The Problem of Magic

Long ago I read Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” and he brought up the problem of magic. That concept left an impression on me and as I read more fantasy (and even science fiction) I began to watch for creative solutions to the problem.

Problem – an author must find a way to limit magic (or science) in their realm, or the concept quickly gets out of control. There has to be a way to keep magic from being commonplace and some sort of a price or consequence to wielding magical power. In D&D this is limited by dice rolls and a limited availability of spells. When writing fantasy, there has to be some other limit imposed by the author. I’ve listed a couple of very creative examples below, plus my own issues with the problem of magic in my fictional world.

Fred Saberhagen’s “Swords” books – these Swords were god-forged with immense powers. Other more mundane magics were available in this world, but the focus is on these swords. Almost always, using the magic of a particular Sword meant the wielder faced a penalty. The Sword “Farslayer” for example, would kill any desired target at any distance, but the wielder lost the word in the process. “Sightblinder” caused one’s appearance to change, but the wielder had no control over that appearance. Instead, the viewer would see the wielder as a much loved or feared person, and the appearance would change quickly. The wielder of “Shieldbreaker” could be overwhelmed by unarmed adversaries, whom the Sword could not damage. These limitations allow the story to be a great deal more interesting and keeps the characters in tighter boundaries when using the Swords.

By the way, if you haven’t read these books in a long time (I last read them in the early 90’s), give them a look soon. It’s really a very good series.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Series – this system of magic is really original and one of my favorites. The magic user ingests various metals, which then impart a particular power to them. Access to and scarcity of these metals help to control their use. In addition, only certain people are born with these abilities. Sanderson has created a tiered set of these users who have the power to metabolize the metals. The series is big, still growing and takes place in several different time settings. It’s really unique and very well done.

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series –  Gandalf does very little “classic magic” in these books. It’s almost as if Tolkien attempts to avoid the problem of magic. Certainly there are allusions to it all over the place in the four primary books (and supporting works), but few instances or explanations of actual use. Does Gandalf cast fireballs at the wolves in The Hobbit? No, he lights pine cones with his staff and hurls those. Does he shield himself from the Lord of the Nazgul’s attack? No, he suffers the attack and his staff is destroyed. He destroys Saruman’s staff at Orthanc but there is no explanation of how or why, other than he has returned to replace the former White Wizard. And of course these books are very successful, so generations of readers have forgiven Tolkien for not providing a solid explanation or traditional magic attacks. On the surface Tolkien has avoided the problem.

This is a situation I’m struggling with in my own fictional world. I have made a significant degree of progress writing the first books of two different trilogies. Both trilogies take place in the same world, though at different times. The world is recovering from a catastrophic meteor strike where most of the population is dead. It’s a classic high fantasy setting with active magic and I’m working on designing the system by which that’s governed and how magic is made available to the users. It’s been a fun challenge and I’ve picked up a lot of ideas from my recent readings.

I’d be curious to hear what magic system you’re using in your stories to control the problem of magic. So, abra-cadabra, make those comments appear below!

A few of my thoughts on “The Star Collector” – my recent 2nd place finisher at The Blank Page Challenge

The inaugural Blank Page Challenge was the first writing contest I’d ever entered. I have had a few drabble and flash fiction pieces published online so far, and placing second in the competition is something I am very proud of. I thought I would share, in no real order, just a few of the things that occurred around this piece.

  • The prompt – when I first saw the prompt, I imagined the usual flashlight pointed in the air kind of scene. In that specific picture, however, the way the light appears in relation to the flashlight and the figure made me envision the light coming downward rather than pushing upward. Right away the idea of a “collector” of the light was formed. There are a few references to this:
    • Mama’s “light empty body” was a play: her body is light as well as empty because she is dead, but in addition her body is empty of the light that gives her life and the Star Collector will refill her.
    • Obviously the reference to everyone as stars is related to this idea as well.
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  • The main character – this was an interesting one for me. Through the time I wrote this, I never once bothered with the main character’s physical description or gender. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter, so it can safely be ignored. I still do to this day. I don’t “see” anyone when I think of the protagonist – that person is simply just present in the events. There have been multiple instance of readers interpreting the MC as female. That’s fine (as I said above, it doesn’t matter).
    • Writing group – I took the story to my local writing group (CS Writers) for one of our weekly critiques and each of the readers there interpreted the MC as female.
    • Judge’s comments – there were a few notes from the judges and one of those referenced the MC as a “she” which I thought was interesting.
  • Emotion – by the time I’d ironed out the bulk of the story, it should have been highly emotional, right? Kid stuck on some horrendous planet, apparently alone with only Mama as a companion. Mama dies, kid freaks out. Emotional as hell, right? Apparently not, because the first couple of drafts were completely dry. I mean like clinical. I added some emotion later, then more was suggested by folks that read the early draft. One of them suggested the addition of some or all of the grief stages, which I did squeeze in in a couple of places. I knew I was on to something when the phrase “tear jerker” came out. The judges called for more emotion and a more developed ending. I see that now and wish I’d seen it before submitting, because I agree.
  • Jill’s reaction to the contest – okay, this has nothing whatsoever to do with my story, but one of the earliest Tweets to come through after the announcement was from the eventual winner, Jill Patrick. She congratulated both Brittany Miller and I for our placings, and then she mentioned each of us in her interview. I thought that was really classy and humbling. Brittany was equally gracious. They reinforced the truth that we are all in this together, that the only real competition is ourselves, and that the success of anyone else is not threatening to the rest of us. I really appreciated both of them. Frankly I’m thrilled to have my work sitting next to their amazing pieces.
  • My final and most important thought about the story is the importance of going for it. All the usual cliche comments can be made: “just do it” “go for it” “do or do not” whatever. But they are true. If I may be so bold as to say, I rather like a particular combination of words I put in the interview:  “Gift yourself with the possibility of success.”

Thanks to everyone that voted. I’d welcome any comments or critiques of “The Star Collector,” so feel free to comment here or message me on Twitter.

And thank you to the people and organizations that donated prizes!

BlankPage Challenge – 2nd place (judges)

Wow! I’m thrilled to have been awarded 2nd place by the judges for my entry to the BlankPage Challenge. For the next week or so now readers can vote on their favorite of the top 3 stories.

My story is entitled “The Star Collector” and is based on the photo prompt provided by BPC. I liked the photo and was a bit surprised by where it took me in the story. It was a rewarding story to write, though a bit different from my usual work.


After the contest ends I’ll put up some more personal and more specific analysis, as there are some interesting comments and assumptions being made about the story. For now, I’m going to allow everyone to enjoy it as is.

Big thank you to the folks at BlankPage Challenge for organizing and maintaining this contest. It’s fun and I look forward to future entries.

I’m blown away by the quality of the other two stories in the top 3 and I encourage you to follow those writers closely. They are doing some great work. Please vote for your favorite story.

Jill Patrick’s site can be found here.

Brittany Miller’s Amazon site can be found here.

I want to encourage everyone to take part in these kinds of competitions. They foster a sense of community, broaden our horizons and give us unique challenges we might normally assign to ourselves. I believe that Flash Fiction in general can help novel writers be more concise and word-conscious. BlankPage Challenge has a calendar for the rest of the year.

Good luck, all!