Fantasy Magic: Internally Consistent or Author Fiat?

When it comes to fantasy, the magic system is often very central.  If not to the plot itself the options available to characters often rely on rules and restrictions of their magic systems.  There are two main types of ways (and many points between those two) authors handle those limitations to their characters.  One is by having a rigorous magic system with it’s own internally consistent rules.  It in essence becomes another type of technology that gives predictable outcomes if one takes specific steps to achieve them.  The other is magic more as mystery or a story device.  If you treat it this way it seems like a capricious force that achieves things without the reader or character being able to know why, or the character being able to replicate the same effect again.

A lot of older fantasy fiction and myths occur like the later description.  Magic in stories was a way to have the mysterious or even frightening happen. Those that could use it would be rare, and follow more the paths of a mythological hero than anything else. Early fantasy fiction followed this.  For example Gandalf as a wizard does very little that the modern day would consider “magical” in the Lord of the Rings.  He fights with his sword more than anything else, and most of his wizard abilities were small, illusory, or using obscure lore.  He could however suddenly do things completely unexpected and not foreshadowed, like essentially coming back from the dead.  Even greek and norse gods seemed to only have the abilities that fit the needs of the specific tales they were in.  The one exception to this was at times magic items would do the same things every time, whether it be a ring of invisibility or a spear that causes thrones to sprout out of it’s target.

Modern fantasy seems to be more informed by the fact that many of its readers have been role playing gamers, or played video games or other media which are influenced by specific rules. There is still some leeway for surprise effects, like letting a character have fire magic without codifying each and every use of this before it happens.  Then the mage who normally throws fireballs at its enemy can summon a firestorm and go unconscious from the fire during he final battle (or even burn themselves up) without it seeming “deus ex machine” or to occur by fiat.  Some authors (such as Brandon Sanderson) might add appendixes so you know exactly the limitations and abilities of each “branch” of fantastical powers available.

Whichever you choose, it’s best to stick to one of them, or whatever place you decided in between, the whole series.  If people can use their abilitiesonly  in certain logical ways most of the times, but at key story climax times unexpected capricious things happen it can leave a reader feeling frustrated.

The mysterious version is best if you want the characters themselves and most of the denizens of their world afraid or awed by magic.  If almost no one knows how it works then it gives a feeling of amazement when it does show, or if it works differently every time even those using it cannot rely on it for they do not know what effects will happen when they use it.  Many dark fantasies like Game of Thrones and Chronicles of Covenant make magic either rare or capricious, so that no one relies on it for they never know what outcomes will happen.  If a main character uses it even they should be afraid to use those abilities for dark consequences may happen.

Those that want to build a world different but similar enough to our own will often choose to have their magic systems following laws our minds can understand.  As stated before this is common to those who come to fantasy from genres outside of older literature (comics, video and role playing games, similarities to some sciences, etc) often expect it. In these worlds magic is less a taboo dark force than it is a consistent tool that just could not exist in our own universe.  This is a great system to use when also crating world with culture or flavors like our own (something that feels Victorian, renaissance Italian, ancient Celtic), etc sicne our minds accept it in the same way we would accept a weapon or other tool a culture uses that we do not.


What is your preference for magic systems in your fantasy literature?

1)Open and unreliable

2)Defined and methodical

3)Whatever works for the book it is in since as long as it is consistent.

4)Don’t care at all.

Book Update:

I am probably about 60% through the first draft of Rise From the Sun Below, the second Allmother’s Fire book.  In the conceptual stage I am deciding what series to do next, between two different series, and a standalone book idea.

World Info:

Bodies of water are an interesting thing in this universe.  There are no oceans, so most water is confined to well spots or occasionally canals and streams.  Streams do go off the island, but instead of falling down into the Sun Below they careen back to the under portions of the island and then go back into the steams and different points.  If one wanted to they could try to pilot a small boat of the side of an island, but no knows if they would make it back up the island again, or careen down into the sun below.

A few islands actually have large lakes, and this is the closest anyone in the universe has to Oceans.  There are tales of islands that have lakes large enough to be similar to our Oceans, yet no one has ever been able to map how to go there, so it may just be a tale. It is certainly spoken of in the past of lakes large enough to be Oceans, and if this is not true then it is curious why airships looks almost exactly like ships that in our world would cross the Oceans.  Some whisper that this is just one more mystery suppressed by the Allmother’s church.


About mdkenning

E-book clockpunk fantasy author View all posts by mdkenning

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