What types of magic work best?
When magic becomes commonplace it loses its magic. When I read the first pages of a fantasy in which every village has a magician, every town has a sorcerer school and witches fly around the skies every night, my heart sinks (unless it’s a humorous story); the magic of the story has already died for me. And at this stage I put the book down—usually forever. Less is more, although when it is used, bold and dramatic magic can work very well.
There are many types of magic in fantasy, but whichever type is used, if the magic is rare and mysterious, and possibly not believed in by the majority of the population in the story world, then it increases the mystery and magic of the story, and it makes it more believable.
Another good way to kill magic is to explain it scientifically, so reducing it to something mundane. Like many others, I was let down by the ‘midi-chlorians’ scene in Star Wars. Who needs microscopic organisms in the blood to explain magic. George RR. Martin hardly uses magic at all in his Game of Thrones; it’s a little understood force in his novels. By doing this he strengthens its power when it is used.
There are many types of magic in fantasy: spells and potions; magical objects; psychic abilities; black magic; white magic; superpowers; general or specific powers; the power of the faerie world and more. Magic can be genetic, acquired or both. It can mean touching a mysterious hidden power of the universe. This might be unlocking the power of the unconscious mind, and/or it might be accessing a universal power.
With great magical power comes great responsibility—it’s misuse often has unpleasant consequences: often taking life from its users. The evil magician in Sinbad uses black magic to create a creature, and when it dies he ages painfully and suddenly. In the Shannara series, Terry Brooks creates a world where the use of magic by those not born to it involves personal sacrifice.
William Blake said, “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.” This is how I approach magic in my stories. If the magic user has the knowledge and the right physical and mental conditioning, then large amounts of magical power can be generated without harm to the user, but if more power is taken than the magician's body and mind can accommodate, then both will suffer.
In my first novel (Blue Prometheus) the heroes use magical objects, but they aim to fulfill a higher purpose, and because their use of magical objects works towards this purpose, rather than selfish ends, they’re protected from the strength of the objects. Only use magic for good or risk it boomeranging back in your face.
Black magic, in my stories and elsewhere, often involves using magical coercion. For example, forcing spirits to do as the sorcerer wills, enslaving spirits for their own gain. It also involves spells aimed at hurting others. It’s not reluctant to use the life energy of others for its own purposes, and therefore it can appear more powerful.
Natural magic, in my stories, involves tapping in to the universal source of power and working with the universe as it evolves; it involves aligning your power with the spiritual evolution of life as it unfolds. Therefore, at certain times it’s weaker, but when the need is there, and when the universe is behind you, the magic is unstoppable.
In many fantasy books, the source of the characters’ magical power lies outside themselves, either in magical swords, rings or other objects (I use objects of power: a pentacle and a cup).
Sometimes magical power is given by the gods. In Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, the magic comes from gods created by man who imbue them with power. And at times withdraw it, so weakening them.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkein draws heavily on folklore for his magic. The ring is imbued with magic which comes at a price. Only the elves are able to use magic without harm to themselves. And, of course, the elemental creature Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest.
Magic also comes from natural ability, even in stories where magical objects or weapons are important. In my stories, the longer the heroes hold the Objects of Power, the more they’re imbued with magic. Even when they eventually must give up the Objects, they still retain some natural magic.
Often special training is needed to use the magic. Raymond F. Feist’s Magician series is an example of this, when the boy Pug is apprenticed to the local magician, but shows little skill. It’s later found that he possesses the higher magic, not the lower kind of the local magician. Eventually he learns both the higher and lower and goes on to become one of the most powerful magicians ever to have lived. But always he’s given worthy opponents, for anything else would remove all drama from the story.
And of course, of all types of magic, the strongest magic is always the most ancient magic, which is a magic that’s so old that even most magicians have no knowledge of it.
Perhaps because we lived in forests for most of our early history (possibly for millions of years) forests have a magical feeling, one that's used a lot in fantasy. I discuss this in Magic Forests in Fantasy and Myth.