Story Crafting: Magic – When to Use Spells

Story crafting with magic. I’m not talking about designing magic systems or arcane metaphysics here (that would be World Crafting: Magic). What I’m talking about is using magic to enhance and serve the story, and that means plot and character.

Ok, to be complete here, I should say this: magic serves three things in a story: plot, character, and setting. For the latter, that’s world building and magic system construction, so we won’t address that yet. In an earlier post, I had talked about the importance of a setting’s unique character for a story to qualify as science-fiction or fantasy, so I’m going to gloss over setting this time and focus on the story elements of plot and character.

Let’s consider two absolute statements (note that in writing, I don’t believe in absolutes):

Magic that serves plot is always bad.

Magic that serves character is always good.

Ok, maybe the “always” isn’t accurate, but for the sake of argument let’s examine these points, and their exceptions.

“Make It So” Magic: By “magic serving plot”, what I’m referring to are instances when spells or powers are used just for the sake of resolving a plot point, or allowing a character to triumph. If a magic effect seemingly comes out of nowhere to vanquish a foe or solve a mystery, it can quickly become the dreaded deus-ex-machina.hate deus-ex-machina. It tends to make it look as if the writer didn’t have a plan, and cheated by conjuring (pun intended) a solution by the power of his pen. When used this way, magic is truly the “make it so” power, which implies no struggle or resistance. That’s the lure of the idea of magic: I can impart my will on the world and bypass the normal effort to achieve my desire. However, when an author lets characters “make it so” their way to solutions, there’s not much drama.

Battlestar Galactica is a prime example of this. What’s going on? We don’t know! Oh screw it, let’s make the prophetic opera dream be a random hallucination to get characters to walk 20 paces down the hall… and oh hell with it let’s make all those other characters angels, and it was all god’s plan anyway, so here’s earth and abandon technology. (They didn’t have a plan. They lied!)

Then there was the vintage B-sci-fi-movie called “Starcrash”. The hero Akton seems to carry out random superpower after superpower, with no warning in the start of the movie he might be a super-powered being. (Nevertheless, I recommend you find this movie on Youtube, get a strong drink and prepare to spend a few moments ROFLMAOing.)

(For a taste, here’s the epic preview:

and the link to the full 90 minute movie. It’s bad.  Really bad.  But awesomely bad. Random powers and random 70’s space bikinis… on what planet was this a good idea?)

Ok, I digress. The point is, the hero with the random “defeat scenario” magic toolkit is highly unrewarding.

There are exceptions where “make it so” magic can work. When the challenge is relatively minor (say, crossing a rope bridge when you have a camel in tow), you might have the wizard pull out a short-range teleportation spell as a means to overcome the bridge, and reveal a piece of your magic system to the reader. This is okay, but if used sparingly.

To summarize, magic can be used in plot-resolving scenes, but not in a manner that the magic exists for the purpose of resolving the plot. It should not be revealed for the first time in a climactic scene, and it helps to be used as part of character development.

“Ah Ha!” Magic: By “magic serving character”, I mean spells or powers that occur in the story that symbolize the inner psychological or symbolic develop of a character or theme in the story. A perfect example of this sort of magic occurs in Star Wars. Obi Wan tells Luke to let go and use the Force when he fires on the Death Star.  When Luke finally has the “ah ha” moment, he shouts “I get it!” and fires his photon torpedos.  Well, maybe he didn’t shout “I get it!” But he should have.

Conversely, evil magic can work the same way. Characters can become corrupt, and then gain access to dark powers as a sign of their corruption. In mythic fantasy, platonic ideals, emotions, and passions all take on real presence in the world. A character can tap into any of these, and then it display magically according to that character’s magic system.

For instance, let’s say we have a dark sorceress.  Let’s say she’s been having a challenge realizing how much her friend means to her. When she finally sees her friend in danger, she has an “Ah hah!” realization, and her power unlocks. She might summon  a demon or channel living shadow to save her friend. Conversely, if this same character is a druid, undergoing the same dilemma, maybe this realization clears an internal mental “block” and allows her to channel Life more deeply. Same scene, but instead of summoning dark magic, she reaches out with growing vines, or maybe animals respond to her call. An example of this is the Aes Sedai Nyneave in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. She spends a good chunk of the books only able to channel when she’s angry. Her power responds to a character state of being.

This sort of thing still needs to be handled with care. If every problem is solved by roaring and “powering up” (ahem. Dragonball Z), then this becomes the simple fix-it-all tool. We just need to wait for the hero to get [pick one: mad, enlightened, calm, enraged, accepting, passionate, in love] enough to get their power on.

Revisiting the absolute statements Revised statements:

Magic that serves plot is risky.

Magic that reflects character growth is good.

Timing is key. In some ways, magic that reveals setting (the magic system) can be used to solve minor plot problems and introduce magical abilities to the reader towards the start of a story arc. Then, later, the magic can be developed as the character grows and makes realizations. The nature and visual effects of characters’ magic can change over time, responding to their progress on their character journey.

Perhaps “make it so” magic is early-story magic used for revealing setting details, and “ah ha!” magic is mid to late story magic used for wrapping up plot points. Inverting the two leads to an off-putting story.

And, that’s all for this week!

2 thoughts on “Story Crafting: Magic – When to Use Spells

  1. I agree that magic should at all times serve as an expression of character and character growth. However, if magic does not also serve the plot, magic will quickly start to seem like unnecessary padding on one’s story. I would revise the first statement to, “No plot point should be resolved by magic alone.”

    I would also add that limiters on magic are extremely useful for keeping one’s wizards in hand. I use both the morals/religion of individual characters and iron as limiters. In British mythology, fairies cannot bear the touch of “cold iron”. So I stole that and applied it to my magi instead–iron both dispels/disrupts magic and causes terrible pain to magi in my world of Endrion. That means an armored knight can go toe-to-toe with a magus, and it will be a very tense battle.

    I also like using a magic spell to solve one problem but create either a new problem or a new dynamic. For instance, I have a necromancer summon a dog-zombie to scare off a couple of thugs, which works perfectly. Except two chapters later those same thugs come back with the rest of their pirate crew and kidnap him.

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