When Magic Feeds the God Machine

Regardless of genre, all stories essentially boil down to two major elements. First, we as readers must emotionally bond with an individual protagonist or group of characters. Second, those characters must, through the force of their own agency, struggle to either achieve some goal or change an unbearable status quo. Only when these two conditions are met can the story be emotionally satisfying.

Each genre brings its own complications to this basic equation. In fantasy, the biggest threat to reader satisfaction is the influence of magic. By its very nature, magic represents power, a way to break the rules of the universe and achieve the unachievable. In so doing, a poorly constructed magic system has the potential to rob characters of their agency and render their struggles moot. If it does this, the magic system simply becomes another form of Deus Ex Machina. There are several possible solutions to this issue, however.

The first is to limit the magic’s power in order to reduce its efficacy as a solution. When you build a magic system, it is essential to ensure that the power has clearly defined limits and/or a steep price attached. These limits can be as simple as an inherent ability to accomplish some task or as complicated as a social, moral, or cultural consequence that causes the character to be reluctant to use the magic in the first place. Whatever the reason, if the magic can’t or won’t be the sole solution, it’s no longer a threat to the character’s struggle.

Another option is to oppose the magic’s power in world. For example, it makes sense for a society with access to magic to have defenses and consequences in place to prevent that magic from being used in criminal activities and punish those who do break the law. Additionally, an evil king will certainly have defenses on his castle to keep your characters from walking through the walls and stabbing him in his sleep. In this case, the story becomes about the character’s ingenuity in bypassing the magical defenses or not getting caught by the law as they use their power to accomplish their goal.

Finally, some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read treats magic as little more than a tool. Tools, by definition, are unable to directly solve a problem and must instead be used by someone with agency. Additionally, the individual must know how to use a tool in order for it to be effective. Therefore, the solution to the problem is a function of the character’s skill, and once again agency is retained.

However, to be effective, the limits on magic’s power must be visible to the reader. Tension is derived from the reader knowing that the odds are against the character and their desire for victory regardless. As we build our worlds, we must ensure that our magic’s scope is limited so that it doesn’t cheat our characters of their victory and the readers of their emotional release.


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