The Problem With Magic


I like “speculative fiction”. For decades I was a science fiction fan, preferably hard science fiction. Harry Potter got me interested in fantasy, but also got me thinking about why I generally don’t like fantasy.

The Dresden Files, first the TV series and then Jim Butcher’s books, got me really interested in Urban Fantasy and really got me focused on the central problem with Magic:

Why don’t ordinary people encounter Magic in their ordinary lives?

Take vampire stories for example. Most incantations of vampires have them as super strong, super fast, immortal bloodsuckers whose only real weakness is that they burn up when exposed to sunlight. Vampires can turn humans into vampires, but the converse isn’t true.

If every vampire created just one new vampire every year, in 33 years there’d be no more humans. Vampires (or at least vampire stories) have been around for much longer than that, so obviously there’s something else limiting their numbers. You might say “people are discovering and killing them,” but if that were the case vampires wouldn’t be the stuff of fiction but rather pests with exterminators listed in the Yellow Pages. (Okay, so the Yellow Pages don’t really exist anymore, but I think you get the idea.)

Many fantasy writers deal with this problem by setting their stories in completely fictional worlds. I blame Tolkien for so many authors taking this easy way out.

One of my favorite writers, Larry Niven, came up with a good explanation for why magic may have been prevalent millennia ago but is scarce now. He wrote several stories around the idea that magic is a non-renewable resource, like fossil fuel, and that earlier magical civilizations used it all up. The weapon of (magical) mass destruction he devised, the Wizard’s Wheel, worked by burning up all the magic in an area, thus killing all the creatures there that relied on magic to survive.

My own approach is that Magic is a type of energy, sort of like sound. Like sound you need to have “ears” to hear it and “vocal cords” to generate it. (It’s a poor analogue, but I hope you get the idea.) Roughly one in 10,000 people have any capability to sense or manipulate it. Most of those are not really aware of their magical prowess, and attribute their ability to persuade people, or make business decisions, or whatever, to other sources.

Or they just go insane.

Magic, being energy, can be converted from one form to another. Entropy applies, meaning that it’s easier to convert Magic into other forms of energy than vice versa.

What about magical creatures? In my world magic is constantly being replenished (think “manna from heaven”) and used. Most creatures have a little bit of magic helping to power their lives. More magical creatures tend to gather magic from their environment, concentrating it in themselves. Humans use magic to power their thought processes, which is why scientists can isolate sensory signals in the brain but can’t tell where self-awareness is located. Humans suck a lot of magic out of their environs, which results in magical creatures generally staying away from human habitats.

Magic is renewable, but not infinite. Thus even if magical ability is a survival trait, too many magical creatures in an area has them competing for resources, thus keeping the populations in check.

Bottom line, for me, is that even a fantasy has to have an internal logic, a set of rules that keeps magic from being simple wish fulfillment.

Where are the flaws in my reasoning?

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About Kurt Schweitzer

A former vampire logistics facilitator, past purveyor of Italian-style transportation, and Y2K disaster preventer, I'm currently creating websites, novels and other fictions while reinventing myself. Again.
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