Worldbuilding in Fiction – Presence of Magic

There are many magic premises out there, ranging from the standard ‘D&D’ type sword-and-sorcery magic rules to the set of spell rules seen in Harry Potter. Many books do an excellent job making a deep and engaging system of magic, but there are also some common problems that arise when introducing a set of magic rules.

This time, I’m going to focus on how magic changes culture and the world its in through the commonality of its use.

Common vs. Uncommon Magic

Who is able to do magic in your world? The number or percentage of people capable of casting spells could make a huge difference in how they are perceived in the universe. Below, I’ll look at the various levels of magic and provide a couple examples of worlds that succeed and worlds that fail for each.

Nearly Ubiquitous

In these worlds, nearly everyone is born with at least some capability of performing magic. There may be different levels of magic performance between individuals, but magic is so common that it’s no surprise when people use it. Reasons to use extremely common magic are if this magic is typically weak, if this magic is present but typically not used due to high cost, making extremely bizzare worlds with entirely different cultures.

Good Example: The first two books of The Darksword Trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
In the first two books of the series, almost every character has the ability to either cast or create magic. The most prominent character (I hate to say main character, seeing as a lot of the first book isn’t from his perspective), is the only person in the world who cannot use magic. Weis and Hickman use the idea that magic is common, so common that it is considered to be a sign of life, to make their non-magical character stand out. The third book in the trilogy gets a little iffy, but the first two have a great system of magic.
From these books, we learn that there needs to be a reason to have magic be so common and, simultaneously, that the world would look very bizarre and different from what we know if magic use is rampant. I can’t think of another book where extremely common magic is both used a lot and used by everyone. Though the whole trilogy isn’t my favorite story, the portrayal of magic is fantastic.

Not-So-Good Example: The Elder Scrolls series of video games produced by Bethesda
I adore Skyrim and I love Oblivion, but there’s honestly a problem with the way they incorporate magic into the world. If everyone has magic and some people are very, very good at magic, why is everyone walking around in these medieval towns composed of trashy houses with thatched roofs? Why aren’t there constant reminders that this is a magical world? Why are bandits running around with swords? The game creators ignored the effects of ubiquitous magic on the world and just plopped people who choose to ignore or hate magic into a setting similar to historical Europe. The way that magic is done and portrayed makes little sense.
That being said, the games themselves are fantastic and can will eat your time away.

Common

In these worlds, magic is used by a large portion of people, but there are some who don’t have magic. I estimate this category is for worlds where magic users make up anywhere from 25% to 50% of the population. Reasons to use magic like this is to have societies where magic is accepted, where magic belongs to a certain class or race of people, or where magic is randomly given but doesn’t make a person powerful enough to overtake the non-magical people around them.

Good Example: Harry Potter series
Harry Potter does a good job with common magic by separating the magical society completely from the non-magical.  In a way, it sets itself in a ‘Nearly Ubiquitous’ magic universe, but Rowling does a good job explaining what the wizards have to do to retain their secrets.  She shows the effects of magic on muggles and the effects of muggles on the wizarding world.  These interactions, while few, are interesting.
That being said, I believe that Harry Potter could not have been set in a time with cell phone cameras.  There’s a bunch of good conspiracies and theories pulling apart the Harry Potter universe.  If someone comments a better good example for common magic worlds, I am very willing to replace this entry.

Not-so-Good Example: Avatar: The Last Airbender television series
The show is very interesting and has visually stunning methods of controlling the four elemental magic types, but it lacks oomph when it comes to developing a culture around the magic. It seems, from the show, that roughly half – maybe fewer – of the people in the world have access to magical powers. Ordinary people, nobles, recluses, and anyone else you can think of has a chance of being a bender (or magician) from birth, leaving no real barriers separating people based off of who has magic. The non-magicians participate in almost every sphere just as well as the magicians do and are rarely prodded for their lack of skill. This relationship seemed underdeveloped, potentially abusive, and much more important than it was given credit for.
In the spinoff series, The Legend of Korra, the problems between benders and non-benders are addressed more deeply, though not as much as I would like. In the first season, the primary villain motivates non-benders to rise up against the benders that, we are told but never shown, have preferential treatment.

Uncommon

Worlds where magic is common enough that it’s widely known to exist, but where the vast majority of people can’t use it. Normal people may not have access to magic, but they likely have read historical stories or news about people who have. This is very useful when creating class differences, for making your main characters pop but still have worthy companions, or for creating cult-like rituals surrounding magical individuals or groups.

Good Example: The Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
In this series, there is a class of people – the nobility – who have the capability of using magic. Their bastard children with peasant class individuals may also have the ability to use magic. This makes a sort of apartheid-like situation where the lower class, because they are innately less powerful, have an additional disadvantage after the nobility have all the wealth and material advantages. The way that magic is perceived by lower and upper classes is contrasting, both of which are reasonable and interesting.

Not-so-Good Example: Most Disney Cartoons
Think about The Little Mermaid or Sleeping Beauty.  These movies have excusable magic problems because of their roots in fairytales, but they still have a major problem in terms of the cultures presented.  Most of the characters seem to know and believe in magic, from fairies to voodoo to witches and more, but their cultures and societies seem to act independently, as if there is no reason to fear magic.  Frozen does a fairly good job, since the whole community responds to the accusations against Elsa’s magic, but in most movies the people just sit around and do very little about the fact that magic exists.

Rare

Rare magic worlds are where magic is known to exist, but the individuals who possess it are something of an oddity. They may be secreted away due to their potentially dangerous or illegal status, or they may be lifted high on a pedestal.  Rare magic can be useful to set your main character apart as a hero or a villain, or perhaps a member of a rare lineage or royalty.

Good Example: The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ah, there are so many things right with Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason these books have shaped high fantasy as we know it – they’re well planned and fantastically done. As far as magic and culture go, it is clear that the ability to use magic is rare, limited to wizards and those who possess magical items. Elves seem to have a taste of magic about them, but it is mysterious and either not easily controlled or not often evident. As such, the people of Middle Earth have learned to work around magical beings and, though perhaps horrified or frightened at times, are not surprised by the existence of magic. Unlike in Skyrim where taking away the magic would not bother the game’s feel all that much, taking magic out of The Lord of the Rings would destroy the culture, the plot, and the characterizations.

Not-so-Good Example: Indiana Jones Series of Movies
In every Indiana Jones movie, there is some sort of magic premise. It’s well known enough that people, at least somewhere, genuinely believe the magic to be real. In The Lost Ark, the Nazis find the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt and are promptly met with face-melting oblivion. Enough people know of and have access to this magic (I know, it could technically be called divine power, not magic, but bear with me) that it seems nonsense for most of the world to not believe in magic. There are so many powerful, magical things that Indy sees, and yet his main concern is archaeology. Why? Why in the world would you care about archaeology when you’ve potentially just solved the energy crises and cured all ills? The movies make for great action flicks but tries to fit itself in between the ‘rare’ magic category and the ‘unheard of’ one. Indiana Jones’s response to magic would be more fitting if put in a time period before oil or atomic energy were heavily depended on.

Unheard Of

Unheard Of magic worlds are worlds in which magic is so rare that no one even knows it exists. Reasons for this set of magic is that the source or users are from otherworldly planes, magic users belong to a secret society, most people believe magic is part of conspiracy theories, evil is waiting quietly for the apocalypse, among others. In these stories, the main characters usually act outside of the realm of normal life and eyes, retaining the secret of magic from the world at large.

Good Example: The first half of the Death Note Anime
The first half of this anime is psychologically exquisite. A young man, Light, gets a notebook where if he writes a name and thinks of that person’s face, the person will die. The notebook has never been seen before, and the effects of Light’s subsequent doling out of what he sees as justice are unequivocally feared. Since no one believes in magic, the police and detectives all meet quick roadblocks in finding the murderous culprit. The way that the characters react to the existence of the shinigami’s magic is psychologically interesting and filled with intrigue.
Then the second half of the series starts and it nosedives off a cliff and burns violently at the bottom. So, if you decide to watch the anime, don’t try to push through the terrible episodes to ‘get to the end.’ Your time isn’t worth it.

Not-so-Good Example: Supernatural Television Series
Supernatural is currently my Netflix crack and I have enjoyed it, but there’s a problem that viewers simply have to ignore: the world’s magic should not fit in this category. If the apocalypse has started, demons are wreaking havoc, monsters eat people regularly, ghosts haunt buildings and things, and all this happens regularly enough that there’s a large network of people who hunt these things as their primary occupation, it doesn’t make sense that it’s all secret. The people ‘in the know’ use legend and lore to guide them, what’s more, meaning that the average Joe does have access to the same information and evidence as the main characters. Relying on the stupidity of the masses – especially when there’s a whole internet full of people to analyze evidence – doesn’t always work out well.

Thinking About Magic in Your Fantasy World

We’ve seen how some other creative, talented people have taken on the task of including magic in their worlds. Even the worlds that I pointed out as being ‘Not-so-Good’ were still, in most cases, commercially successful, so there is a lot of leeway in making fantasy perfect. Ironing out a culture for magic, however, can bump your ideas up to the next notch.

Taking these examples into account, ask yourself the following questions as you flesh out your fantasy world.

  1. How common is the ability to use magic in my world?
  2. Are there magical creatures that are non-human or non-sentient? Is magic use exclusive to them?
  3. Do most people know about magic?
  4. Do any of my main characters have the abilities to use magic? What has their culture taught them to think about that?
  5. What kind of reaction do or would normal people in your universe have upon learning about the magic present in your system?
  6. Is magic intrinsically good, evil, or neutral? How does this affect your culture?
  7. How do non-magical characters interact with magical ones? Is there a caste system that takes this into account? Are magical characters persecuted?
  8. How does magic affect the economy of the world?

Thanks for reading, and have fun creating your own worlds and adventures!

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