Magic in fantasy writing
By Elaine
Jan 21, 2018 Children's
Why can a book sometimes encourage us to scream “expelliarmus” down the corridors, and why is it sometimes too confusing, too difficult or simply not evocative enough? What are the keys for good magic which will keep children dreaming years later?

Rebecca explores the magic in fantasy novels for children and young adults


Why can a book sometimes encourage us to scream “expelliarmus” down the corridors, and why is it sometimes too confusing, too difficult or simply not evocative enough? What are the keys for good magic which will keep children dreaming years later?


I’ve studied different examples, and come to the conclusion that magic needs to find the proper balance between originality and simplicity. Originality, because if we’ve seen it all before then why read this story? And simplicity, because magic that requires too much explaining takes all the fun out of spellcasting.


To achieve this, it’s sometimes possible to use mental shortcuts. Some tropes are common enough that, when they are used, children immediately understand them. For example, everyone knows a wand allows you to cast spells – no need to explain that. In the same way, it’s obvious that touching forbidden items will bring about evil. In the Magician’s Nephew (the prequel to the Chronicles of Narnia) there is a bell which must never be rung. Once it is, no need to explain why the wicked witch is awake, or how the magic operating in the bell managed to wake her – no matter, as we understand the story by instinct, in the same way we understand magic in fairytales.


It’s also possible to draw from historical sources, old myths and legends. How did humans think magic worked in the past? In Erik L’Homme’s series The Book of the Stars, magic requires a special alphabet – and we’re immediately reminded of ancient runes. Each letter carries a certain power, and they can be combined to make more complex spells. As children learning to read will be learning how to use letters to form words anyway, they can understand this kind of sorcery easily.


All of these can be used to help the reader’s understanding of the fantasy elements of a novel. But the piece also needs to be original, to bring something new to the table.


A good example of this is the Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron. The magic is surprisingly simple: everything has a spirit, awake or dormant. Wizards can wake up the dormant spirit in objects and talk to them. The first book starts with Eli trying to convince a door to unlock itself. We quickly learn some wizards bully items into doing what they want, and our roguish hero convinces them by being charming. There – it was quick to explain, easy, and it isn’t a cliché. So far, no-one is throwing fireballs.


There is one last element I thought I would mention: magic doesn’t need to be visual. Novels are a medium which allow for interiority – they don’t require lightning bolts and coloured sparks. Films do, but a book can afford to be more subtle. Mind magic is better written down than shown on screen –it doesn’t necessarily have to be visible from the outside. In the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, magic is divided into two branches, a higher and a lower form – the lower form allows the wielder to create a mental bound with animals, which doesn’t involve using words to communicate with them. The higher magic, the Skill, can be used to influence emotions and send messages to other human beings – once more, this doesn’t require words or visuals, only feelings.


This interior magic requires a novel; it would be impossible to transcribe it in any other way. It makes the magic not only original and unique, but also adapted to the format used to describe it.

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