The Role of Magic in Speculative Fiction Worlds


Are you familiar with the theory that there are only 7 basic plots and every story can be connected back to one of those basic premises? Man (or woman or to whatever gender you may or may not choose to belong to) against nature. Man against himself. Etc. In college and graduate school, I got to explore these concepts as I studied literature and writing. As I’ve been world building for my new project, I’ve been wondering if the same thing could be said about fantasy stories and the place that magic occupies within those stories. Are there only 4 basic expressions of magic/abilities in speculative fiction? Can all stories in these genres be couched so simply?

Just so we’re clear, it’s best if I make an attempt to define my term. Magic could be witchcraft, sorcery, mages, Jedi type abilities and could extend to people who use their “abilities” actively or are just able to tap into a different realm in some way that others are not. Magic may also not be the best term as it could also apply to characters in worlds that don’t think of things in terms of “magic” and instead think of them as abilities or something else. So, please take my use of the term “magic” with a grain of salt in the below.

Just like the complex plots that have been boiled down to the 7 basic possibilities, I have attempted to boil down the various states that magic exists in the speculative fiction/fantasy/sci-fi genre. Of course I have not read every story ever published, so there may be more. If you have additional ideas, I’d love to know! Please share! The different roles of magic/special abilities in fantasy stories and a few examples when I can think of them include:

  1. World in which magic users are pariahs (examples include The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, Jay Kristoff’s Lifelik3 series as well as his Lotus Wars series)
  2. World in which magic is part of society [heralded or maybe just tolerated] (examples include the Witchland series by Susan Dennard, Harry Potter – okay, a part of but also separate from Muggles, so maybe this one is a stretch)
  3. World in which magic is dying (examples include Lord of the Rings, Arthurian Legends)
  4. World in which magic is new (examples include X-Men) – this category may also be able to fit as a sub category of #1 or #2.

For western cultures, creating worlds where magic is feared is easy. In some interpretations of Christianity, magic is evil and associated with the devil. We had the Salem Witch Trials here in the US and witch hunts happening throughout Europe at various periods in history. I can’t speak to other cultures as I am less familiar with those, but, through my own history lessons, magic is feared. I expect that there are other cultures that also have this experience as fear of what one doesn’t understand is a common thread in humanity. I also bet that there are cultures who are the exact opposite of this and who view magic as an asset/enhancement and embrace it as a part of our nature or as a gift from God/gods/goddesses.

Creating a world in which magic is just another layer of society is also an easy step. Magic can be substituted for any concept that was once feared and rejected and is now accepted by society (more or less). Magic has a history in every world, just like same-sex marriage (just as one example) in our world. Therefore, it’s not too tough to imagine a world where magic is accepted.

Some of the older stories from the genre are where you see worlds in which magic is dying, as one age becomes another. Great examples of this are the Lord of the Rings books and Arthurian Legends. The idea for LOTR came to Tolkein out of the depths of WWI, so it sort of makes sense that he envisioned a world where one age was ending and another began.

Envisioning a world in which an entirely new breed of humanity or humanoid exists who can tap into an innate ability is the final scenario for the portrayal of magic in worlds. The best example of this would be X-Men (and my own book Withered World). A group of “mutants” have an innate ability. Of course their abilities tend to be paired with appearances that further set them apart from society. The normal path for humanity when something new appears would be fear – and this is exactly where X-Men goes. Thus, this plot then gets easily woven into the pariah category.

So, where does that leave us? Are there only four ways that magic can be part of society in your story? I’m still considering and have a few ideas, but they could really just be sub-categories of the above: magic user is feared, magic user is beloved, magic user is equated with god/goddess figure. What do you think?

I’ve written two of these plots so far: the world in which magic is new and the world in which magic is dying, though it is only slightly hinted at (NightWind). Because of this, I’ve found myself wondering about the status of magic in my new project. My bartender character whom I mentioned last week has a very unique set of skills. She has the ability to influence others through herbs. The idea for this came while my husband and I were on our honeymoon in New Zealand. We came across a beautiful WWI memorial with an engraving that read: Rosemary is for remembering. This caught my attention immediately and made me think of the Victorian flower language. I wondered if there was a similar concept for herbs – and there is. SO, my bartender, Nyx, can put a sprig of rosemary in someone’s drink and it will cause them to remember something because she wills it. She can’t control what they remember. But, she can trigger a response. Other herb meanings and possibilities are also fair game for her. Her power is simple and not strong. Maybe it’s a little like being a muse? But, I’m still trying to figure out how this fits in with the world and what the world is like itself.

When it comes to writing genre fiction, I think most writers read deeply into their preferred genre. This is how the genre continues to evolve and grow. It’s how it reflects our current societies and challenges. Writers have and always will be offering thinly veiled social commentary in their work. Perhaps it’s couched covertly with mages and witches and made up worlds. But, you will always be able to see our own world reflected in the experiences of the characters about whom you are reading. As for the role of magic in fiction, it too serves as a metaphor or a symbol. What that symbol is may differ as you jump from author to author. But, the experience of magic is typically reflective of something from our real-world experiences.

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