Taking away the “Easy” Button:
Bell’s three rules for writing about magic
First, let me clarify one thing—this isn’t about designing systems of magic for your fantasy world. Whether your magical system has to pay attention to the fact that matter is neither created nor destroyed, or how to go about constructing spells…that’s not what we’re here for today. I’m talking about magic from a writers point of view, how it will affect your plot, your characters, your reader’s suspension of disbelief. And all the ways that beginning fantasy writers seem to blow it.
Bell’s first rule for writing about magic: Magic must cause more problems for your characters than it solves.
The big lure of magic to us lazy humans is that it provides an easier way to do or get whatever we want. Unfortunately, making it easy on your protagonist is the exact opposite of the writer’s goal—you want to make things as hard for your main character as possible. Yet over and over, I see beginning fantasy writers create a gizmo, a familiar, set of spells that produces magic to solve the hero’s problems. Novice writers in other genres make related mistakes—the childrens’ book equivalent is when a character struggles with a problem throughout the story, and then in the end they go to some wise adult who solves it for them. The ancient Greeks hauled a god in a box onto the stage to solve their characters’ problems—and it didn’t make for good fiction back then, either. No matter what the genre, your protagonist must solve most of his problems, particularly the main story problem, by himself. He has to use the qualities of his own character, his courage, his determination, his wits, his integrity—not the magical equivalent of the Staples easy button. It has to be difficult, it has to involve prolonged struggle, and maybe even real sacrifice.
A superb example of magic that causes more problems than it solves is the one ring in Tolkien’s trilogy. Yes, Frodo has a spiffy ring that makes him invisible—cool! But it also sets all the bad guys in the universe hunting him. It attracts a spooky stalker who ultimately bites off Frodo’s finger. It makes his friends become evil and try to kill him. Oh, and it slowly eats Frodo’s soul and turns him evil too. Suddenly, invisibility doesn’t sound so cool. When throwing that ring into the volcano destroys the bad guys once and for all, the reader doesn’t mind that Frodo did it by magic because it wasn’t in any way, shape or form easy. Frodo earned that victory the hard way, and the reader is delighted to see him claim it. But if his ultimate victory had sprung from the ring’s magic, not his own courage and sacrifice, the story would have failed.
Which brings me to corollary one of Bell’s first rule: If the climax of your novel is a magical duel, it better be something besides magic that lets the hero win.
Yes I know, the climax of the whole Harry Potter series is a magical duel. But Harry has to be willing to lay down his own life to reach that duel, and the reason he beats Voldemort is not because his magic is stronger, but because… I know things you don’t know, Tom Riddle… his wits, and his understanding of humanity, have let him solve the puzzle of the elder wand.
This is followed by the second corollary of Bell’s first rule: Don’t make your magic so powerful that there’s no excuse for the hero not to use it to solve his problems.
If your hero has spiffy spells or gizmos that could take care of all his troubles, then there has to be a really good reason why he doesn’t do it the easy way. If you’ve made your magic too powerful, finding a convincing reason for your hero not to use it can be tricky—or impossible.
Bell’s second rule of writing about magic: Magic can’t happen offstage.
Because magic doesn’t exist, your reader won’t know what it looks like unless you describe it. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen a number of manuscripts where a woman shape sifts into a cat with no more description of the process than the words, she shapeshifted into a cat. I’m sure the author has a clear picture of this process in mind, but the under-informed reader is floundering—does she do a stretchy morph, like you sometimes see in movies? Does she dissolve into a cloud of shimmering sparks and reappear a la transporter? Does she suddenly began to glow so brightly that you can no longer see anything but light, and when the spots clear from your vision a cat is sitting there? Magic is the cool stuff in your story—this is where you should pull your most vivid writing out of the bag.
Another reason writers sometimes fail to describe magic is because they haven’t figured out how it works or what it looks like. The hero turns away for a second, or closes his eyes in fear, and lo and behold, while they’re not looking magic has happened! Yeah, right. Have you ever seen anyone looking away from a stage magician? People stare at magicians so hard that their eyes get dry, because they’re trying to see how it works. Your reader will feel the same about “real” magic—they want to watch it as closely as possible. And if they aren’t allowed to watch, the reader is going to feel like the magician is conning the viewpoint character…or worse, like the writer is trying to con the reader.
And speaking of the way people react to magic brings me to:
Bell’s third rule: All characters in your novel must react to magic in the way that a real person in that situation would.
If your characters are native to a world where magic exists this is easier. If the apprentice mage who bespells the streetlamps has been coming down that street at dusk ever since the hero was born, watching him at work is no big deal.
But if your characters come from our world (assuming they’re over the age of four or five) and their reaction to seeing magic for the first time is “Wow, that’s magic. How cool!” then I’ve got a bridge to sell them. Any sane, intelligent person’s reaction to first encountering magic should be some variant on one of two basic possibilities; 1) I’m being conned or 2) I’m going crazy.
Novice fantasy writers sometimes think that if their modern-day character believes in the magic then the reader will believe too, but in fact it’s just the opposite. If the character is the one saying, OK, where are the strings? Any good stage magician could fake that. or, Hey, marijuana’s not supposed to give you flashbacks! then your reader will eagerly anticipate the moment when your characters discover what the reader already knows—this is magic! I once read a writer’s analysis of Stephen King’s vampire novel. (I don’t remember the title, not being much of a horror person.) But the writer pointed out that the way King forced his readers to suspend their own disbelief was by having every character in the novel ignore the clues, refusing even to consider the ridiculous possibility of a supernatural explanation, until the reader was sitting on the edge of his chair shouting, You fools! There are vampires in this town!
In the final analysis, the reason why modern characters reacting realistically is so important is simpler than that. Readers don’t know how magic works in your universe—if you tell them that magic behaves in this and such a way, they’ll probably believe you. But we do know how people work. If your characters behave in a way that real people wouldn’t, the reader absolutely knows that that would never happen. No one would really react like that! Their suspension of disbelief vanishes—and in fantasy, more than any other genre, you need your reader to suspend disbelief.
So what you’re trying to do is to write magic that creates lots of problems for your character, described in sufficient detail, and that any modern characters won’t believe in till they’re absolutely forced to. Sound like more trouble than it’s worth? For your characters it should be. But a writer’s job consists of taking the easy button out of your characters’ hands—and the right kind of magic can do just that.