A Few types of Fantasy Magic

I’ve read some fantasy books which really struck me as having a very different feel from other fantasy books. Like certain books which feel more like a comic book / action movie, and certain others which feel more like folk tales. In this post, I’ve written about some tendancies of certain styles of fantasy magic, but this is nothing more than me trying to figure out why they feel so different.

Typical characteristics of the ‘superpowers magic’ style of fantasy. This is the type I said felt more like a movie or comic book:
– Only one or a few people have certain powers or can do certain magic, but most of the main characters have some type of magic power(s). In fact in some of these stories, anyone who doesn’t have any special powers isn’t qualified to be a main character.
– The character knows what he wants to do with magic and makes it happen. The knowledge of what he needs to successfully do the magic is usually available one way or another.
– The magic is often readily available to the characters who use it. It is how they achieve their goals, rather than it being their goal.
– In this style, there is almost always a villain who also does magic or has some kind of extrodinary power(s). There also tends to be more action of the combat veriety.
– Like in science fiction*, there is often some kind of pseudo-scientific or pseudo-plausible explaination for the ‘magic’ or powers, like a radioactive spider bite, or experiments gone wrong (which to me would mean it isn’t true fantasy at all).
– good example: the Skullduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. Once the main character Stephanie Edgely learns her magic, it is readily available from then on. She uses the magic to try to defeat the bad guys and reach her goals.
– movie example: X-men. Each character has certain powers or abilities (“mutations”). Through most of the stories, the characters know what their powers are and how to use them. In both X-men and the Skullduggery Pleasant stories, there are hardly any main characters with no special powers.

Typical characteristics of the ‘mysterious and wonderful’ style of fantasy (more like fairy tale magic):
– The magic is usually not tied to specific character(s) with certain power(s).
– The magic is unpredicable. Even if it’s possible to figure out, the characters usually don’t until the magic is at least mostly used up or otherwise made unavailable.
– The magic is usually not readily available, the characters must search or go on the quest for it. Or else it is obtained by accident or thrust upon the characters against their will.
– Often, most of the magic is not performed by the main characters, but by a witch, wizard, or fairy who is not a main character.
– good example: The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. The characters find the magic item by accident and don’t figure out how it works until it is pretty much used up.
– movie example: The movie Labrynth (one of my favorites). The magic happens by accident and is unwanted (The goblin king steals her baby brother), and the main character must go on a quest to undo it.

To be well rounded, I’ll include typical characteristics of the ‘high fantasy’ style:
– Magic tends be designated for certain types of characters, the wizards, witches, and sorcerors, but usually not certain powers for certain specific characters.
– Some of the main characters are magic-users to some extent and some are not. Unlike the ‘superpowers’ style, those who are not magic-users are no less important or interesting characters than those who are.
– The obvious example is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien because nearly all high fantasy imitates LOTR to some degree. A lot of more recent ‘high fantasy’ has dungeons and dragons influence as well, RA Salvatore is also a good example.

Of course, the majority of fantasy stories probably have aspects of more than one of these styles. I tend to prefer the ‘mysterious and wonderful’ style. To me the ‘superpowers’ style feels more commercial if you know what I mean.

*My definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy is this: Science fiction gives some sort of pseudo-scientific explaination (whether implied or actually told in detail) for the extrodinary things that happen. Fantasy just says it’s magic.

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About David A Justiss

a fantasy novelist.
This entry was posted in Other Stories / Stories in General and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Few types of Fantasy Magic

  1. lisagailgreen says:

    It’s interesting to look at fantasy grouped by where the magic comes from and who has it. I haven’t really seen that before.

  2. I didn’t really plan on doing it that way. I was just trying to figure out and put words to why different fantasy books struck me as having a very different feel from each other.

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