Last week I talked about suspension of disbelief in science fiction and how it can be tricky in a science-based world like our own. Today I'm going to talk about the nuances of suspension of disbelief in fantasy. I'll give some examples from my own work and from some other authors and I'll tie it back into the concept of illusionary depth that I discussed at the start of this series.
The issue in fantasy is that most authors seem to think that just saying, "It's magic and that's how it works." is enough to keep concepts believable. Since magic is a major part of fantasy as a whole, the argument has some merit, but relying entirely on that, makes for a weak story.
Before we go further, let’s take a moment and define magic in a fantasy setting. There are three major archetypes (and probably thousands of minor ones). The first is exemplified by Tolkien. Magic is a deep and abiding knowledge of the world around us. The power of the rings comes from someone that was unique in his understanding of the craft. Most of what Gandalf does has to do with knowing things and not any particular action on his part. What the rings do is part of their nature and that nature in some cases extends all the way back to the knowledge of their creator.
The second common archetype is magic as a science. This is different from the previous one in that, in this case, the thing being studied is magic itself. The best example of this is in common tabletop roleplaying games. The wizards in these study spells. Performing the words and actions of the spells in a practiced manner is what allows magic to happen.
The final archetype is inherent magic. In this case, magic is something that comes from within the individual. It can be trained and honed for greater power, but if it's not present in the individual, then it can't be performed. This is demonstrated in the Malorian and Belgariad by David Eddings. It also appears in the Xanth series by Piers Anthony.
I'm not saying the magic in your world has to come from one of three archetypes. It can be a combination of these or even one of your own making, but you need a background system if you're going to make your fantastic world at all believable. You don't need to go into a lot of detail on the system, but you, as an author, need to understand what's happening.
So let's take a look at the magic of Terah. There's actually a big long history of how magic works there (that I didn't write.) About three thousand years before the game's current timeline, magic was drawn from something called ley lines. (I think the idea came from Robert Asprin's Myth Adventure series.) The lines worked a little like ocean currents. They worked their way over most of the planet but could redirect or move slightly over time.
Enter the dwarves and their continent splitting magic. When the continent was sundered, all the ley lines were re-directed and completely covered the land mass in order to facilitate the division. When those cataclysmic actions ceased, the ley lines weren't able to redirect to their old routes and instead, like a persistent cloud, slowly fanned out and covered the world as a whole. The result is that when the arcane elves arrived, they found that their magic, which relied heavily on magic concentrated into ley lines was greatly weakened.
Those who have read my books will know: that comes up once in the two published books and nunce in the three coming out. Even when it does come up, it's in passing. All you're told is that magic is weaker on Terah than it was on the world the elves came from.
Ok, so now we'll move on to crafting fictional spells. The first, and most frequently used method is to take something people can do and enhance it. This keeps the magic believable because it's already something that can be done, but keeps it somewhat magical because it's done in a way that isn't normal. Levitation comes to mind. We can lift things, but we do it with our hands, not with magic. In The Wolf's Pawn, Sajani uses a spell to get to Benayle more quickly. Running is something that most people can do and objects moving fast enough that they can't be seen is also something that happens in the real world. I combined these two and have Sajani move quickly and be hard to see by her enemies.
An extension of that method is to take things that can be done using outside objects or have it done instead by magic. The penultimate example is a fireball spell. You can make a fireball. I'm not going to get myself in trouble by telling you how and I certainly don't endorse either specifically or by implication that you attempt to do that. In addition, I categorically deny ever having been responsible directly or indirectly for one that may have just happened to have occurred when I was nearby... ahem.. anyway. A fireball spell is a case where magic is used to do something that we could do provided we took the time and materials to create one. Another great example is the pirate ship Wisp. It flies using magic, but there’re things in our world, like birds, planes, and Superman, that can also fly.
The final method of producing believable magic is something that I call scaling. The more powerful the spell, the more that’s required to accomplish it. Let’s take a look at the largest and most powerful spell ever produced on Terah: the sundering of the Pangaea. History says that Krag III sundered the continent with a single spell. That’s supposed to be unbelievable. You should read that and go. Nah uh. The truth (as shown in the first adventure arc: Pebble in the Pond) is that a large group of stone singers using an extremely powerful magical artifact sundered the continent. This concept goes for all kinds of spells; take for instance healing. Sajani and Westa both cast simple healing spells. They tend to be nearly instantaneous and not completely effective. In The Wolf’s Pawn when Westa casts a spell attempting to regrow (redacted)’s leg and later to resurrect (redacted), the spells take a long time to cast.
Magic on its own is a great source of illusionary depth. It plays into the concept that there’s more to the world than just what’s seen and written about. You can see that’s the case in Terah, in part because it’s a game world and so a lot of the dynamics had to be worked out for different game and story purposes, but the concept is true in all writing. We’re not just telling stories. We’re creating worlds and forging relationships, whether that story takes place on Earth, Terah, or your own world. All writing is a form of magic.