Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fantasy Magic Tropes & Freebies

Just as science fiction has faster-than-light communication, wormholes, anti-gravity, AI, and anti-matter power sources, fantasy magic also has tropes and freebies an author can use. But be careful: don't bore the reader or waste their time.

Sources of Magical Energy:

  • Ways to create / raise magical energy:
    • drumming,
    • repetitive chants,
    • singing,
    • sex,
    • drug use,
    • dancing,
    • bloodletting,
    • pain,
    • strong emotion,
    • trance,
    • sacrifice,
    • using available "magical tides" (full moon, etc),
    • induction of energy through a ley line,
    • using a magical artifact,
    • getting a "gift" from a deity.
  • The moon -- when it's full, work put in toward goals reach their fruition, magic is stronger and it's a good time for fortune telling; when it's dark, mysterious forces of regeneration are at work and it's a good time for fortune telling.
  • The solar festivals -- the days of the solstices and equinoxes and the four days in between are special days. The two big ones are Samhain or Halloween, when the veils between the worlds are thin; and Beltain or May Day, which is a fertility festival (and the veils between the worlds are thin). There may also be regional differences over which a solar festival marks the new year, during which contracts are renewed or broken.
  • Sex magic -- a man and a woman represent different ends of a battery, and the energy of sex can be used to generate spells. Of course, Dion Fortune makes dark hints about man-to-man sex and The Left-Hand Path (oddly enough, Saphic sex never comes up).
  • Other Planes / Worlds -- this is can take the form of people/objects from the underworld/overworld are inherently magic in our middleworld. Or it can take a cue from Theosophy and can get complicated with magicians existing simultaneously on astral, mental, ethereal, abyssal and elemental planes -- and the magician usually direct events on one plane and create a reaction on the physical plane.
  • The Chakras. Sanscrit for wheel, these are seven energetic centers in the body that a magician can use to send or receive magical power.
  • Magic is a combination of water pressure, magnetism, and germ contagion.
  • Magic as an alternative world Science (i.e. Devon Monk's "Magic in the Blood").
  • Human mortality as a source of power. (Lackey's "Serrated Edge" stories)

Magical Characters:

  • The Familiar -- usually an animal, but sometimes a magical creature. The familiar historically was an animal helper sent by The Devil, but today is a kind of corrective lens (and character foil) to help the magic user focus spells by virtue of their being more "in tune" with magical forces.
  • Alistair Crowley (The Edwardian shock-jock of Magick) is Back From The Dead and Boy Is He Pissed.
  • The "Magic Negro/Native American/Celt" who exists solely to pass a magical secret/wisdom to some white guy.
  • The Shaman (who used to be the Witch-Doctor, but is now The Nobel Savage, a New Age Celt or Politically Correct). Shamans in real life are indigenous people who have usually had some sort of dis- and re-integrative personal ordeal. This allows them to get into an ecstatic state during which they may act in the spiritual world on behalf of their tribe.
  • The Dead Mentor -- shows up at convenient moments to help the character solve a problem or at inconvenient times to initiate a training session.
  • Womyn Who Run with Werewolves -- this goes in cycles.
  • The Sexy Vampire Sidekick / Ally -- Before "Twilight" there was Diana Tregarde's vampire lover.
  • The Magical Child Victim -- can either be a voluptuous nubile woman or else a small child whose sole purpose in the book is to show the reader how evil the antagonist is, or illustrate how pain and death magic work.
  • The Templars. Magic-using knights for Christ (or the Goddess, we're not sure)!

Magical Items:

  • The Magic Potion or Spring: typically gives the drinker Great Strength, Youth, Forgetfulness, makes them Fall In Love, or fall asleep.
  • A cauldron or bag of plenty.
  • Something from Atlantis; 'sposed to be good for you.
  • Magical weapon -- blade glows when nasties are near; swords that posses their owners; weapons that specialize in slaying dragons, giants, etc.; and, finally, the talking, thinking weapon.
  • Silver -- silver bullets kill the werewolf, silver mirrors zap the gorgon.
  • The Holy Icon -- the cross stops the vampire, returning the crystal skull closes the cosmic circuit (just in time!)
  • Curse focus -- the one's I've seen are coins that attract bad luck, the little figurines that attract magical lightning, or the "hot potato" runestone that got someone eaten by a black-and-white movie demon.
  • Spells are written down on a slip of paper for use later.
  • Talisman -- something, usually metal or crystal, worn with a magical inscription or prayer on it. Can be used as a magical battery! Especially if it has an amethyst, ruby, or diamond in it.
  • Amulet -- an object, like a rabbit's foot, that brings luck or protection.
  • Special plants as ingredients for spells (Oberon's rose, mandrake) or that control or limit magical creatures (wolfs bane, garlic, moley).
  • Crystals, especially in jewelry, as magical items, typically providing invisibility, a "shield", or magical energy storage. The sages of Atlantis used crystals in their magical workings, and the historical Hero the Mage writes about the Egyptians "capturing the effluxes of stars" in their crystals.
  • A circle drawn on the ground can be used for protection or for summoning angels and daemons. Historically, a summoning magic user stood in a protective Solomon Seal or and summoned a being into a constraining magic triangle.
  • A five pointed star in a circle, or Pentacle, if not proof of the work of a magic user nearby, is also a kind of magical on-switch.

Magical Plot Devices:

  • The magic user blanks out and The Powers of Goodness guide them through the story climax (happens in Tolkein. In "Burning Water" by Mercedes Lackey gets around this by having a supporting character blank out).
  • That Old Magic is Back. (And it just crashed every technological / industrial society on the planet. Damn.)
  • The Return of Atlantis. Or C'thulu. Or Dragons. Or King somebody....
  • The main character can only safely use a magical item as long as they have no or an unclear idea what it actually does.
  • The Hunting Lodge (traceable to Dion Fortune's "Tales of Dr. Taverner"). A league of Good Magicians in a White Lodge act as a magical police force or U.N. to check the power of Evil Black Lodges and solitary Black Adepts.
  • The Broken Taboo or Geas. Taboos in a society are limits or protocols for people to safely approach or contain power. Break the taboo, and you diffuse the power. Sampson retains his strength as long as he is unshorn; Cú Chulainn eats dog meat and dies in his next battle.
  • The Good Magic Folk Mercilessly Persecuted by [insert Repressive Institution here] (Naomi Kritzer's "Fires of the Faithful" does a nice twist on this).
  • The hitherto unnoticed Small Folk go on a Quest to find the One Power Item that will overthrow the Dark Monarch ("Lord of the Rings," "The Sword of Shannara," etc).
  • Human ability to radically change as a source of non-human renewal (see Patricia C Wrede's "Snow White & Briar Rose," Emma Bull's "War for the Oaks").
  • A group of young adults, more-or-less by accident, performs a ritual and finds Excalibur or summons Puck (i.e. Rudyard Kipling's "Puck of Pook's Hill") or stumble through some sort of Land of the Lost Portal.
  • Real Elves, Faeries, Dwarves, Goblins, etc. move to a Big Urban City. Mayhem ensues. (deLint's Newford Series, "War for the Oaks")
  • Someone discovers "the lost magic chord" and gains mastery over some phenomenon (this one is based on medieval music theory and probably an old Victorian song by Sir Arthur Sullivan).
  • The magic user uses "mage sight" to see magical energy sources or magical residue or another magic user's magical signature.
  • Knowing enough to start a magical operation, but not enough to stop it (the Sorcerer's Apprentice).

Magical Misc:

  • Terms out of a Fantasy Role Playing Game manual: magic missile, levinbolt, etc.
  • Magical bards worth their salt should be able to make people laugh (or dance), move them to tears, or soothe them into sleep.

For more, see also:


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