Capturing the magic of magic systems

The concept of magic (or magick, in some cases) is absolutely fascinating to me. It’s neither inherently good nor evil, and it has a virtually unlimited number of practical uses. Each fantasy world has its own approach to magic use and magic systems, too, further adding to a story’s complexity. Better still, magic can range in importance from being a key plot device to just being background noise.

Alternatively, there are plenty of arguments against magic in fantasy (written, on-screen, etc). It feels like a cheap solution that characters can use to further the plot and bypass otherwise-insurmountable obstacles. It’s lazy. There are too many different approaches to the same thing. And so on. While I appreciate these views, I don’t necessarily agree with them. I think a large part of how well or poorly magic and a magic system works in a story comes down to how it impacts the way characters interact. I’m not just talking about how characters interact with each other, but also with situations and environments.

A quick and easy example to go off of: a character is entering some temple hall. It’s vast and ancient, and above all else it’s most certainly very dark. Yes, the character should be carrying a torch. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. There’s always a chance some giant spider-demon had to be dispatched by the torches flames earlier. That’s not the point. The chamber is, as all ancient temple halls are, loaded with dastardly traps just waiting for some careless rube to trigger them. There are also convenient, relatively well-used torches lining the walls. They’re extinguished, however. It’s not like someone gets paid to stick around these places and reignite torches for a living; the folks who did wised up years before and unionized, making it near-impossible to keep such rooms as this well lit.

Now the character could very well build suspense by crossing this room by torchlight. There’s no doubt in my mind that readers would be on the edge of their seats, fearful for our nameless hero. Or the hero could ignite the torches with a well-used, well-timed spell. With the right elements–a mysterious shadow shifting about, or perhaps something foul awakened by the newly reignited torches–and the right pacing, this use of magic works to help the plot along while still helping build tension. This example doesn’t even begin to delve into the realm of possibility in which backfiring spells and misspoken curses, among other things, exist.

There’s also a lot of fun in basing entire civilizations around a centralized magic system. It allows for a lot of fun what-ifs. What if that society’s magic system collapsed suddenly (whether that was by means of the magic suddenly no longer being accessible or turning against the magic users)? What if the ability to properly harness magic was only afforded to society’s super-rich? Or perhaps its outcasts, instead?

Obviously, all things in proper moderation and so on and so forth.

What’s the best approach to magic? To really own it and make it part of a story? To let it be a small part of a bigger world? Or, perhaps, is it best to just avoid it entirely and work on other methods of storytelling?

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