What Did You Learn?

November 15, 2009

General Writing: The Rules of Fantasy

Filed under: General Writing, Genre — Tags: , — ax20 @ 7:06 pm

One of the fun things about fantasy is that all these things that could never happen in real life can happen in fantasy. You can apparate or channel or fly…all the things you wish you can do are possible and it feels like all the rules of nature go out the window. The key in that sentence: “it feels like.”

Any good fantasy writer knows that while magic changes the rules, it doesn’t mean there are none. I’ll give you some examples:

Harry Potter– as any Harry Potter fan knows, JK Rowling set up an extremely intricate world of magic. JKR spent five years developing the laws of magic. For example there are the “Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration” which are the five things that cannot be done by magic (such as conjure food out of thin air).

Sword of Truth– in Terry Goodkind’s books, magic has a different set of laws. There are two distinct types of magic, additive and subtractive. Zed, possessing only additive magic, can create, but not destroy, so while he can make a beard grow, he cannot make it vanish.

Narnia– if you remember, Aslan could only come back to life because he willingly sacrificed his life for another. (I take issue with this only because he knew the old laws and so it isn’t a sacrifice because he knew he’d come back, but you get the point.)

Percy Jackson and the Olympians
– in this series, mortals as a whole cannot see magic and generally cannot be hurt by magical items. For example, Percy’s magical sword, Riptide, cannot kill a regular person but can destroy monsters.

To go even more old school, Achilles was unassailable, except for his heel, which was his fatal weakness.

There can be loopholes of course, but those loopholes must fit in with the established system, because if anyone can do anything, then everything becomes ridiculous and there is no longer any dramatic tension. (Read more about this on this Wikipedia page.)

Additionally, people take magic pretty seriously. So the things in the story need to make sense not just be convenient for you. How do characters learn magic? Can anyone do it? Do you need to attend school for it? Or be an apprentice? Is it inborn? The details of acquiring magic are key. So if you have a character who wants to curse somebody, simply saying “well, his uncle knew magic and he gave him a book with an evil curse that let him do whatever he wanted” isn’t enough. A scene like this calls up questions: Is the uncle evil? Would he give someone a book of strong magic to someone who knew nothing of magic and its consequences? Would he even have such a book in the first place?

There are a lot of things to think about, such as the dangers and consequences of using magic. The Sword of Truth series discusses consequences a lot. In the first book they defeat the bad guy only to discover that the way they did it actually caused an even greater problem. In the Sword of Shannara Series by Terry Brooks, magic is scene to have negative consequences as well, corrupting and often hurting those who use it.

The rules, and the weaknesses, are as important as any other aspect of the story. They are what make it any good instead of just another story any five year old could have thought up.g



  1. You have tested it and writing form your personal experience or you find some information online?

    Comment by Johnvn — July 6, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    • That’s a good question. I’d say I’ve gotten this from reading fantasy, reading what published authors have said about writing fantasy, and from writing it myself. It’s just more believable when there is some sort of construct (and it is easier for an audience to understand and swallow). Otherwise, what’s stopping everyone from just snapping their fingers and magically making the world be the way they want it?

      Comment by ax20 — July 22, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

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