Magic in fiction

Magic in fiction is the endowing of characters or objects with powers unavailable in the real world.

Such 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 and C. S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, J.K. Rowling, Mercedes Lackey or Derek Landy.

Plot function

Within a work of fantasy, the function of magic is to move the plot forward, providing power for the hero of the story and/or power for those who oppose him/her. The use of magic frequently manifests itself in a transformation of the character, if not the world.[1]:143

In order to carry out its function, magic often carries a price, equal to its value.[2]:143 (See Fictional magic below.)

Historical beliefs

Historically, witches like the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare's Macbeth and wizards such as Prospero in The Tempest or Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play were widely considered to be real.[3]:1027 However, modern writers and readers treat magic as imaginary.[3]:1027

Fictional magic

Fictional magic may be inspired by non-fictional beliefs and practices, but may also be an invention of the writer. Even when the writer uses non-fictional beliefs and practices, the effect, strength, and rules of the magic will normally be what the writer requires for the plot. Fictional magic may or may not include a detailed magic system, but when the author does not bother to systematise the magic or create rules, it is more likely that magic will be used simply at the author's convenience, rather than as a believable plot element.

In any given fantasy magical system, the magical ability of the character is limited. Without limits, the story would have no conflict, and the influence of magic would eventually reach the "other side" (what we know as reality).[3]:616 Fantasy writers use a variety of techniques to limit the amount of magic in a story,[4] such as limiting the amount of spells a character has,[4] restricting a character's magic through the use of an object,[4][5] limiting magic to the use of certain materials and making the materials hard to find,[6] and restricting the amount of magic a character can use due to the consequences of using it.[4]

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse: studying magic

Magic as an innate talent

In most fantasy works, writers tend to depict magic as an innate talent, equivalent to perfect pitch,[3]:616 and there is wide variation on how spontaneously a person or other being with such a talent can use it. Talents that occur spontaneously usually need training in order to control their abilities. Those who use such spontaneously generated powers are usually not called magicians or similar terms, those being reserved usually for those who have to learn to wield magic.

Magic acquired through studying

Some works treat magic as a force that is acquired through studying books and tomes. Works which feature this concept usually include a school where magic is taught as a main setting.

Magic bestowed by another

Magic may also be gained by having it bestowed upon one by another, either through a pact with a devil or with other spirits, as is common in folklore.[7] In some cases, the demon may only provide the means for the would-be wizard to learn magic, or the pact may be for the devil to do the magic on the wizard's behalf, forcing the wizard to compel it to act. Sword and sorcery heroes are depicted as fighting against this type of wizard, along with crazed cults where gods or demons give power to their followers.

Magic via enchanted objects

In some works, such as fairy tales, magic items either endow the main characters with magical powers or have magical powers themselves, and are often used as plot devices or MacGuffins to drive the plot of a story.[8] Such items may be created by magicians or powerful beings, often in the distant past, but aren't possible to create at the present time of the story. Other fictional magical objects may have no explained past.

Wands and staves often feature in fantasy works, often in the hands of wizards.[9] Italian fairy tales put wands into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages[10] and the concept was transmitted to modern fantasy.

Magic divided into separate areas

In some works, types of magic are divided by colour.[11] As in folkloric and occult tradition, the white and black magic dichotomy may also exist in these works.

Magic via words, names, or language

Some works feature magic that is performed through using words to cast spells. Many works use this method without offering an explanation for it while others do,[1]:134[2]:167-168 with the explanation for it differing from one work to another.

Magical places

Some works feature magic that is tied to a certain area, such as an enchanted forest or an ancient battlefield. Such places are usually the homes of powerful magical beings. In these works, magic can only be accessed and performed in the area in question and runs out when all of the magic in the area is used up.

See also


  1. 1 2 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, WI: Writer Books. ISBN 0-87116-195-8.
  2. 1 2 Attebery, Brian (1980). The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin ([Reprod. en fac-sim.] ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-35665-2.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
  4. 1 2 3 4 "The Limits of Magic". Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  5. "2001: Accio Quote!, the largest archive of J.K. Rowling interviews on the web". 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 0-89879-416-1.
  7. Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (1st Pantheon pbk ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. p. 279. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
  8. Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale ([Nouv. tirage] ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520035379.
  9. Frye, Northrop (1971). Anatomy of Criticism; Four Essays. (2. print. ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 152. ISBN 0-691-01298-9.
  10. "Italian Fairies by Raffaella Benvenuto: Journal of Mythic Arts, Summer/Autumn, 2006, Endicott Studio". Archived from the original on November 3, 2012. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  11. "Bonser, Wilfrid. "118. The Significance of Colour in Ancient and Mediaeval Magic: With Some Modern Comparisons." Man, vol. 25, 1925, pp. 194–198.". Bonser, Wilfrid. “118. The Significance of Colour in Ancient and Mediaeval Magic: With Some Modern Comparisons.” Man, vol. 25, 1925, pp. 194–198.
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