I’ve been mulling this post over for a few weeks. Part of the reason I haven’t posted it is because I can’t find the original source. The other part is that I was having trouble finding enough to say to make it worthwhile.

Today, I’m not sure I found either, but I’m going to do it anyway.

At some point, I ran across a Reddit post talking about the rules of magic. It was either in the writing or books sub. I can’t remember which (and this is partially why I can’t find that damned piece of information).

In short, it described a quick rule guide for how magic is allowed to be used in books. If you outline the rules more, you get to use the magic more. If you don’t outline the rules as much, you don’t get to use the magic much.

Pretty simple positive correlation.

It’s pretty easy to see in application as well. If you jump into The Lord of the Rings, magic is everywhere, but it’s rarely used. Gandalf is The Wizard of the 20th century, and he barely does any magic that we can see. Tolkien didn’t give us the rules, so we don’t see much magic in his books. It’s there, and it happens, but it’s under the surface. For the most part, people jab each other with swords, shoot each other with arrows, and indiscriminately swing axes.

Even the big bad doesn’t use magic on screen. We know Sauron can do a lot of bad stuff, but we don’t really get to see it action.

On the other hand, you have the more modern magic books, like Harry Potter and The Magicians. These books fall into my magical education sweet spot but also lie on the other end of the magical rules. Magic is used everywhere in these books. Not only does it move the plot, people use it for mundane household tasks and for pranking each other. But these books also go into pretty exhaustive detail about how magic works. They explain the rules. They explain the circumstances. They make fun of the people who can do magic but aren’t very good at it.

This is a very different type of universe. At this point, it’s the more common variety you’ll see. You get some lighter descriptions of magic, but for the most part, contemporary fantasy writers give you rules.

Part of what finally got me to at least write this down was listening to this podcast today:

This was from an episode of Imaginary Worlds, a podcast dealing primarily with science fiction but some dabbling in fantasy. Instead of just surface-level conversation, the host treats it like journalism and goes into the framework of the stories or into the cultural effects they have.

In short, it’s nerd heaven.

The episode provides an explanation about the rules of magic but also talks about why people believe in magic on a universal level.

All in all, neat stuff that’s worth a dive if it sounds interesting to you.

And as I sit here typing, I try to think about what my contribution is. I obviously like books with magic in them. They’re my crack. But I don’t like all magic books. Some are disappointing. Most are derivative. I like something original.

The first thing I look for is how the magic is applied. Do we have wands? Do we have funny hand movements and speak in dead languages? Do we move the elements? Do we have furies? Or are we using manmade objects as a conduit? Is your magical world different from the others around it.

After that, I want to know what world we’re living in. Sometimes we’re completely off the map in Middle-earth. Sometimes the magical community exists beneath the surface of our own world. And sometimes it’s a reimagining of our world where magic is common place. There are only so many ways to do this, but what’s your take?

And then we have the lead character. Who’s our hero? Why should I root for this person? Usually, it’s the plucky little underdog. Someone who’s been abused, neglected, cast out. And sometimes it’s a narcissistic asshole. If I’m going to go into the realm of make-believe, you’d better give me someone interesting to follow.

So let’s do some application:

  • Harry Potter
    • Wands (mostly)
    • Below our world
    • Plucky underdog
  • LOTR
    • Rings, staffs, and who knows what else
    • Another world
    • Plucky underdog halflings
  • The Magicians
    • Mostly hands and language (some stomachs and staffs near the end)
    • Below our world
    • Aforementioned narcissistic asshole
  • The Alchemyst
    • Aura? This series was weird with its magic.
    • Below our world
    • Kids who aren’t what they seem
  • Eragon
    • Words
    • Another world
    • Plucky underdog
  • The Paper Magician
    • Words and manmade objects, such as paper
    • Alternate reality
    • Basically Hermione in 1900
  • Codex Alera
    • Furies
    • Sort of another world, sort of an alternate reality
    • Plucky underdog
  • The Raven Cycle

Some of these series worked better than others. The Alchemyst really lags behind the others in my view, but it also never really explains its magic that well despite littering magic everywhere, so maybe that’s it.

But here’s the real secret: The magic doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, most of our heroes in these books aren’t the most powerful beings walking around. Usually they’re the person who needs to throw sand in the opponents eye and run away to fight another day.

As much as magic draws me in as a reader, it won’t make me happy. It’s intriguing, but it’s not why I’m there. I want to see how people confront their reality.

In Harry Potter, Dumbledore and Voldemort are heads and shoulders above anyone else we see. This includes Hermione, who is heads and shoulders above Harry and could cause him a world of hurt. And yet Harry’s our good guy. Harry’s the guy who runs into the fire. This is why we like the books. The magic just got us in the door.

So for all this talk of magic and the rules of magic, that’s not what makes these books work. It’s the characters. You could turn these characters loose in the real world, and they would still succeed because of their personalities. They don’t need magic. If magic was all they had, they’d have been defeated long ago. None of my favorite books with magic feature the most powerful practitioner as the protagonist because that’s boring. People like Batman more than Superman because we can relate to Batman. Superman isn’t even human.

And so it goes with our books. A Dumbledore-led book would be frustrating. Instead of ups and downs, we’d just be frustrated that the most powerful character gets so little done.

And with that, I think I managed an almost decent post. I’ll see you when the next book is finished, nerd friends.