We’ve been hearing about this. It seems to pop up as though magic content in a piece of writing is something wholly arbitrary, as though it were just a matter of setting a thermostat. This shouldn’t be too surprising in this digital age of stimulus starvation, this diminished world of the future, where very few of us go into the woods with an axe in order to survive, where conversation is being replaced in cinema with swooping dives off skyscrapers and tumbling infernos of colliding cars. If our fantasy writing needs punch, we just scroll to the far end and click, right? We just add magic.
We disagree. After a certain point, plunges off tall buildings get boring. Magic does add interest, depth and excitement. It can even turn loose an inventive writer’s imagination, but too much ruins everything.
We use magic with a great deal of respect and restraint. What magic we use is assigned properties, just as though it were a natural phenomenon, grand and limited in the same sorts of ways as the forces of nature. Our malevolent heroine may be able use magic to travel instantly by spell, but she can’t just do it because she wants to or she’ll get into serious trouble. She must first use a scrying ball to see where she wants to go, or she may end up drowned in a cellar which was not supposed to be flooded. The great Crystal Heart may give her fearful powers, but she can neither call them forth nor control them without a great deal of study.
Literary tension is what we build and develop throughout a story to add excitement. Interesting characters must struggle in the same sorts of ways that everyone must in order to get where they need to go. Since we can identify with their struggles, they keep our attention. And if they are able to wield magic, there must be some sort of predictable struggle involved, or we have no reason to pay attention. If having the Crystal Heart is like running around with a smoldering stick of dynamite, we understand. It has our attention.
So how much magic in a story excites you? And just what kinds of magic intrigue and fascinate you? Tell us, if you don’t mind. We’d like to know.
Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps