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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 1," By Eric Dontigney 


Magic is a staple of all fantasy literature. At first blush, this sounds like a recipe for anything goes. Magic is, by definition, outside the bounds of natural law. It’s irrational. That means that are no rules, right? It means exactly that, right up until you have a character use it. Once a character uses it, you become bound by the rule of narrative consistency.

Say you have a character cast a spell in the first chapter. They wave their hands significantly and utter some kind of nonsense word while casting that spell. For better or worse, you’re stuck with significant hand waving and nonsense words as key components of using magic. If not a rule for everyone in the book, it’s a rule for that character. If that character’s mode of casting spells changes every time without a very good in-universe explanation for why, it’ll shatter suspension of disbelief.

So, how do you, the stalwart writer of fantasy fiction, avoid that and other pesky pitfalls in your novels? The goal here is to lay out some general guidelines that should work across any version of fantasy you happen to write. So, let’s begin at the beginning.

How Does It Work?

Even if you plot by the seat of your pants, you need to know how magic works in your fictional universe from the outset. I’m not suggesting that you must figure out every possible permutation of every possible application of magic that could conceivably appear in your novel. What you do need is a solid foundational understanding of it. Here are a few starter questions that I believe must be answered from the get-go:

Is magical ability inherited, bestowed, or does it appear randomly?

Does using magic require any special equipment or training?

What, if any, cost is involved with using magic?

What are the limitations on magic?

Can the limits be transcended? If so, how, by whom, and under what conditions?

Is magic openly acknowledged or a functional secret?

So what makes these questions, as opposed to all the other potential questions, so critical? The answers to those questions will fundamentally shape what can and cannot happen on the page.

Take question 1. If magical ability is inherited, your magical characters will be born into family traditions and all the baggage that entails. If it’s bestowed, that has implications for the cosmology of your fictional universe. Someone must do that bestowing? Is it a god? A powerful nature spirit? An angel? If magical ability appears randomly, that sets up your character to be ostracized by friends or family. How do they cope? Who do they look to for guidance, and how do they find those guides?

So what about question 2? Why does that matter? If using magic requires special equipment, odds are good that it’s difficult to come by. Unless magic is an open practice in your universe, it’s not like your hero can swing by Ye Olde Magick Shoppe for some Eye of Psychedelic Tree Frog. Where do they get that equipment? What’s the price? How does the loss of equipment impair them? If it requires specialized training, who does the training and where do they do it? What’s the training regimen look like? You’ll get very different results depending on whether the training is more like Hogwarts or more like the Spartan agoge.

As to question 3, it’s almost a trope in fantasy that all magic comes at a price. Hence, you must figure out what that price looks like. Don’t be afraid to get creative here. It’s not a cost if it’s not something people value. It doesn’t even need to be an obvious cost. Maybe the price is memory. The more powerful the magic, the more memories or more important the memory you lose. How cautious would that make magic users? Yeah, maybe your character could bring down those castle walls, but it might cost them the memory of their child. Most of them would say no, unless it was literal life or death.

Question 4 is partially tied up with question 3. There can be psychological limits to magic, in that someone isn’t willing to pay the price to get something done. That said, you also need to know what inherent limits there are on using magic in your universe. What things are not allowed or impossible? Maybe magic can only influence inanimate matter. So, you can’t just hurl a fireball at someone to kill them. You need to trap them inside a wooden structure and then set that structure on fire. These kinds of limits are a good way to avoid using magic as a deus ex machina for every problem.

As to question 5, if you are going to allow those inherent limits to be transcended, what are the conditions? Who can do it, and why can they do it? Did they cut a deal with something? Are they using some other kind of magic? If so, why does that magic allow them to transcend those limits?

The answer to question 6 will define what kind of problems your character can face. If magic is an open part of the world, it’s not really a big deal if your character is hunting a demon. They won’t have to lie to friends about it. They won’t need to explain why those bones look so weird or how they seemed to pull lightning out of the sky. One potential annoyance they’ll face is one faced by many doctors or lawyers, which is people trying to get free advice from them. Your wizard is just trying to have a quiet pint at the pub and Yarg wanders up with a hypothetical question about removing a curse “for a friend.”

In Part 2 of Managing Magic in Your Novels, we’ll take a look at some of the on-the-page problems you’ll face as you write and edit.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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