The Trouble with Magic


While there are different methods of cataloguing your magic system, this is generally considered the best way. (Photo by



Hero: I cannot fight the evil lord! I am but a humble peasant!

Mysterious Stranger: Ah, but you wield the ancient secret power!

Hero: What is this ancient secret power?

Mysterious Stranger: The ancient secret power stems from ten million years ago, when it was dropped to the world by the old-and-most-likely-gone-forever ones. There are four different aspects of the ancient secret power, which I will now explain to you. The first aspect was discovered …


This is an extreme example of something I’ve been trying to avoid. I’m not sure if it affects other fantasy writers, but it has definitely reared its ugly head in my direction: the temptation to create a massive exposition dump, in order to explain the magic system underpinning your world.

This kind of thing can be difficult to avoid. You do need to explain things, after all, and short of incorporating a pull-out-and-keep guide, it has to be worked into the text. Usually one of the characters is learning about the magic system, too, along with the reader, and acting as the reader’s eye on the world. It therefore makes sense that they’re told about it by another, more knowledgeable character. Or perhaps they read about it in a book. At any rate, how do you tell people what’s going on without making it like a textbook? And how much detail is too much? 

This is something I grappled with in writing The Strategist. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Book One did not explore in great detail the magic at the heart of The Machinery. This was deliberate – I’ve written before a few times about how I wanted to keep a certain level of mystery in the first book. Still, it means that Book Two (and Book Three) have a lot of explaining to do.

The challenge stems from the fact that the writer knows more about the magic system than anyone else. How much can you leave to the reader to figure out? How much explanation is too much? It’s a tricky balance to strike.

Much of it comes down to the magic system itself. There needs to be rules, of course. While it is a magic system, and therefore the opposite of reality in many ways, it also needs to have an internal consistency. If you create a character who is so powerful that he or she can literally conjure anything from their fingertips, then there is a danger of undermining the whole narrative – how could they ever be defeated? It’s important to consider points like these, because the reader will.

On the other hand, it’s also important to avoid getting bogged down in rules, and keeping them to a minimum. You could end up confusing yourself, and the reader. It is magic, after all, so it’s good to have a little bit of the unknown at work.

I’m not sure what my conclusion is. Maybe I won’t know till the end of Book Three. I think that ultimately, magic is something that does need to be explained, but that the explanation should also be shown through the narrative, the actions of the characters, etc. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance, so the reader has some idea of what’s going on, without feeling like they’re reading a car manual. What does everyone else think? Any thoughts are very welcome!

Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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