The Perils of Playing with Magic

It sounds like an oxymoron, but I really do strive for “plausible fantasy”. I want the characters to seem real, the emotions to seem real, and for the world to hang together logically. Magic can stimulate our imaginations, but it can also threaten a fantasy story’s plausibility if the author isn’t careful to place it within some parameters.

Take the common magical device of teleportation – the ability to instantaneously travel someplace else, even a location thousands of miles away. That is an incredibly powerful ability – one that is so powerful it can threaten to undermine the balance in any world where it exists. In Rowling’s work, every young wizard learns this ability and very soon they’re zipping off all around the world instantly and effortlessly. There are no limits on the ability unless some magical place has specific strictures against it (i.e., Hogwarts). If this is the case, why would the unethical Mundungus have to bother swindling people for some extra change? He’d be the world’s greatest thief and could rob any poor Muggle blind! Why would the Weasleys have to scrap and save for an expensive vacation to Egypt? They could simply apparate there and bring along that wonderful tent from The Goblet of Fire…they wouldn’t even have to buy food as mom or dad could instantly apparate home to raid the kitchen in the Burrow. If even 1-2 percent of wizards were criminally minded, the world would be an absolute mess just from that ability alone….

My point is not to take the wonderful Harry Potter to task, but to illustrate the perils of writing with magic. I try to be very careful to give some limits in my books because it can quickly sweep everything out of its path. For example, in The Tapestry, magic comes at a tremendous physical cost – one can’t simply perform spell after spell after spell because one knows a magic formula or two. It’s a tremendously draining action and one that often renders one of our heroes (the mercurial David Menlo) effectively helpless. As we learn in The Maelstrom, it’s why Mrs. Menlo seems simpleminded – she has so much magic in her that it overwhelmed her sensibilities.

When it comes to really powerful magic (like teleportation) I try to restrict it to a select few. After all, if everyone’s super powerful than really no one is. Power is a relative thing. On Earth, Superman is Superman. On Krypton, he’s just a regular guy with a square jaw and great hair. In my books, Elias Bram is the only human in the books who can truly teleport. David can do so in his own fashion, but the ability is limited – he can “see” existing wormholes and construct “tunnels” from the observatory, but these are extremely time consuming and exhausting to build and they only take him to and from one predetermined place. He can’t simply hop, skip, and jump all over the map in the blink of an eye. If he could, that would essentially make him omnipotent and would also preclude the necessity of detailing various journeys (which is half the fun of writing a fantasy novel).

So when you’re writing your own fantasy stories, have fun with magic but be wary of it too. It’s a little like holding a tiger by the tail – if you’re not careful, it can turn on you and quickly undermine the logic and rules that govern the wonderful world you’ve created. Place some sensible limits. If you don’t, magic will drench your setting like some technicolor explosion – it will lose its punch and, by definition, become all too ordinary. And that’s the last thing magic should be!