Collin Arnold

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Fantasy "magic" should not be called such in-universe

Let me start by saying I'm a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy literature. HUGE. Brandon Sanderson's extremely precise, well-defined, and rule-based magic systems are delightful, Jim Butcher and Patrick Rothfuss characterize marvelously, and Dennis E. Taylor twines arcs expertly.

Though I've read and listened to sci-fi and fantasy novels and short stories constantly throughout the past 25 years, only recently have I begun to really appreciate the art form. In so doing, I've found myself digging into precisely what it is about the various stories that I appreciate. Though this is a fascinating and deep topic, it happens not to be the subject of today's post. Rather, I wish to bring up what I consider a common flaw found in many stories and explain what it is and how it disfavors otherwise good stories.

Namely, that supernatural phenomena should not be called "magic" in-universe.

What do I mean by this? "Magic" is synonymous with the unknown, the mystical, the arcane, the unknowable. But carpentry, for example, is not. I mean, I have no idea how to properly treat wood so it can be bent and formed into curved molding, or how to mount hidden cabinet hinges, but I know that many professionals do. It is not "magic" - it's just unknown to me.

In our typical, hypothetical fantasy universe, so called "magic" is real -- it's often practiced, available to many individuals, and is common enough to be a familiar, known field of expertise to the public. Like candle making or book binding - not everyone knows how to form proper candle wax or mix binding glue, but they are familiar with the principles of the fields and know that many professionals do. This is the sticking point for me.

If something is commonly practiced and well-enough defined for the average person to identify, then it is not magic. Let me break that statement up into a few points.


First, let me define "magic". In my mind, "magic" is a term for impossible or unexplainable phenomena. Indeed, in my line of work it is often used jokingly to mean "stuff that is stupidly complex or hard to explain". That is, because if you were to explain some mysterious block of code the term "magic" would no longer apply, as it is not a precise term for anything and has no place in a discussion of the concrete. Instead, you'd use terms like "state machine" or "serialization" as those have definitions, though they still leave much room for application in various languages and toolkits.

Therefore, my first point is about specificity -- if a fantasy character wishes to communicate about a phenomenon they observed, they would not use the term "magic" unless jokingly or otherwise trying to say, "I don't know".

Taken another way, perhaps a fantasy character simply means something broad when they say "magic" in which case more specific terms wouldn't apply, such as saying something was accomplished by "engineering". While this may make sense for a particular characterization, it falls down when used by multiple characters or by the narrator to mean something specific. If it means something specific, like burning alloys to fly or channeling your will through weaves of light, it is no longer the unexplainable. Engineering certainly isn't.


"Ah!" you think, "But they're using the term magic just for the reader's benefit!" You, sir, are quite astute. This is another common argument I hear in support of using the term liberally in fiction, and one that I unfortunately tend to agree with. Like how an author might present character dialog in English even though they supposedly speak in a foreign language, perhaps they just substitute the word "magic" for the real word the characters would use to make it clearer to the reader.

This makes a lot of sense. It is also lazy writing.

Given the supposed purpose of a work of fiction to transport the reader to another time, place, or world but failing to describe unique elements of that world does the work a disservice. I read fantasy because I find it entertaining to observe characters coping with and living in worlds with different rules than our own. Unfamiliar locations, terms, and concepts enrich the experience, and, given that the core mystery of many stories revolves around the specifics of how their magic systems work, failing to paint them with a unique vocabulary is a missed opportunity.