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The Suspension of Disbelief

Magic is generally what attracts people to fantasy from a young age. I know it did for me.

However, it is also something that puts people off fantasy. Some people think ‘oh well anything can happen in fantasy’ and they can’t take it seriously. They’re only half right. Things still have to make sense (somewhat).

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People must suspend their disbelief in all fiction to a degree. For some it’s easier than others. This suspension must be stretched further for something like fantasy. The story may be set in a world that doesn’t exist with magic and things that are, by their very nature, unbelievable. Some people see a dragon or a wizard and immediately switch off. Fair enough, it’s not for them.

For fantasy fans, we want to ‘believe’. For me, good fantasy fiction is all about fooling yourself even just for a semi-second into believing something impossible.

However, even ‘willing believers’ in this genre, have our limit.

Why We’re Willing to Believe

We’re quite willing to accept dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire but if G.R.R Martin suddenly started putting basilisks and griffins in then that would be going too far. At this point a non-fantasy reader would probably laugh and say something like ‘how is one okay and not the other?’

Well, the dragon part in this example is established at the start. We are put in a world where dragons used to exist, where cities were conquered by them, where history was defined by them. There is a back story that spans hundreds of years regarding the dragons. That is how we accept them, because they make sense in this context.

If you’re writing a story and you fancy putting some dragons in, just try to make it make sense. Don’t just put them there because you like them. If there is no reason for them to be there it will likely become distracting for the reader. You don’t want to pull the reader out of your world.

Building a magic system:

Sources of magic

  • From the gods
  • From nature
  • Magical objects

Think about how your magic exists. Where does it come from? Do the gods grant powers? Can you summon it from nature? Is there a magical book/amulet/sword that creates magic? Whatever your source, try to keep it consistent (unless you have a reason not to).

Who can do magic?

  • Special people – wizards/witches/priests/royalty
  • Everyone – is the magic just normal to them and only magical to us as readers?
  • Magical races

If only certain people can do it, why? What problems will this cause? Are they normal or seen as freaks to non-magical people? Think about the mutants in X-Men or the wizards and muggles in Harry Potter. It’s the same for magical races, there will be all sorts of conflict there, like in Lord of the Rings.

The Magic Itself

  • Ability to control elements/weather
  • Killing/fighting powers
  • Potions/spells/curses

What can your characters do? Does everyone have a different power? Are some more powerful than others? What does it look like when a spell is cast? What can you see/smell/hear?

Limitations

Your characters should all have some in any genre. Even the most powerful ones should have some limits or they will just take over the world and then what? Imagine if the Daleks actually destroyed everything else but them. It would be very dull and they’d have nothing else to do or say to each other. At least it would shut them up, but still.

Does using a power make the character weaker? Can they only use it so often/certain times/with the right tools? You need to be horrible to your characters sometimes, don’t let them off too easily.

Magical creatures

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You could use creatures that already exist in fiction like dragons, elves, goblins…

Or you could create your own creatures. If you want to make up magical creatures you should look to the natural world for inspiration. Look at animals, their behaviour, diet, habitat.

An example a lecturer gave me once was elves. They generally look like humans, but why? They are usually vegetarian so why do they often look like predators? They have a predator’s eyes and teeth. Predators usually have eyes that face forwards and prey animals have eyes at the sides. Prey animals generally have bigger, flatter teeth, no incisors.

While it’s interesting to imagine Legolas with eyes on the side of his head and massive teeth, it is also just important to consider it when creating creatures. You don’t really need to make your elves look like that, but it’s good to be aware of it.

Think about evolution. Animals developed long necks/horns/tusks/claws for a reason. It may be that you just want something to look cool. There’s nothing really wrong with that, just don’t give a magical creature something that doesn’t make any sense because there’ll be some insufferable person like me just shaking their head.

It could be that everything is completely different in your world and actually sharp teeth are very helpful for eating plants for whatever reason.

There should be a reason for all your choices. Even if you never mention it in the books, you should know.

What do you think about using magic in your fantasy world? What else would you add? Let me know how you get on with creating a magic system!