I’m delighted to introduce Ed White, writer of creative and visionary fiction, who’s contributing to the blog this week with an insightful post on a significant subject in SFF: spirituality and magic in fantasy. Enjoy!
Magic In Fantasy
The Gods and Goddesses of myth, legend and fairy tale represent archetypes, real potencies and potentialities deep within the psyche, which, when allowed to flower permit us to be more fully human.
In the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, gods are a curious breed. They represent something abstract—an idea or avatar beyond the reaches of mortal minds. This disconnect from the divine serves as a source of intrigue for the reader, and a subtle impetus for protagonists as they strive towards what no mortal has ever achieved.
Religion also plays a significant role in real-life. Gods and goddesses exist in every culture and region of the world, and there are hundreds of them. The power of pious doctrines is enormous, especially when billions follow the teachings.
Ironically, some of the worst atrocities in history happened in the name of God. Holy wars are relatively common among zealous followers; these are ideal vectors for conflict for a fictional setting and can sharpen character progression, for better or worse.
There are theocracies, political systems where a god governs, and there are monotheistic variants in which only a single god rules, like Christianity; polytheism is the belief in many gods, as the Greek Pantheon. Some gods like R’hllor in Game of Thrones are dualistic deities, consisting of two contrasting forces.
Characters may embrace atheism, favouring a more down-to-earth look on life. Whatever you choose, incorporate an element of conflict into characters’ beliefs. Challenge their faith, and have them question what they truly believe. Religious crisis can often trigger a mental transition in an individual, as they may rely on their spiritual anchor for support in stressful situations. Without that anchor, a character is truly tested.
Gods are an abstract force of incredible power, one that could smite the hero instantly. Gods may not follow conventional rules; therefore feel free to customize a god creatively. Maybe make them look part animal, or with three faces to add to their mysterious nature. Gods should ultimately serve as a tool that enhances the Hero’s Journey or even impedes him/her for the sake of challenge and conflict.
In some cases, a god may be the antagonist, and the hero acquires a divine means to defeat the fallen deity to restore balance. Often termed the man vs. fate conflict in literature, the protagonist must endure the pious torment gifted by the gods. Success in doing so places the protagonist in an unusual light for a mortal, where they may begin to question what or who they really are as another excellent vector for conflict.
Examples Of Magic In Fantasy
Like gods, magic is an abstract phenomenon with incredible potential. Gods and magic often intertwine in fictions, the latter being a form of power that a protagonist can utilize. Power usually comes at a cost, at least with most magical systems.
Implementing a limited resource or consequence for using magic is an essential step in this process. Brandon Sanderson spells it out well—pun intended—in one of his lectures. The endurance/stamina consequence to magic sees the most use in fictions, and it usually works well, but adding additional penalties will increase the depth to how and why a character uses magic; it may test their integrity if the use of magic brings immoral or disastrous results. Any added tension is typically good for the characters and/or plot.
There are different types of magic systems. Hard magic refers to the variant that follows laws, whereas soft magic is more whimsical and unrestricted. Soft magic runs the risk of reducing tension, whereas it can be a solution to almost everything unless a specified cost or risk is explained, hence the tension issue. Hard magic is more restricted, and its conflict comes from what it cannot do.
Take Gandalf, a soft magic user who can accomplish almost anything he sets his mind to without much consequence, but he cannot be everywhere at once, nor can he defeat a whole army by himself. Now compare this with Rand al Thor from Wheel of Time, who runs the risk of going insane every time he taps into his magic. While WoT’s Source magic is still whimsical in nature, it evokes a gamble with every use. Now consider Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series. Raistlin’s magic is more restricted in use (at least at first), and every time he uses it extensively, his frail body collapses into a fit of debilitating coughs.
Consequences of magic use, particularly severe ones, aren’t always necessary, but they can help. No matter what magical system you choose, bring a detail of tension along with it if possible, even if it’s only a minor one rather than none at all. Even better, link the elements of said magic with deities to create a milieu for readers to reference. Relating magic with gods in this fashion emphasizes the abstract and alien nature of magical rituals. Gestures and tools such as wands, dances, hand signs, or chants can add charm to the art of magic.
The strange environment of gods and magic has always fascinated us lowly mortals. This malleable realm enhances a writer’s creativity, adding unknown variables to a story that some readers adore. Gods and magic need not follow conventional rules, as long as they bring an explanation to the reader. These abstract concepts are as much of an exciting journey for the reader as they are for the writer.
What magical systems are you interested in? What types of gods/goddesses do you prefer in a setting? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Thank you for reading.
Ed White (aka Flux)
About the author
Ed White is an aspiring writer of creative and visionary fiction from the Northeast. He enjoys reading, hiking, yoga, and meditation. White is an organic and sustainable living enthusiast. His passion is empowering others in life, whether through volunteering, tutoring, or his written works.
Learn More About Worldbuilding and Magic In Fantasy
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If you have any more questions about this guide on magic in fantasy, please get in touch.
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5 thoughts on “Spirituality and Magic in Sci-Fi and Fantasy”
I like telekinesis. Being able to move, push or glide objects across the sky is awesome. It’s a powerful ability, but can damage the user greatly. Nosebleeds lol.
Haha always a nosebleed. What about ear or eye bleeds? I’m with you on telekinesis. Something we all long to have!
Reblogged this on Ethereal Seals: Dragonsoul and commented:
Gods and magic in SFF. Come on and check out this cool guest post I composed. Cheers. 🙂
Very insightful view. I know Jordan’s WOT series well, along with Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, where magic is the main element, and gods a lesser premise.
As it relates to “gods”, real or imagined in stories, I often wonder why we tend to paint them with unpredictably human, often vengeful and violent behaviors. Why would a powerful omnipotence, whether fantasy or science fiction, be anything like us? We can imagine a possibility of human sentience moving toward a higher enlightenment in a new metaphysical universe, yet we create superior beings with the same emotional frailties. I suppose it’s what we relate to, a god-like presence in our own image.
The emergence of supreme beings has roots to the primordial need for humans to assuage fear by assigning the unexplainable, or unknowable to a powerful sentience. As you’ve mentioned, original messages are usually corrupted in very human behavior of dogmatic manipulation to fit an agenda.
On the subject of magic, most of what we can do today would easily be interpreted as magic several hundred years ago. Science is still opening its secrets to us, giving magical answers to things once thought fantasy. If I was to marry the premise of magic with scifi, I’d envision an ability to access multidimensional science and power to create, move, or manipulate the world in which I live, like a powerful mage.
I’m of a theory that omnipotence in the universe can’t be described in human terms, but perhaps is a spark in the near impossible soup of random forces that seeded a lifeform it’s sentient ability, with no guarantee of survival, other than a chance at reaching the enlightened plain from which the spark originated.
Thanks, Mr. Billings, for sparking the mental juices to comment on it.