DIY MFA: Imagining a Magical World

As a fantasy writer, how do you unfold your world in a way that is interesting and makes sense to the reader? Some writers fold elements of their worldbuilding into the action and setting as the protagonist moves through their environment. Others describe the surroundings, then launch the action, not always explaining how some elements work.

Take, for example, magic, a staple element of many fantasy stories. Some tales use magic as a replacement for science—with structured systems. Ofttimes the consequences of using said magic are known and (sometimes tacitly) accepted before a character uses it. When those consequences are unknown or understood, they can be twisted by the effects, much like Gollum in The Hobbit. Other magic systems are less defined and based more on the “Ooo-ahh” factor than the mechanics. The consequences of using it are not as apparent as structured magic. I find these systems to be akin to miracles. I mean, how else do you explain Gandalf the Grey’s return after falling into the abyss with the Balrog?

You can use magic to grow your characters and have them learn about actions and consequences. To reach their goals by Finis, they might need to learn to use their skills in ways they might never have considered. In contrast, you must give the reader enough understanding of how the magic works if you want them to come away satisfied. Otherwise, the solution could feel forced, like “god from the machine” (Deux ex Machina) bailed them out. Of course, maybe the writer didn’t effectively foreshadow the event to give me the understanding I required to “get it.” Suspension of disbelief will only carry your story so far. I want to understand why a thing happened, not just that it happened.

How does the magic work? What does it cost to use? Does it have consequences or limitations? Do character flaws affect how the magic works or how it affects the user? These are all questions I need to ask myself as my protagonists learn how to survive in a magical environment.

Think about it. If you woke up in a place where magic, as our world sees it, actually worked, what would you do? In our “real” world, most things we want to have a cost associated with them. To drive a car, you must learn how then you get a permit and practice. Once you’ve learned the rules, you follow them to cruise around town. Would your new abilities be any different? First, you would have to learn how to use them. After you learned how you learn to control that power to do what you want and need. All the while, you learn the limits of what that power can or cannot do—and you find out the price you must pay to advance in your art.

Magic is just one aspect when building a fantasy world. Next week, I’ll talk about other worldbuilding elements that help bring my world to life.

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