Fantasy authors have experimented with a variety of notions and methodologies pertaining to magic systems for some time now.
Through trial and error, fantasy writers were able to discover which of these magical approaches were winners and losers. For this reason, there are specific ideas and concepts that are concurrent within fantastical magic systems.
Today, we will be scrutinizing the most common of these magic system cliches. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of what fundamental ideas frequent fantasy magical systems.
The most common magic system cliches include:
- Lost Ancient History Behind the Magical Arts
- Verbal Spells & Incantations
- Inherent Instability of Supernatural Powers
- Protective Talismans
- Explicit Magical Link to Nature
- Physical Transfigurations
- Telepathic Capabilities
- Academic Magical Institutions
Of course, there are magic system cliches other than the ones listed above. Below, we will be analyzing the aforementioned magic system cliches in greater detail.
1.) Lost Ancient History Behind the Magical Arts
A dominant cliche with fantasy magic systems is the idea that supernatural practices are a lost art.
The supernatural origin stories and legendary narratives about magical users are hazy at best. It is evident that over time the art of magic diminished for one reason or another. The utilization of this cliche sets an air of mystery about the magical system.
The steady diminishment of magic also means that only a select few individuals are able to wield magical power.
Certain narratives even make it challenging to find vital sources of information surrounding the very subject of magic. Characters looking to hone in on their magical capabilities must find a mentor willing to teach them or sift through excessive archives of books.
The implementation of this cliche makes magical users inherently special. It distinguishes magical users from ordinary folk, labeling them as exceptional leaders and warriors. It provides a simple means to draw the attention of the reader to a particular protagonist or antagonist.
This cliche also establishes a barrier to entry for those trying to crack the magical code.
Consequently, young characters encounter tremendous difficulty in gaining mastery over their magical repertoire of skills.
Authors favor this because it allows them to present the protagonist with unique and creative conflicts that will intrigue fantasy readers. Magical obstacles allow the writer the opportunity to incorporate both external and internal conflicts simultaneously.
As an aspiring fantasy author, it can be difficult to start with a magic system cliche and rework it to make it your own. To accomplish this, you may need the help of a secondary editor to offer new perspectives and insights that you may not see otherwise.
Scribendi is a professional editing and proofreading service that works with book manuscripts regularly. It should go without saying, but professional critiques and edits on your writing drafts will greatly improve the quality of your magic system. You can check out Scribendi’s editing service for book manuscripts here.
2.) Verbal Spells & Incantations
Another cliche typically involved with magical systems are verbal spells and incantations. Magical systems require some sort of trigger to channel supernatural abilities into reality.
These triggers can be extremely obvious or subtle.
It ultimately depends on the preference of the author. If an author wants to be subtle, supernatural powers can be prompted by a particular gesture or the mere will of the magical user. If an author wants make the use of magic more explicit, verbal spells and incantations come into play.
Fantasy writers typically like to showcase the creativity of their magic system, which is why they elect to go the more explicit route of audible triggers.
These audible spells also make it easier on the reader to understand complex scenes involving magic. Without explicit prompts, the reader is more likely to lose track of what is going on.
Fantasy authors took note of this phenomenon as magical systems blossomed. This is why spells and incantations are so commonplace in magical systems in contemporary fantasy.
3.) Inherent Instability of Supernatural Powers
Novelists like to introduce anarchy wherever possible to catch the reader unawares. Magical systems are no exception to this rule.
The inherent instability of supernatural powers is the progeny of fantasy authors wanting to integrate additional conflict into the story.
Layering a magical system with strengths and weaknesses makes a magic system appear more tangible.
In reality, things rarely work one hundred percent of the time. Writers must discover the grey area between fantasy and reality so that readers are able to relate to their story.
Paradoxically, writers find the perfect balance of fantasy and reality by making their magic systems imperfect.
The instability of magical power provides enough resemblance to reality to compel the reader to buy into the magical system.
The instability of supernatural power is able to take on a number of forms.
For instance, certain magic systems physically exhaust their users when too much supernatural force is exerted. Other magical systems require a source of power to fuel supernatural practices.
An example of this source of power is seen in the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks.
The magical system is based around the concept of drawing power from the different colors of light that its user is able to see. These users are called drafters.
Drafters are only able to draw power from a particular set of colors. In other words, green drafters can only draft from green light whereas yellow drafters can only draft from yellow light.
This is a prime example of how writers implement this cliche to set limitations on their magical system.
*If you are interested in reading the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks, check out my series review here!
4.) Protective Talismans
To understand this cliche, you first have to understand what a talisman is.
A talisman is essentially just a magical charm that wards off evil.
The cliche of protective talismans is a common means to encapsulate the totality of the magic system into a physical artifact. Rather than utilizing the cliche of spells and incantations, magical talismans serve as a healthy alternative.
Protective charms are a useful method to convince the reader that a specific character is “safe.”
Authors are able to take this assumption whatever direction they choose.
An honest novelist will remain true to their writing and have the talisman genuinely grant a character plot armor. On the other hand, a misleading novelist will use a protective amulet to hoodwink the reader and set up an unforeseen plot twist.
Each direction has its own batch of pros and cons. Either way, protective talismans are definitely a source of interest to keep the reader guessing what is going to happen next.
5.) Explicit Magical Link to Nature
Fantasy writers have made a habit of linking the supernatural with the workings of nature. Thus, the concept of explicit magical links to nature has emerged as a common cliche in fantasy.
Linking fantastical elements with realistic elements has the effect of making fiction appear more believable.
It provides a rationale as to how these fantasy components operate.
Magical users are constantly surrounded by nature even when embarking on dangerous quests. Thus, fantasy authors came up with the bright idea of associating their magical systems with the surrounding environment.
This had a crucial effect on readers immersing themselves into the magic system. Readers found themselves rationalizing the magic system rather than questioning every peculiarity of it.
The link between magic and nature also brought attention to the world building of the fantasy narratives.
It forced authors to describe the surrounding environment in great detail out of necessity. These miraculous changes made reading passages that much easier to visualize.
The combined benefit of a more believable magic system and greater detail regarding the fictional environment brought this cliche into fruition.
6.) Physical Transfigurations
The next dominant magic system cliche revolves around the idea of physical transfigurations.
What do I mean by physical transfigurations? This is the fantasy phenomenon of a character transforming into an entirely different being.
Put in simpler terms, it is the concept of shapeshifting.
This fantasy notion is routinely seen in fantasy novels that incorporate multiple mythical species in the fantasy work. This way, a human has a diverse portfolio of living creatures that they could transform themselves into.
From demons to giants to werewolves, the possibilities are totally dependent on the creativity of the writer.
Shapeshifting can be deliberate or accidental.
Deliberate physical transfigurations are repetitively utilized for armed fantasy battles to add a bit of spice to the combat. It is not often that a person reads about a human turned bear ripping apart the enemy.
Accidental transformations also heavily influence the structure of the plot. Shapeshifting can be a physical manifestation of the internal conflicts that a character is going through.
For a hypothetical example, a character can take on their human form when they are at peace. When the character loses control of their emotions, however, the mythical being within could reveal itself.
This manifestation of internal conflicts in the external world acts as a useful characterization device.
The creative entertainment factor and link with internal conflicts make physical transfigurations a universal cliche in the magic system business.
7.) Telepathic Capabilities
Another eminent magic system cliche involves the concept of telepathic capabilities.
The power of telepathy is one of the foremost superpowers people wish they had. For this reason, fantasy writers jump at the opportunity of incorporating this element into their magic system.
Telepathy can serve as the main driver of the magic system or a mere supernatural branch of the larger supernatural scheme.
The capability of telepathy offers opportunities in characterization that are unprecedented. Being able to communicate with other characters without even having to audibly speak is a powerful driver of character relations.
This nonverbal contact can either make or break friendships. Having someone else present in your own head has the potential to be both powerful and dangerous. This keeps the reader observant of how characters interact with one another, which ultimately promotes reader retention.
Telepathy does not only involve human to human contact.
It can also incorporate other beings as well.
For instance, in Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, the primary protagonist Fitz possesses the ability to telepathically communicate with animals. He forms a special mental connection with a hound. Some would even argue that this hound is his closest friend.
All in all, the bounty of opportunities that telepathy presents does not go unnoticed by fantasy authors.
*If you are interested in reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, check out my book review here!
8.) Academic Magical Institutions
Magical users must have a means of passing down the magic system from one generation to the next. How should they go about doing this?
For most fantasy authors, the answer lies with organized magical schools.
Academic magical institutions are easy for the reader to connect with. The school setting is something that we are all familiar with. Magic schools resemble real life schools in many aspects.
Academic magical institutions also provide a means for the main character to branch out and expand their social network. This provides fantasy writers the opportunity to introduce new dynamic personas into the work.
Readers also enjoy the atmosphere of a familiar setting, especially after a long journey into the unknown.
Stories that are too intense can have the reverse effect of what the author intended. Magic school permits the reader to take a mental break from the action and take in the familiar scenery.
This cliche also ties in directly with the first cliche of magic systems having a long lost history.
As aforementioned, it is challenging to acquire the skills of an ancient art. The lack of personable teachers and valid study tools prevents inexperienced magical users from improving.
Academic institutions that teach magic bypass this problem. They provide young magical users with the tools they need to succeed.
Thus, the progression of the protagonist is accelerated exponentially. The reader shares the self development journey of the protagonist without having it feel too tedious.