What is magical thinking? And how can you use it in your fiction?

How to illustrate superstitious thinking in your fiction

Magical thinking is the belief that events are connected to each other even though there is no plausible link between them, except for some curious and inexplicable supernatural phenomenon.

Although most theorists think that magical thinking is irrational, the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can produce effects in the outside world… or that a thought on its own can somehow correspond to something (usually bad) that happens, is a powerful and compelling assumption that most of us have, at some point in our lives, succumbed to.

Knock on wood

For example, if you’ve ever said, “I don’t want to tempt fate” or you have casually flicked a coin into a “wishing well” or you used a euphemism for death to avoid conjuring it, or you “knocked on wood” after making a favorable prediction, then you are guilty (like all of us) of magical thinking

Lines like “I don’t want to tempt fate” and “touch wood” are mystical phrases that we use all the time in everyday life.

magical thinking

I think we’re drawn to magical thinking because — deep down — we’re still four years old, and we hold-onto that nicer time in our life when we utilized make-believe & fantasy to help us understand very tricky and complicated things: so we still believe in magic because it helps us understand problems that we can’t deal with or grasp easily — for example, we believe in the magic of special places (like churches, old stones or graveyards), we believe in the magic of special people (like priests, fortune-tellers, mentalists, or aromatherapists,) we believe in the magic of coincidences (thinking about somebody and then they call us on the phone or they turn a corner) and we believe in the magic of serendipity (solving problems by so-called lateral thinking)  and the magic of good fortune (if you blow on a dice, it will roll the number you wished for.)  It seems that we wander through this world with our kindergarten mind still open to magical thinking… we explore with the willingness of a child.

Magical Wish fulfillment

If you want to introduce an element of magical thinking into your writing, I suggest that you blur the boundaries between magic, science, and religion in your story. If you are describing something technical, give your technical object a dash of sentience, if you are describing something magical in your story, make it sound sound plausibly mechanical, and if you are describing something that’s spiritual in your story, make it sound pragmatic and tangible. Once the boundaries are properly blurred, you will find that anything can happen in your plot and, actually, the blurred lines will become your plot-drivers.

When using elements of magical thinking in your fiction, try to describe a character’s sense of joy when his/her magical thinking comes true, and their sense of loss when it does not. Also, do your best to describe a person’s everyday struggles with life and how they deal with challenges by using magical thinking. Also consider and explore the argument that if a person believes in something strongly enough, then that thing will happen.

Also, try using lots of

  • Symbolism
  • Imagery 
  • Ingenious metaphors

Good luck with your magical thinking. Please let me know how your fiction project goes. Share your thoughts on twitter @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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