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Letting Magic be Magical


This post originally appeared at Borders’ Babel Clash blog.

Some who have followed my website probably know how the concept of using magic in fantasy novels intrigues me. It’s probably my favorite aspect of writing in this genre, and is what keeps me firmly fixed here. I’m not likely to wander to other types of books because I find the freedom and challenge of writing fantasy—of worldbuilding and designing new laws of physics—to be too compelling.

A while back, I started toying with a theory about how magic works in fantasy novels. It went something like this: The more you explain how a magic works, the less wonder there is to that magic—but the more chances you have to use the magic in solving problems. (I once summarized this as the humbly titled “Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: Your ability to solve problems with the magic system in a book is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”)

I’m still toying with this theory. There are holes in it. For instance, it really should read something like “Your ability to solve problems with magic and NOT ANNOY YOUR READER is directly proportional to . . .” After all, you can do anything you want in a novel you’re writing. You just risk alienating or annoying readers if you do certain things.

I’ve actually struggled with this concept in my own books. I want there to be a sense of wonder to the stories. Magic has to be magical. And yet, I love playing with science and physics, and writing blended science fiction fantasies where the magic feels in many ways like a classical-era science. In this way, every single book I’ve written has been a tiny bit steampunk, though the trappings of that are very hard to see. (I work very hard to give my books the FEEL of an epic fantasy, no matter what I’m borrowing or mixing from other genres.)

This is all harder than it looks. Sometimes, I feel I’ve erred a little too much on leaving a sense of wonder. (Questions about how the magic works for the characters and readers to explore.) When you do this the wrong way, you end up with Deus Ex Machina at times. And yet, explain too much, and the beautiful, magical feel of the fantasy world is gone.

I’m still playing with this balance. But I’m curious to know what you all think. What is your preference? Straight-up science based magic, or something more wondrous like Tolkien used? Do both work for you, if done right? Who approaches the different avenues the right way?


|   Castellano