How Believable Magic Within Fantasy Worlds Helps Create a More Immersive Story
Post written by guest writer Emmie Hamilton.
What is it about a fan-favorite fantasy novel that makes readers want to dive into it headfirst and never want to leave again? Is it the world-building? The morally gray characters? The quest for love and redemption? Or is it perhaps more than that, such as the fantastical creatures that roam in other realms, or the power of the corrupted villain that makes the story come to life?
For me, it is always about the magic.
Creating new magic systems can be an incredibly complex yet rewarding world-building aspect of writing a fantasy novel, and, when done correctly, it affords the reader a suspension of disbelief that allows for a more immersive story. So how do we, as fantasy writers, do this correctly?
We need to pay attention to three things: magic with world-building, magic’s rules, and magic’s consistency.
Magic and World-Building
When creating a new fantasy world, there are many different elements to consider. Who rules the town, country, or realm? Are they magic users? Is magic outlawed, or is it incorporated into civilization? Maybe the land is steeped in magic, or there is a magical fountain within an enchanted forest that gives power to those who drink from it. Perhaps it’s the opposite, and magic is gone or outlawed. What are the repercussions of there being no magic, and how will that change the course of the protagonist’s character arc?
Have you heard of the terms “hard magic system” and “soft magic system”? Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson uses those terms as a way to classify the type of magic used within a fantasy story. Each type of system helps build reader expectations within a novel and allows it to become more immersive.
Let’s dive into the difference.
In order for a magic system to be considered a “hard magic system,” it must have strict rules that it consistently follows throughout the story. For example, perhaps there is always a clear price to pay to use magic, or only a certain type of being can use magic, or perhaps the magic within a story only works in a specific place with a particular conduit. Whatever rules are chosen, they must be followed throughout the story without faltering. One popular book that utilizes a hard magic system is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Each magician is tethered to their power, so the more power they have, the more their hands are tied with how they can use it. This is a hard rule, that is always followed, no matter what happens later on. The progression of the use of this magic can be seen by the range of simple hand gestures used by unskilled magicians to the more complex and time-consuming hand gestures needed by magicians who have reached a god-like level of power.
A soft magic system is more unpredictable and is often used when magic isn’t the main way of solving a character’s problem. It is something that is incorporated into a story, but isn’t necessarily the focus of it. Soft magic systems still tend to have a rule or two, but they might not be consistent. There may not be a clear explanation of how or why someone or something can use that particular magic, and magic use might be placed throughout as a matter of convenience to further the plot along. The most popular example of this is when Gandalf in Lord of the Rings comes back from the dead. The explanation for him returning to life is simply because he is a wizard, and the reader has to accept it. The magic in soft magic systems tends to bring more of a sense of wonder to a novel than anything else.
There are also ways to blend the two systems, which is my personal favorite, and something I incorporated into my own novels. In The Destined series, the gods created the fae, elves, and other magic creatures, though I never explained where their power comes from or why. This is something the reader needs to rely on as fact. However, I also included specific rules for magic users. Elves have elemental magic, of which they can only have one or two innate abilities. Shifters can shift at will, but they can only shift into one other form rather than anything they want. No matter what the magic is, it always comes at a price. Any magic user depletes their own energy and needs to rest in order to regain their abilities. If they use too much too soon, they risk killing themselves. Blending the two systems allows for a sense of wonder, but also satisfies the reader by providing clear rules about who can use magic and why, which helps to cement the suspension of disbelief.
Readers love consistency for the same reason they love rules—it provides the suspension of disbelief that they want and need in a fantasy novel. Whether there are new creatures to keep track of, a kingdom that needs saving, or an impending shifter war, the rules that the author creates lend a sense of reliability. If magic is used as a convenience, such as a way for a character to get out of a situation, it takes the reader out of the story.
No matter what type of magic is incorporated into the story, creating an immersive experience for the reader requires consistency, a set of rules, and layered, well thought out world-building. Magic is one of the elements of fantasy that draws readers in, that makes them want to learn and submerge themselves into that reality. Taking care to create a sense of reliability and maintaining the suspension of disbelief will allow magic to enhance the believability and immersive nature of an addicting fantasy novel.
Note from Andrew: Need help with your magic system? Book my magic system coaching service!
Emmie Hamilton is an award-winning indie fantasy author and poet. After receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University, she published poetry and creative nonfiction essays as well as her debut novel, Chosen to Fall. In her spare time, she loves to make soy candles and learn new recipes, and she can often be found perusing the travel section at her local indie bookstore.
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