What Kind of Magic Will You Use? by Jason Cooper

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When writing about magic, you have to decide what it can do, what it can’t, who can do it, and how it works.  Many writers writing on writing will tell you that.  If magic can do anything, why is there a story at all?  Why doesn’t the hero just wave his hand and make the villain disappear?  There are many good words on magic, but as the author of six non-fiction books on the topic, I’d like to suggest a new way of looking at how your magic works.

Like characters, magic can be described by Point of View (POV).  Like the narrative POV, this can be third person, third person omniscient, second person, or first person.

Take Marie Jakober’s The Black Chalice.  The main character, Karelian, knows nothing of magic.  For him, everything magical is simply that, magical.  He is given three eggs and, when he breaks each of them, wondrous things happen.  But there is no mechanism, no explanation how it works.  Karelian is distant from the magic, it is third person.  This is the point of view of fairy tales, where the main character never understands magic.

She touched the quill to her lips, murmuring words he could not understand.  It seemed to glow with the same pale fire surrounding her.

It’s obvious that magic is happening, but can you tell exactly what the magic will do?

In this, magic is like science fiction, where a “spaceship” automatically gives the hero faster than light travel.  Magic only needs to be described by the wonder it provides, as in fairy tales where seven league boots let a peasant travel seven leagues with every step.

Third person POV is useful when your character is being carried along by events, and when they are being overwhelmed.

But the magic may not be in the objects of the story, it can be in the narrative.  In this case we have a third person omniscient POV.  The characters – or at least most characters – do not see the magic or its effects.

This used to be a popular POV for magic in old movies.  Towering Greek gods would announce to the viewer how they were setting up the hero to succeed or fail.  The rest of the story is third party POV.

One book that uses this POV is Aleta Boudreaux’s Song of the White Swan.  Whatever magic happens, it is in the narrative.

“Mother Earth” she prayed in panic.  “Hold me to your bosom”

Let your spirit soar, her mind said.  Be like finder, his wings would lift you high. They would be sure and strong.

…Reaching outward, this time without panic, she found a rock wedged tightly into the cliff and without effort she pulled herself up to its height.

External to the narrative, somebody climbing a hill finds a rock and pulls herself up.  It is in the narrative that the significance of it is apparent.

This POV was used in many didactic novels of the nineteenth century.  In those novels people would do often simple and ordinary things and the narrative (or spiritual beings acting as narrators) would explain the spiritual, karmic, or magical import of the action.  The novels of Phylos the Tibetan fall into category.

Third person omniscient is a useful POV when telling the story of someone representing a minority position, especially if they are moral and everyone in the majority position is bullying and corrupt.

One piece of advice you will often receive is to limit how much magic can do, and when it can do it.  When we have a set of operating principles for magic, we have the second person POV.  That is, we have magic with known rules but still seen from the outside.

Let’s take Harry Turtledove’s Krispos Rising,

Anthimos looked down at his right hand.  “I did forget to clean off, didn’t I?”  Now it was his turn to make Krispos pause.  “You needn’t bring me the pumice stone.  I can take care of this myself, I think.”

Intense concentration on his face, the Emperor spread the ink-stained fingers of his writing hand.  He waved his left hand above it and raised his voice in a rhythmic chant.  Suddenly he cried out and clenched both his hands into fists.  When he opened them, they were both clean.

Krispos made the sun-sign over his heart.  “You did it!” he exclaimed, then hoped he didn’t sound as surprised as he felt.

“I certainly did,” Anthimos said smugly.  “A small application of the law of contagion, which states that objects once in contact may continue to influence one another.  As that pumice had so often scoured my fingers, I simply re-created the cleansing action by magical means.

This is a long quote, but it shows the significance of the second person magical POV.  You need to explain the rules, just as in the golden age of science fiction you had to explain the science.  And this is one advantage to this POV.  You have to set up how your magic will work and you have to explain it.  So your wordcount will climb rapidly as you do that.  Look at the above quote again and see how many words are used to describe how the magic worked.

Another advantage is you can use this POV to explain how hard magic is.  No matter how big the magic is, if you explain how it works and how much effort goes into it, you can make it as big as you want.  And a lot of readers just like the technical side of it.

But you can also show magic from inside the head of the magician, this is the first person POV of magic.   Where in second person you have to have the rules set out, in first person you have to have the experience set out.

Take a look at J.A. Callum’s Lyskarion.  In this book, magicians do not simply change shape into an animal, they have to ‘acquire the pattern’ of the animal, first.  This has its own implications.  These magicians do more than look at the world, they experience it from a distance.

Errin swam along the coast…his senses automatically sorting the multitudinous and diverse sensory input from his dolphin sonar and his ingvalar were-sight.  The whole melange of sensation and sounds combined to create what the ingvalarin called the song of the sea, the most beautiful music in the world.  Errin never ceased to marvelat its melodic richness, or to rejoice in his ability to hear it.  He listened to the slow, background rumble of the tidal currents, the quick, darting notes of schools of fish, the irregular booming of sonar echoes from the sloping bottom, and the rhythmic dance of leaves in the copses of kelp forest….

This whole passage is about how this magician, who has taken the form of a dolphin, combines dolphin and magical perceptions of the world.  And I emphasize, this is all told from the viewpoint of the person experiencing it: first person magic POV generally works best with first person POV.

These are the four POVs you can use.  The one you choose will have a profound affect on your story and the characters in it.  My own Slums of Paradise (Twilight Times) and forthcoming (sigh) Something Wicked (Metahuman Press) both use a third person POV for magic.  In both cases I wanted to tell a story of people who were coping with overwhelming circumstances.  In Slums, civilization is collapsing under the attack of vampires and much of the novel revolves around very powerful people being helpless in the face of that.  In Wicked, CTH, a brilliant teen-age super-villain fighter, meets the Creed, who travels to other dimensions and faces monsters and demons and she has to deal with the immense power at their fingertips, including magic.  In contrast, my The Astral Grail, is a strictly first person POV, to the point that somebody knowledgeable enough could duplicate the magic process that created it.

You can mix POVs of magic.  For example, you can move from third person to second person when someone learns magic.  This is a very large part of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.  Harry begins as third person because he doesn’t understand the magic that’s happening to him.  As he learns the spells he shifts to second person.  In the same way, learning something at a higher level, which changes the nature of the character through knowing the magic, would be going from second to first person POV, as in Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

The benefit of this way of looking at magic is it imposes a discipline which can benefit your story.  But there’s more to magic in your story than that.  We’ll explore some  of that, next.


Jason Cooper was born in Fort Erie, Ontario, but grew up in Buffalo, New York. He went to Australia and got a Bachelor of Arts. He now lives in Perth. He has authored seven books, including the novel, Slums of Paradise (Twilight Times). He has wrestled professionally, twice, but in an unrelated accident injured his knee and the reconstruction didn’t work too well. As soon as writing makes him rich, he will build a spaceship. So he will either be gone or blown to pieces, either one of which should get a reasonable number of hits on Youtube.




In the near future the science is in.  God exists and vampires are destroying human civilization.  The Church is riven by dissension and intrigue.  Pope Antioch III decides to fight demons with a demon and chooses a random victim of the vampire’s bite modify his rising.  Of all the people to do this to, this man was the worst/best one to choose.

As a child Angel Leigh was quite often found curled up with her nose buried in a book. By her teen years, she was writing as much as she was reading. ...