Is magic impossible? How can an author make magic more believable?

Is magic impossible? How can an author make magic more believable? Why do some readers hate the idea of magic? Here are things you can do to make magic believable

We want to believe in something that’s exciting, wondrous, and dumbfounding. It’s the nature of human expectation.

Our worldview has evolved so we expect to “attain” the unattainable “reach” the unreachable and “think” the unthinkable. This gives us the drive and determination to create and develop. So, of course, fantasy authors turn to sparkling promise and glistering dreamstuff when they write fantasy epics. They choose to rustle things from thin air, and they like to create characters that come super-equipped with extraordinary — perhaps even preposterous — potential.

And let’s be clear, science has taught us that nothing is truly impossible: “Any science or technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” said novelist Arthur C. Clarke. This means that if anyone ever reliably demonstrates magic, it’s not magic any longer… because it has become science!

But why do some readers hate magic so much? And what can we do, as fantasy authors, to offset or reduce these reader aversions?

Three Wishes

Well, for a start, it might be because these folk think of themselves as rationalists so they don’t base their beliefs on emotional responses and untested knowledge. They almost certainly don’t base their understanding of this universe on tittle-tattle. Such level-headed individuals are quite certain that there’s little or no physical evidence to show the existence of what we like to think of as “magic.” Most accounts of magic are just urban myths, cautionary tales based on symbolism, superstitions based on quasi-religious beliefs, fantasy inspired hoaxes or enjoyable ‘campfire’ anecdotes.

Often we learn of magical happenings by re-quoting or hearing about the experiences of a friend of a friend. (This is what’s known in social science circles as: FOAF) When sharing knowledge of supernatural experiences, there is a tendency to offer no actual firsthand testimony of a magical event; neither will any witnesses be put forward to test the accuracy of the testimony — in fact, the identity of witnesses is never known to the narrator, because witnesses to supernatural events are generally FOAF; in other words, the narrative is little more than hearsay. 

Second, there has never been a magic spell or an enchantment that has been subjected to peer review. So, without refereeing, how can we ever trust something that’s not been tested for quality standards or performance? How has its credibility been proved?

Book of Spells

Next there’s the upsyturvy conundrum. How come, not once, has there ever been an empirical scientific discovery that has been deemed wrong, only to be replaced by a more convincing magical explanation?  Yet, the upsyturvy upshot is very often the case —it happens the other way around, all the time. For example, here are some magical ideas that have scientific explanations:

  • stones that fall from space [physicist Ernst Chladni proved meteorites come from space, in 1794]
  • human-created force fields [these became a verifiable fact in 1995 with the invention of the “plasma window”]
  • invisibility [research into metamaterials to make objects disappear continue, breakthroughs were in 2006]
  • teleportation [entanglement of large molecules was proved possible in 2002]

And what about controlling gravity to move things around? Or manipulating cells so wounds fix faster? Research is being done into both those things right now, with marked success. So, how come we can’t “wish” a spacecraft into orbit or make a talisman that provides its wearer with immunization against all ills? How come angels don’t arrive to save people from disaster? How come voodoo doesn’t protect the rain-forests? And when (if) these things ever happen, won’t they be scientific break-throughs?

Lastly, there’s the immutable balance of universal forces to contend with. In the universe there’s an equilibrium that depends on fundamental forces such as: gravity, strong force, weak force, and electromagnetism. It’s possible that there are universal forces yet to be discovered, though there can’t be many and they must be rare. But we can safely assume that the balance of the universe can’t be shifted or confounded without Cartesian notions of causation.

So what can we do about these inconsistencies as fantasy authors? How will we make our magic more believable? How will we bridge the gaps and jump the obstacles?

Magic Orb

As a fantasy author, you might one-day face a crisis… how do you include “acceptable” magic in your writings? Here are some tips:

  • Write about emotions. Emotions are magic. We cannot see them. They cannot be evaluated. And they manifest themselves in different ways and differently from person to person. However, they are part of our human experience and being emotional is a magic we all perform. Concentrate on emotions in your storytelling.
  • Write about storytelling. Words are magic. Think about it. As an author you pass a “thought” from one person to another using telepathy and a scatter of runes (runes are just the ink spots on paper or dots on the screen). How does this magic happen? How does a story materialize into the mind of the recipient?
  • Write about maths. Numbers are magic. Numbers don’t really exist. They are simply convenient ideas that might be scratched onto paper or evaluated.
  • Write about money. Money is magic because numerals are magic. Money doesn’t exist. Money is just a convenient idea that can be easily assessed within a spreadsheet.
  • Write about humans. Humans are magical beings. You don’t need unicorns and werewolves to add magic to your story. We come “out of nowhere” and one day we will enter “into nothingness.” However, for a short time we are capable of singing, laughing, inventing, creating and loving. Isn’t that magical? We seem so ordinary, yet we encompass everything that is impossible. And that is true magic. Isn’t it?

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

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