Susan’s Rules of Contemporary Fantasy

There’s been many attempts to put down the “rules of magic” as they manifest in various fantasy novels. My favorite went around Twitter a while back and summarized how magic works in fifty different fantasy series. But those are the rules for other people’s fantasy books. As I finish up my MFA, I’m also finishing up the last revisions of my own book, a contemporary fantasy set in the redwood empire of California. As part of this effort I wrote down how the rules of magic work in my world. I have two more contemporary fantasies in the works as well, and I want to maintain some consistency in my work, so setting this down was a useful exercise for me.

What follows here is not how YOU, or anyone else, should do fantasy. I dearly love dozens of books that violate half of these rules. This is how I am doing fantasy, in my own work, at the moment, and I present this list of rules as food for thought.

  1. The main character cannot have magic powers or a magical destiny that is pre-ordained. Her uniqueness must come out of human traits, not magical traits.
  2. Magical characters can only be supporting characters.
    1. All magical characters must have severe limitations that are obvious early on. They cannot be omnipotent. They should be frustrated in some way by their limitations.
  3. No psychic knowledge
    1. No character, including magical characters, can know something without physically observing it or having someone else physically observe it.
    2. Any dreams must be regular dreams, and must not inform the plot. They must only be there to establish thematic, character, or tonal elements. Characters must never learn or figure out anything new in a dream.
    3. Though some characters know more than others, none are omniscient. See #1.
  4. No magical transportation can occur that furthers the plot. If a character needs to get from point A to point B, she will thumb a ride or take a bus. She will not ride Pegasus over the trees.
  5. Animals cannot talk.
    1. Monsters can talk, but only offstage. Nobody likes a chatty monster.
  6. There should be one primary magical object and its magic must be bounded by strict rules and limitations.
    1. Other magical objects must be associated with the primary object, be used sparingly, and be driven by the rules associated with the primary object.
  7. A magical object should not acquire substantial new abilities over time. A pocket watch that lets you stop time shouldn’t suddenly allow you to change into an elephant late in the story.  However, properties of such objects can be revealed over time, as long as these properties progress logically and thematically from the original premise.
  8. No magical object should be used to get around #3 (no magic mirrors, pensieves, etc).
  9. When magic occurs, it should not be directly observed; only the result of the magic should be observed.
    1. Magical characters should never be witnessed casting spells.
  10. 10. A “spell” (an incidence of magic) should not last forever.
    1. Magic is not infallible. There should always be a way to defeat or subvert or influence it.
  11. Magic is violent and powerful. Magic leaves physical scars.
  12. Magic is strange. Magic is noticeable and interrupts the ordinary world. Magic is not casually accepted (Note: this is one aspect of my work that differs strongly from much of magical realism).

Anyone out there have rules of your own?

  • Arpana Mansfield

    hum… rules…

    1) every character with a name must have a secret, a need, a dream and a fear.

    2) stereotypes are made to be broken.

    3) Borrowing your #5: No talking animals.

    • Susan McNerney

      I like those :)