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Worldbuilding 6: Magic


The uses and limitations of magic in fantasy worldbuilding


One of the principal differences between fantasy novels and their real world-based counterparts is the presence of magic. Magic, however, is a ticklish subject; get it right, and your story transports the reader into a new, heady world; get it wrong, and the story can quickly descend into unintended comedy. In this article, I'll look at some of the uses - and limitations - of magic in fantasy worldbuilding.

There are three basic ways in which magic impinges on the narrative as a whole; we could call them the three Ps. They are: power scaling, plot armour and plausibility. Let's look at each in turn.

Power scaling is a term that comes from Manga and gaming. It refers, obviously enough, to the relative power of different characters, or groups of characters; that is, it's about the balance of power in the narrative and how that balance affects the actions and motivations of the characters. In gaming, that balance is in effect a scoring system; in fantasy fiction, it is less defined but equally important.

At root it is a simple issue: if one character, or group of characters, is more powerful than everyone (and everything) else then you will struggle to make the story work. This is true for every facet of power - physical, technology or politics - but especially so when it comes to magic. Magic by definition tilts the balance of power. It is, when you think about it, cheating; altering the rules of reality to introduce dramatic tension.

So if you create a mage who can use magic to do practically anything, and therefore can't be opposed or thwarted, you have fatally tilted the power scaling in favour of that character. However brave, inventive, strong, or just plain ornery, your other characters are, they are not going to win. Effectively, you have created a character with an advantage that neatly leads us to our next topic: plot armour.

A character with exclusive power is a character with 100% plot armour; and that is not a good thing in a fantasy setting. Plot armour is not all bad, of course; you can use it (sparingly) to increase dramatic tension. If one of your main characters suddenly faces an impossible situation and, whether through luck, a miracle or unexplained gifts, survives, that's an exercise in plot armour. And sometimes it works really well. If the goodies in your story discover the chink in the baddies' plot armour, that can provide a lovely twist in the narrative arc.

Mostly, however, plot armour contaminates the verisimilitude of the narrative; characters that survive everything thrown at them are simply less plausible than those with limited abilities and chances. For worldbuilding, this is crucial; readers will grow sceptical pretty quickly if bullets always miss or bounce off the hero.

In fact, one thing that makes a good fantasy novel work well is precisely the relative weaknesses of the characters, how they become resilient to the weakness or its effects, and how they work to overcome the limitation and resolve the plot. This striving against the odds (we should properly call this struggle ‘agony', which originally meant the feeling of striving or competing) is pivotal to a good story.

If magic is the source of a character's plot armour, and the plot armour is infallible, it really can feel like cheating. And, I think, it actually feels worse when the goodies are the ones displaying it. Having invincible characters on the side of good undermines the moral framework of your world; if there is no struggle against evil, what's the point of the story?

In the end, it all comes down to plausibility. The powers, magical or otherwise, given to your characters must not offend the reality you have constructed through your worldbuilding. No one should be able (at least not on a regular basis) to step outside the boundaries you have drawn; if they do, and especially if they do so regularly or with ease, they fatally weaken the reality of the world you have built.

In essence, this is all about deus ex machina moments. Power imbalances, excessive plot armour, or implausible events, all require that tricky little trapdoor to suddenly open and produce a solution, or an escape route, or the duty demon, or to ease some character's route to the end of the story. It's cheating and, as any competent card sharp will tell you, the secret of good cheating is not to overdo it. Note well that I'm not saying ‘don't do it'; just don't do it so often that the reader starts to lose faith in the reality you have worked to build.

Keep the classical idea of agony in mind. If your characters don't strive, don't struggle to overcome the bad and restore the good, then they don't really have a story to tell. And if they come to an impossible obstacle, before you open the deus ex machina trapdoor and let the imps out, consider if you need to adjust your world so that there is a realistic solution to the problem, one that won't offend the reader's sense of reality and moral equivalence.

In a later article I will look at the various types of magic (learned, natural, chaos and so on), the resources need to fuel it, and the cost to the user. For now, let's just look at what we've learned about the ground conditions for magic, the three Ps:

  • Balance is critical in terms of power, especially where magic is involved
  • Plot armour can work, used sparingly, but don't overdo it
  • If it isn't plausible in relation to the world you have built, it's probably not right

If you get the balance right, keep plot armour to a minimum and keep the elements plausible, you will gain the reader's respect and, more importantly, belief; and that's real magic.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels

Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction

Worldbuilding 3: geography and physical location

Worldbuilding 4: technology

Worldbuilding 5: culture

Worldbuilding 7: it's a kind of magic