Magic is … well magical, it can bring an element of excitement and otherworldly power into any story. Magic appears in all kinds of fantasy stories, be they high fantasy, urban fantasy or gothic fantasy. I personally really enjoy fantasy stories that are set in the ‘real’ world, I love the idea that there’s more to our own world than we know and that if you scratch beneath the surface there’s a whole other way of life, be it terrifying or exciting.
Today I want to talk about writing magic when your story is set in the ‘real’ world.
Writing magic is one of those things that sounds really easy on the surface, but in order to do it well it can be pretty tricky, the phrase easy to learn difficult to master comes to mind. I mean magic isn’t real so it can technically do anything, it can fix any problem, cover any plot hole you accidentally create, it’s a fix-everything tool surely? Yes, in a sense it is, but if you’re not consistent with it, if you fail to establish rules, limitations and consequences for your magic system then it’s not going to work. You might think it works, but your audience won’t be impressed.
It sounds dull but as a species human thrives on order, rules and boundaries. We have an insatiable curiosity and we need to understand how things work, that includes the world around us and our fictional worlds as well, otherwise we disconnect.
So, when writing a magic system in any sense you will need to have clearly established rules and boundaries and you will have to stick to them. Establishing rules and boundaries is all well and good but if you then decide to bloody ignore them then it’s just going to be frustrating.
You should also ask yourself before you start writing, what is magic adding to the story? If it’s just there for the sake of it, or because you wanted to write some sparkle fingers then you might want to reconsider.
This goes for any magic system; it doesn’t matter if it’s set in Middle Earth or Swindon.
Magic in the Mundane
But how can you make the magic work in the ‘real world’?
I’ll stick to Swindon as a setting, for those of your non-native to the UK, Swindon is the town where I was born, it’s an ordinary little place in Wiltshire (a County in South West, England) and is quite probably the most down to earth and therefore ‘real’ place that comes to my mind. Except maybe Milton Keynes or Hull.
So how do we write magic when our story is set in Swindon?
First of all, we will need to decide what kind of magic system we’re writing, rational, non-rational etc. Once you’ve established that, you’ll need to figure out if you want magic to be widely known or a secret. Aka is the general public aware of the magic around them? Or are those with the ability to practice magic a secret part of society hidden away?
Your choice above will strongly influence your story, for example, if the world at large is aware of magic, no one will bat an eye at the wizard flogging magical artefacts in the shopping centre, but if it’s a secret then your main character probably shouldn’t be blasting out fireballs in the high street.
Writing a secret magic system is probably easier, as you can keep to the rules of the real world and also inspire an element of magic and mystery by taking real locations and adding magical elements to them, think Harry Potter and Diagon Alley in London, one minute we’re in normal London then suddenly behind a wall we’ve suddenly stepped into this otherworldly place. It immediately raises the sense of magic and wonder and transports your audience into a real but magical world.
But you will also need to consider the aspect of your story such as why do the magical people hide? Is there a reason it’s all so secret? How do they keep things secret? All these elements need to be taken into account and you need to write compelling reasons for the secrecy and the mechanics of how it’s maintained.
If you have chosen to write a world where magic is widely known you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. You’ll need to consider things such as how your magic system has affected things such as government, infrastructure, finance, politics, wars etc I mean think of how different the World Wars would have been if we’d had wizards? Would it have even happened?
Overall writing magic in a real-world setting, such as Swindon, has the potential to make your magic system pop more, by comparison, magic is going to feel more magical if it’s taking place in a pretty standard town, in comparison to a lush green world which is already alien to us.
But it’s not an easy job, there’s a lot to consider, besides the normal considerations when incorporating a magic system into your story. Beyond rules and limitations of the magic itself, you need to think about how this magic will have affected the real world, either openly or secretly.