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My guest today is Bob Milne of Beauty in Ruins, a fantastic book review blog that is in its sixth year providing insightful and in depth reviews in speculative fiction. Bob is also a participant in the Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Given his experience in the Fantasy genre, I asked if he could tell us what he’s noticed as far as how magic is integrated in story lines, what works and what doesn’t.

Take it away, Bob!

When it comes to fantasy there is often a fine line between a treasured genre staple and a tired old trope. Take for instance the subject of magic. Whether the fantasy you’re writing is epic, traditional, high, grim, heroic, or weird, there’s a very good chance magic is going to play some role in the story. Even the most realistic of fantasies often make room for it, even if it’s just something to be left in the background.

Why is it such a fundamental aspect of the genre?

It’s wish-fulfillment, plain and simple. It’s the chance to do impossible things, and to solve impossible problems. Magic allows us to become anything or anyone that we want, no matter how terrifying or sublime, and to force our will upon the world. It’s a chance to do away with the banalities of time and money, and to deliver immediate gratification. Magic allows us to rise above our worries and enjoy a moment of wonder.

As for that fine line I mentioned, perfect wish fulfillment stopped being interesting to readers a few decades ago. For magic to work for a contemporary audience, it has to have two things – conditions and consequences. It’s no longer enough to have a wizard snap his fingers or a sorceress wave her hand. Readers want to experience a well-developed system of magic that’s still very much impossible, but which has at least the illusion of plausibility.

Where does the power come from? How is it harnessed?

You can explain it away as elemental forces, concoct elaborate recipes, or recite nonsense words of power, but there need to be rules for casting that spell – otherwise, everybody and their mother would be doing it.

During the first round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, some of the stories I relegated to the DNF shelves the quickest were those that forgot this. In those stories, magic was either a generic plot device or a lazy bit of window dressing. Cool stuff happened when it was convenient, and reeked of deux ex machina.

Shattered Sands (William G. Saraband) on the other hand, did a superb job of exploring these kinds of questions – and didn’t settle for a single answer. He started out with old fashioned alchemists, men and women who rely as much upon recipes as rituals. It’s an accessible kind of magic, one which we like to think we could learn ourselves, and therein lies its appeal. Later in the story he also introduced a more supernatural sort of magic, one involving deals, sacrifices, and death. There’s more of a ‘wow’ factor there, but it’s still grounded in the plausibility of imagination. The reason both systems work with the same story is that they belong to different classes and cultures, and were used for different ends.

What’s the cost of using it?

The other approach to magic is to take its existence for granted, to gloss over the rules and the rituals, but to explore the costs or consequences instead. The cost of a good spell can be anything from the consumption of rare ingredients, to years of your life, to the soul of another.

Again, those stories that failed so quickly for me were those that ignored the cost. The problem is, when magic is both easy and free, it becomes even more obvious that the author is using it as a narrative crutch.

Stormwalkers (K. Eric Mauser & Kevin Butterfield), was a story that opened with one of the most glorious, over-the-top, explosive displays of magic in the entire Blog-Off. It entertained me, it amazed me, and it immediately made me want to read more. It’s a story that wasn’t interested in exploring the rules of magic, and really just took it for granted. However, it went to great pains to explore the rarity of magic, to identify it as something special, and to deal with the cost and consequences. Casting such spells takes a toll on the characters, and it changes them – as it should.

Magic is only as interesting as the characters wielding it.

Anela asked me share my recommendations on the craft of writing. If I had one piece of essential advice to offer, it’s to ignore the magic for a moment and put the characters and the story first. Readers will forgive a weak system of magic if they’ve fallen in love with the characters, or if they’re invested in the core mystery/conflict, but they’ll never do the opposite. If I don’t feel as if I know the character casting the spells, and don’t care about what they’re fighting for, then it’s the literary equivalent of watching a fireworks display – fun for a while, sure, but I’m going to wander away as soon as the novelty wears off.

Many thanks to Bob for that great analysis! As he points out, magic is an important component of the Fantasy genre, but only if it’s used effectively.

Bob Milne

Bob spends his days in the office spinning corporate fictions, and his evenings at home spinning literary fictions. In between, he is the father of two boys, and husband to one of the most patient and understanding women in the world. The fact that his family can put up with his eccentricities is just proof that truth really is stranger than fiction!