Magic is one of the fundamental pillars of fantasy books that draws readers into the story and keeps them turning the page. For this reason, it’s very important that fantasy writers leave a good first impression on the reader when they introduce magic into the novel.
Aspiring fantasy authors often run into trouble when trying to introduce magical concepts to the reader because they don’t know where to start.
To introduce magic in a fantasy novel, follow these five essential steps:
- Set up a conflict involving the use of magic.
- Describe the magic system with meticulous detail.
- Sell the magic system by appealing to the reader’s emotions and senses.
- Immediately establish the limitations of the magic system.
- Reveal the influence that magic has on its user afterwards.
You will learn exactly how to implement these steps in the sections below. Read further to discover additional tips on how to introduce your magic system effectively, along with things to explicitly avoid during this introductory phase.
Step-by-Step Guide on How to Introduce Magic in a Fantasy Book
Step 1: Set Up a Conflict Involving the Use of Magic
The very first step in incorporating magic into the narrative is laying out a conflict for the magical user.
Basing the introduction of your magic around a conflict compels the reader to keep reading more about the magic system you have put into place. If done correctly, the conflict should accentuate the more alluring aspects of your magic system.
In order to accomplish this, you must choose the right conflict to match your magic system. You have to decide whether the conflict will be primarily internal or external. Each has its own advantages in depicting how magic influences the magical user and the characters around them.
Following this, you have to establish what the nature of the conflict will be about. Will the conflict be a moral dilemma? A physical fight between the good guys and the bad guys? A confrontation with the negative consequences of magic?
All of these questions can help lead you to form the eventual conflict that will introduce your magical concepts.
Step 2: Describe the Magic System with Meticulous Detail
Once the basic premise of the conflict has been determined, it’s time to actually communicate the magic system to the reader. As a quick reference, magic system is a common term utilized by fantasy authors to allude to the rules in place that govern the manifestation and use of magic in a story.
You can find additional information on exactly what a magic system is by clicking over to What is a Magic System – Definition & Examples.
The description of the rules for your magic system will ultimately set the precedent for how magic is perceived for the rest of the novel. Generally, magic systems are classified into two broad categories—hard magic systems and soft magic systems.
Essentially, a hard magic system has concrete laws that govern every aspect of how magic is created and used in the fictional universe. Soft magic systems, on the other hand, do not have a precise set of laws to follow, which is why soft magic is largely considered to be far more abstract.
If you would like to learn more about the exact similarities and differences between hard and soft magic systems, read through Hard Magic System vs. Soft Magic System. You should have a general idea of what sort of category that your magic system falls under before proceeding on to the next steps.
It’s critical that you introduce your magic system in as few words as possible, while still conveying the subtle intricacies of your magic system to the reader. Since this is the reader’s first real taste of what the magic will be like in the novel, you don’t want to overwhelm them with information right away.
Instead, it’s best to lay the foundation of what your magic system is about in a clear and concise manner. In later chapters, you can harp upon the smaller details when the reader has already been convinced that your novel is worth continuing.
Step 3: Sell the Magic System by Appealing to the Reader’s Emotions and Senses
Next, you have to really sell the concept behind your magic system by deliberately catering to the reader’s emotions and senses. Right now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “That’s all well and good, but what does that really mean?”
Often times, aspiring fantasy authors get so caught up in writing their magic system that they forget to keep the reader in mind. They explain rule after rule to make their magic system as logical as possible, but this unintentionally results in the magical introduction becoming too bland.
When a reader is thrust into a magical world for the first time, they want to be completely enthralled. They don’t want to read a laundry list of magical rules, they want to experience the magic system for themselves. The best way to present the readers with a “magical experience” is to use descriptive language to paint a picture for the reader.
The best fantasy authors describe their magic systems with relatable analogies, similes, and metaphors to appeal to the reader’s senses. Furthermore, they also throw wrenches into the conflict to toy with the reader’s emotions and reduce the monotony of having to read magical rule after magical rule.
It may take some time and patience on your part to infuse some life into this introductory section. More often than not, it will take more than one draft to cause the reader to emotionally invest into this section of the novel. Although it may seem tedious, these efforts make a world of a difference to the reading experience, even if the readers themselves don’t realize it.
Step 4: Immediately Establish the Limitations of the Magic System
Next up, you’re going to want to set some ground rules as to the limitations of your magic system. Every magic system should have a type of glaring vulnerability. This helps communicate to the reader that magical users are not invincible by any means.
Nobody wants to read a story about characters who are immune to danger. When there’s no obvious weakness to utilizing magic, the reader is less likely to invest themselves into the novel. There has to be an element of danger linked to magical users in order to keep the reader interested. When there’s no conflict threatening on the horizon, there’s nothing for the reader to worry about.
For these reasons, you have to show the reader that magic comes at a cost. For instance, you might have a magical user’s life span decrease slightly every time that they choose to use magic. The greater the magical stimulus, the more hours of their life they have to sacrifice.
A limitation such as this makes the magic seem more realistic. Plus, it sets up later acts in the story when a magical user must deal with the consequences of their actions, a topic we’ll discuss next.
Step 5: Reveal the Influence that Magic Has on its User Afterwards
As the final piece to the puzzle, you should elaborate on the positive and negative effects that magic has on the characters.
This may have something to do with the magical limitations discussed before, but it may not. Sometimes, the emotional and social effects of magic can be just as debilitating or empowering as the magical limitations put into place.
You can play around with a character’s mysterious background and prior interactions with magic to describe how it effects their emotional psyche. For example, I’ve seen many instances where a character has had a traumatic experience with magic in the past, so they’re reluctant to use magic to the present day, even if it’s for the greater good.
As far as social effects goes, you can establish character relationships with magic as the primary connection. The classic mentor and trainee dynamic is a staple of fantasy narratives because it’s a convenient way to develop the magic system and character personas simultaneously.
You can also describe the negative social influences of magic as well. For instance, you can have a pair of siblings split up because of their selfish quests for magical power, even if their intentions may seem reasonably good. This shows the reader that magic is neither all good or all bad, but somewhere in the middle.
These emotional and social effects could set up major plot and character developments down the line, which ultimately makes for a more complex, intriguing novel.
Top Tips for Successfully Introducing Magic in a Fantasy Novel
In addition to the steps above, consider the following tips when embarking on the task of writing magic into the narrative for the first time. Although the aforementioned steps will lay the groundwork for solid magical introduction, these tips will help set you up for success in the later chapters.
Determine How Big of a Role Magic Will Play in the Story
When crafting the introduction to magic, you want to set a precedent for how integral of a role that magic will play in the narrative.
Some fantasy stories are based entirely on the concept of magic, while other fantasy stories feature magic in more of a supporting role. You need to decide what your writing strengths are and determine if writing magic is one of them.
Surprisingly, you don’t have to feature magic all that much in order to reach success as an author. Don’t feel like you have to overemphasize the role of magic just because it’s there.
Think of George R.R. Martin and A Song of Ice & Fire. Although magic is certainly present at various points throughout the story, not many readers would consider it to play a dominant role throughout the narrative. In fact, the majority of readers would consider magic to be a background theme as opposed to a central pillar to the narrative.
George R.R. Martin focuses his efforts on other literary areas, such as characterization and world building. These literary aspects more than make up for the lack of magic throughout the series.
If you feel as though writing magic is not one of your strong suits, you may want to write magic in a lesser role. This may come as a shock to some, but it’s an idea that you should at least entertain.
Consider Incorporating Inherently Good or Evil Properties into the Magic Itself
In addition, layering your magic system with good and evil properties helps add further intrigue to the magic itself. By personifying magic, you include another variable into the mix, teasing which characters may stray into the realm of dark magic and which characters will stay loyal to light magic.
The way that you go about personifying the magic is completely up to you to choose. For example, you can classify the magical act of splitting and dividing physical objects apart as “evil” magic. In contrast, you can categorize the magical act of uniting and bonding physical objects together as “good” magic.
Attaching these vices and virtues to the magic itself will help the reader better differentiate between the protagonists and antagonists. It may also be easier to establish a connection with how magic steadily changes various characters.
It’s fairly easy for a reader to link “good” magic with corruptive qualities and “evil” magic with empowering qualities. Thus, you make it easier on yourself to write the character progressions of magical users by intentionally personifying certain magical acts.
If you choose to go this route, it’s probably in your best interest to do this from the beginning before any parts of the magic system have been fully set in stone.
Things to Avoid When Introducing Magic in a Fantasy Novel
Just as there are things you should actively try to do when introducing a magic system, there are also particular things that you want to stay away from if possible.
Don’t Delve into the Nonessentials of Magic Too Early
Earlier, I mentioned that you should do your very best to be extremely descriptive of the magic system during the introduction. Now, I’m telling you to refrain from delving too much into the superfluous elements of your magic system.
This may seem like two contradicting statements, but allow me to explain.
There’s no doubt that you want to be graphically descriptive of your magic system when it’s first introduced. This means exploiting descriptive language—like the analogies, similes, and metaphors we discussed earlier.
However, it’s important that you keep that descriptiveness honed in on the fundamental rules of your magic system. You want to set a firm foundation for your magic system without boring the reader with excess “fluff.”
Think of your magic system as a house under construction. The first thing that you have to do when building up a new house is set a firm foundation. Then you slowly build up the skeletal framework and strengthen that framework until it’s nearly unshakable. Only then, do you begin to dress the house up with furniture, landscaping, paintings, and other types of extraneous decor.
The same rules apply for your magic system. You want to provide the reader with the essential framework before dressing it up with extraneous details. Make sure your foundation is well-established before committing to long rants solely about your magic system.
This can be tricky to do, as many fantasy writers fall in love with the idea of their magic system. Their first instinct is to write incessantly about their magical concept as soon as they get the chance. Be weary of this, as you want to showcase your magic system to the reader, but not flood them with too much information at once.
Don’t Ignore Societal Perceptions of Magic
Moreover, you also cannot forget to include how other people in the fictional world perceive magic. Often times, aspiring fantasy writers get tunnel vision and concentrate so much effort on the magical user, they forget to include little tidbits depicting how the rest of society views magic.
First off, one essential piece of information you need to share with the reader is whether or not magical powers are normal or rare. The scarcity of magic in your fictional universe can have major repercussions on the rest of the novel.
In a world where magic is scarce, there are inherent implications that are linked to magical users. For this reason, the reader needs to know this information to better immerse themselves in the story.
Another societal perception you should include is whether magic is frowned upon, glorified, or treated neutrally. Depending on the circumstances, these societal perceptions could also change the entire direction of the story.
If magic is outlawed, for example, it may provoke a persistent feeling of unease within the reader if the primary protagonist is a magical user. In the event that magic is glorified, magical users may be treated completely different. Rather than being seen as criminals, they may instead be seen as divine entities.
Examples of How Magic Has Been Introduced in Famous Fantasy Novels
To wrap this article up, let’s take a look at some model examples of how renowned fantasy authors introduced magic in their best works. As a disclaimer, there are some minor spoilers to the beginning sections of the novels discussed below. So if you plan on reading these books in the future, beware!
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive #1) is a fantasy novel written by writing extraordinaire Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson has written several best selling fantasy novels and has a considerable amount of experience in introducing magic to readers.
After having read The Way of Kings, I truly admired the way that he sets up the magic system for the reader within the first couple chapters. Rather than acquainting the reader with the main protagonists right away, Sanderson elects to go a different route.
Consequently, one of the very first characters to which the reader is introduced is an assassin sent on a quest to remove the king. This assassin is well versed in his magical capabilities. He’s able to run along ceilings, move objects telepathically, and cut through stone like butter.
This alternative approach to introducing magic is beautifully constructed because it immediately introduces the boundaries of the magic system. It shows what’s possible in the fictional universe of the novel. This way, when other characters begin to develop magical powers later in the novel, the reader isn’t taken aback by their sudden acquisition of the supernatural.
This introduction also incorporates all of the aforementioned elements in the step-by-step guide. It involves a magical conflict (assassination attempt), includes meticulous detail (explains each magical power in depth), appeals to the reader’s emotions (sense of danger), sets magical limitations (draws power from Stormlight), and deals with the consequences afterwards (magical use impacts the character’s psyche).
The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
The Black Prism (Lightbringer #1) by Brent Weeks is another prominent example of how magic can be first intertwined into the fabric of a fantasy novel.
In this story, magical power is drawn from particular colors present in the surrounding environment. Each magical user has an affinity toward one or more particular colors, whether it be green, blue, red or some other color on the spectrum. The more that a magical user draws power from their color, the closer they get to losing their sanity, until they eventually become a color wight.
Within the first couple chapters of the novel, the main character interacts with one of these color wights. During this exchange, the reader is shown the extreme effects of magic on its users. It’s evident that the wight has lost his sanity and that it’s very nearly impossible for the wight to recover back to his former self.
By showing readers this scene, they know exactly what is at stake. Although magic is a powerful tool in this fictional universe, it comes at a heavy cost. Throughout the rest of the series, the reader subconsciously keeps this information stowed away in the back of their mind.
If you’re interested in reading this novel, check out my no spoiler review of The Black Prism here.
The Bottom Line
Of course, there are a variety of other methods at your disposal when it comes to introducing magic into your narrative. At the end of the day, it’s your fantasy narrative, so you can write whatever you feel best fits the story.
Nonetheless, the tips and strategies mentioned above are a solid place to start if you don’t have a concrete plan for how you want to lay out your magic system.