Who Can Use Magic? Depends on the World

There’s an odd debate within the fantasy circles.  Okay, another odd debate.  Let’s face it, people. Fantasy readers and authors will go to war over how a world should work, the use of elves, rate of character death, and whatever else you got.  This one is about magic and the characters that use it.  I’m not counting holy magic that comes from gods because that is already designated to priests.  This is all about arcane casting.

It’s hard to get into this topic because there are so many facets of it.  The truth is that nobody is really wrong too.  It all depends on the world and how the author designs the magic system.  You might disagree with their decisions, but it doesn’t make the world wrong.  Here are the more common battles on this subject:

  1. Man Versus Woman–  Somewhere along the line, people began creating systems where magic was only done by women.  A male spellcaster was designated to villain corrupted by his power, a freak of nature, or totally inept.  I think part of this stems from how female characters grew out of the ‘damsel’ role.  Magic gave them power without changing their physical limitations, which slowly evolved into it being their new role while men held onto the warrior status.  I don’t like either thing because I prefer magic (and combat training) to be open to all genders.  It’s rarely made clear why only women do magic in books, so I would recommend giving an explanation if you decide to go this route.

    Art by Kayla Matt

    Art by Kayla Matt

  2. No Humans!–  Most stories have a human as the main hero. Some authors have taken the approach of letting them keep this role and sacrificing the use of magic.  Elves and various creatures get to cast spells while humans are designated the more ‘primitive’ race with their weapons.  As with a male wizard in a ‘female magic only’ world, a human with magic in one of these worlds gets the role of villain or heroic freak.  Many times the existence of magic is at risk or it’s going to return to humans.  That’s one of the issues with very restrictive magic systems.  They tend to take a chunk of the plot in order to justify or explain them.  If not then the magic is more of a novelty for a supporting character and/or villain.  Again, just my opinion.
  3. Lineage Systems–  Another method of spellcasting in fantasy is the lineage.  In these worlds, magic is handed down through specific bloodlines.  The origins of these can be anything from ancient deals with gods to they come from a time where magic was common.  Of course that magic is probably what caused the world to become less magical.  Anyway, you can put a character like this in any role because lineage doesn’t always mean skilled.  You can have the embarrassment to the family, the evil child, and the heroic last of the bloodline.  Authors use this system to limit the magic and reserve it for special characters/situations.  It’s a safe system too because it’s easily built into the world and a reader will accept it.  After all, you either have it in your blood or you don’t.  Can’t argue with that.
  4. Who Can Use Magic Items?– Now, I have it that anybody can use a magic item if they know how.  Some have activation words or rituals or specific situations while others require that you touch them.  Those that are easy to use tend to be simple like enchanted pots for cooking or a simple dagger of force.  Yet, there are worlds where only specific people can use the items.  There are varying degrees from only those who have the knowledge to people from a specific bloodline.  One type that I never understood is when all magic items can only be used by wizards who already have their own magic.  I tend to see magic items as a way of giving non-spellcasters a chance to combat a wizard.  A knight is doomed in a world of fireball flingers if he’s not allowed to use the Shield of Fire Immunity.  Why would a spellcaster need magic weapons if they have spells anyway?  I guess a world where everything is immune to magic, but that kind of negates the usefulness of magic in the first place.  I’m ranting here.  Again, it can make sense for the world and a reader (like me) has to suck up and deal with it.

As usual, that’s the big thing with fantasy.  The author has the final say on how the world works and has to hope it translates to the reader.  Magic systems and fantasy cultures are ripe for issues.  Honestly, you can’t control a person’s perception and you’ll drive yourself insane by trying.  Change it for one and then you’ll have another angry at the new version.  Basically, choose your magic system and stick to your guns.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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22 Responses to Who Can Use Magic? Depends on the World

  1. sknicholls says:

    Interesting things to think about when building a fantasy world and learning how one works.

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  2. L.S. Engler says:

    I think your last bit is dead on, Charles. I spent a lot of time worrying about what people will think about my magic system, but it’s when I finally stopped caring and just it develop naturally within the story, it really started to take off and feel right for me. I’m still working out some kinks, but I’m really confident in my energy-based system now, The big thing for me is to make it feel really natural. I feel fantasy sometimes gets bogged down with describing the complexities of their magic system, where it almost feels like a chore. I like for it to be as seamless in the world as the trees and the creatures and the sky.

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    • I agree. It gets tough to find that balance too. You want it to be natural and not forced, so you need some description and some organic flow. Too much of one and you have people complaining.

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    • I’m with you on letting it develop on its own. That’s what ended up happening in my novel.
      The magic system just needs to be consistent, in my opinion. There has to be logic behind the magic.
      What, if any, are your favorite books or articles (outside of this one) on building a magical society?

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      • I haven’t read many books about how to do it. I’ve read books with magical societies like the old Forgotten Realms stories. I grew up with worlds like Middle Earth and Narnia, which had magic, but not to the level of a place like Harry Potter.

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      • L.S. Engler says:

        No articles or books come to mind for me, either, but I do know that Robert Jordan’s Aes Sedai in his Wheel of Time series provided a big inspiration for me. Color-based magic proved to be a really interesting system that I really latched on to.

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      • I’ve seen a few color-based systems, but nothing very complicated. Book of Lost Swords series had magic with three priesthoods that were White, Blue, and Red. There’s always the Final Fantasy mages too.

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      • aldreaalien says:

        I didn’t think of the Wheel of Time’s magic as being coloured so much as the groups (Ajahs) having a speciality that, sometimes, wasn’t connected to magic. Yeah the Yellow Ajah was more into healing and the Green was the Battle Ajah, but I believe the White Ajah were diplomats (or something along those lines) and the Brown Ajah were rather … bookish.

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      • Got it. Shows how far I got into Wheel of Time. I kept starting and wandering off to do other things. Still colors do seem to be a common magic system. Usually pretty simple too.

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  3. aldreaalien says:

    I’ve so many systems of magic kicking about… that being said, #3 would be the closest to my preferred type.

    I also have a variation on #1 where the men are not considered evil, but it’s considered illegal for those in one society to be allowed to practice the healing magic they were born with. I wound up with these people masquerading as efficient herbalists or leaving for other kingdoms where there isn’t the stigma.

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  4. Hmm … good point on the last one. I think the reasoning is that only a wizard can use a magic item because you have to be able to understand the magic in the item in order to activate it. Kind of like if someone picked up your phone — they’d try to use it, but they wouldn’t know the password. But you’re also right in that magic can be the great equalizer. So I guess it really depends on the world.

    By the way, I love these posts! They always make me think. 🙂

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    • Thanks. My biggest issue with the ‘wizards only’ rule is that it makes little sense for certain items. As I stated, wizards don’t typically use platemail or battle axes. I’m curious where the idea came from since warriors with magic swords (Excalibur, Sword of Omens, etc.) is rather common.

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  5. If you look back over time, you’ll see a progression in how magic is handled in fantasy fiction. HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories had magic only used by people (mostly men) who were insane enough to bargain with evil gods. Robert E Howard’s Conan featured magic used by people (again, often men and evil) who used sorcery to compensate for physical weakness and/or lack of honor. They both wrote for pulps in the 1920s, and their approach became the norm.

    Then, in the 1960s, Andre Norton wrote Witch World, with the revolutionary concept that only women had magic. This became the norm. Then, in the late ’70s, Katherine Kurtz wrote the Deryni stories, where only certain bloodlines had magic and they were persecuted. And this became the norm. Then, in the 1980s, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote Mists of Avalon, where magic was linked to a romanticized memory of Celtic religion. And this became the norm.

    Any time you have a norm, some other writer eventually comes up with a new idea that catches the imagination of readers… and it becomes a new norm. By the present time, we have a variety of magical “styles” to choose from. Readers may like one more than other others. If we’re lucky, they’ll like what we do with it and tell their friends!

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    • There’s also the Merlin tradition. I think that’s where Gandalf and Dumbledor came from even if it wasn’t intentional. Many stories have that wandering or isolated wizard that helps the main hero.

      Something I’m seeing in fantasy today is a movement toward minimal or no magic in the world. Though, you’re right that 9 times out of 10 the magic user is either a female or an evil male.

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