How to add magic to your fiction
Three ways to give your fantasy stories a fresh kick
If you want to write magic fiction — that is, fiction about magicians living in a magical world and taking on magical challenges — there is a danger that your work might sound dated and corny, because no matter how talented you are, your stuff could still come across as being too influenced by Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
These two massively popular franchises have given wizarding culture a prominent, almost cartoonish presence in mainstream media. Potter and his friends are exceedingly cute and likeable, while Gandalf and Saruman are campy and Santa Claus-esque. Collectively they have succeeded in doing away with a lot of the mystery or reverence or awe that you might expect from the genre.
But all is not lost. There was ways around this. If you wish to write stories that evoke a genuine appreciation of supernatural forces and exotic metaphysics, you could turn to an alternative tradition of fantasy storytelling inspired by Asian alchemy. May these three suggestions below inspire you to weave an original fantasy epic that’s fresh and innovative and superbly magical.
1. SLIPPERY IS THE BEST SORCERY
A good starting point is to present the experience of magic not as a supernatural spectacle, but a subtle slippage of perception. It takes common magic to make a dragon materialize, or transport a group of kids to a train platform that’s hidden from mortal eyes. But if you could use some textual sleight of hand to make your reader accept extreme ambiguity and paradox in your narrative, then you create a limitless potential for setting up a magical reading trance with your story.
Think of this classic Bruce Lee quote, which pretty much established him as a wizard of pop culture: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Once your readers accept an idea like this, everything else you conjure will start to seem suspiciously enchanted.
Paulo Coelho is another master of this. Take his world-famous quote from The Alchemist: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” It’s so incredibly vague and reassuring and miraculous that it really softens up your brain and makes possible all sorts of other magical illusions.
2. THE MOST MAGICAL BATTLES ARE IN YOUR BRAIN
Keep your readers guessing: did it really happen or did we imagine all that? It’s breathtaking to have your magical opponents fight it out across a sprawling landscape, but it’s even more mindblowing when you set it up such that in the end it actually only happened in your characters’ heads. This gives your story a metaphorical, esoteric dimension that really liberates your readers from the limits of objective realism.
Think of The Matrix series of movies, where the characters are jacked into a virtual world to battle ruthless software agents, or patched into a training simulation to expose their innermost weaknesses. In both cases the action that results actually reflects the character’s deep neurological struggles, caught in its own entanglements. There is no outer or inner world, only a constant stream of dream images that allegorize pleasure and pain. Your readers will get a mighty rush as they strive to decode all this like a zen puzzle.
3. MAKE CONFLICTS COSMIC
Mainstream fantasy stories tend to work best when there is some localized politics at stake. Character X wants power over Group Y and will violate any taboo to achieve this, including the abuse of magical powers. But you can create an even more fantastic effect by elevating your story premise to a cosmic level, and explaining how the central conflict actually arises from an ancient feud that stretches back beyond time and history, and even spills over across multiple dimensions of time and space.
This is the core of many Asian mythological epics, especially those of Indian and Chinese origins, which have been celebrating fantasy and magic for thousands of years. For inspiration, check out the Indian classics Mahabharata and Ramayana, or the Chinese legends about the Eight Immortals, or the more recent Journey to the West.
Exciting contemporary examples can be found in the works of comic book writer Grant Morrison, creator of cult favorite titles from The Invisibles to Seven Soldiers to Vimanarama and so on. Some of his stories borrow creatively from the cosmologies of different traditional cultures, and he applies these in original ways. The independent comic publisher Liquid Comics has also developed a range of titles inspired by Asian myths and legends, and I think they could inspire a powerful trend.
If you’re working on your own fantasy series, applying any one of these ideas could take your concept down a completely different path, hopefully to some place magical. Happy writing!