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!
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.
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.
Thanks for stopping by and checking out this guide on magic in fantasy! If you found this post helpful, why not stay in touch? As well as staying up to date with more posts like this, you’ll be kept abreast of any news and articles I think you may find helpful, as well as any new resources I release.