them just so, and even added possible interactions between wands.

  5. Both work for me. And I think I like stories where the magic has underlying rules but they’re not spelled out explicitly, so the reader ends up doing some detective work hunting out clues throughout the story about what magic does and how it works. As long as it doesn’t go overboard and simply leave the reader confused, that is….

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