The Magic of Fantasy — Let’s Love the Unreal

This article is by Sheila Wisz Ellayn.


I joined the wonderful community of Mythic Scribes in November of 2011. During my first weeks here, something surprised me. That was how most of the other members were trying to make their fantasy settings as realistic as possible.

I am in love with surreal and impossible settings for my fantasy stories. Some of them are similar to reality, but I also have a universe that is an endless, bottomless, partially frozen ocean. I love multiple moons with vivid colors, steppes of blue grass, and castles made of crystal.

At first, I found it difficult to understand why my fellow fantasy storytellers would want to create worlds as similar to Earth as possible. But with time, I came to accept the trend of more realistic fantasy.

Recently, I have discovered a new trend that has sparked conflict within me. This is the trend of making magic more scientific and realistic.

What is Fantasy?

First, we have to ask ourselves what defines the fantasy genre. There are many writers who do not have any clear definition of fantasy. Therefore, they have come to believe that our genre has vague borders, and is even interchangeable with science fiction.

Some writers have also expressed the view that fantasy and science fiction are two ends of the same spectrum. However, I would argue that both genres are very different from each other in ways that many fans do not appreciate.

Science fiction is a great genre, and I respect it. In order to write real sci-fi, you need to have a solid grasp of science, as the whole genre is about building your stories around scientific principles and concepts. It is a stricter and also a colder genre than fantasy.

On the other hand, fantasy is defined by a disregard for strict realism.

Fantasy is about the impossible, the magical, the wondrous, and inexplicable.

To a certain extent, fantasy is also about wish fulfillment. You wish that what you just read could be real. When you read well-written fantasy, your sense of disbelief is crushed, and you are transported away from this world.

Why Fantastic Magic is Important

While characters in science fiction must remain moored to what science can accept, characters in fantasy often have access to a power that enables mysterious and supernatural feats: magic.

Magic can take many forms. What defines magic is that it goes against the scientific principles known to our world, and makes the impossible happen.

Think of Gandalf the Grey fighting the Balrog, Minerva McGonagall demonstrating transfiguration, Elsa of Arendelle creating ice from nowhere, and even plants that fight against zombies.

I define “fantastic magic” as a supernatural force that has no regard for the limits of science. And most of us like that so much, that we do not even question it. We just enjoy watching Elsa create a snow monster, or witnessing a plant inexplicably digest a zombie.

This wondrous aspect of magic is one of the key attributes that reside at the heart of our beloved fantasy genre.

Scientific Magic?

That is why I am left scratching my head when some writers propose what I call “scientific magic.” This is a type of magic that is plausible and believable from the point of view of science.

I am not able to understand what they are trying to achieve, but I do suspect that these writers really want to write fantasy like the rest of us. The problem is that they seem to disapprove of anything mysterious or supernatural, and want to turn fantastic magic into something explainable.

For them, supernatural magic is wrong, broken, and the result of poor thinking. They believe that it breaks the immersion of our readers. Instead of embracing the wondrous nature of fantasy, they come up with pseudo-science in order to logically (at least, according to them) explain the incredible feats that their characters perform.

What they are doing diminishes the wow factor of fantasy.

If you reduce magic, and every fantastic event in your story, to nothing more than logic and pseudo-science, are you still writing fantasy?

People Love Fantastic Magic

Most people have a fondness for my type of magic, the type that kicks reality to the curb.

My father is not a reader of fantasy novels, but he does love how Spider-Man flies between skyscrapers and stops a passenger train with nothing but the strength of his legs. He has never stopped to wonder if such feats could be carried out in the real world.

Millions of Star Wars fans love the Force. Do they stop to question how it works?

When you watch Frozen, do you stop to question how Elsa is making snow? Do you wonder if there is enough humidity in the air for her to manipulate and freeze the molecules?

Millions love the X-Men, even though their powers make no scientific sense.

So why should fantasy authors concern themselves with the scientific plausibility of their magic and settings? Is it possible that, by doing so, they are robbing fantasy of the awe and wonder that makes it truly great?

For Further Thought

In your opinion, what defines the fantasy genre?

Who is your favorite character whose powers simply defy science with no explanation?

This article was contributed by a featured author whose details are mentioned above. Are you interested in writing for Mythic Scribes? If so, please check out our submission guidelines.

27 Responses to The Magic of Fantasy — Let’s Love the Unreal

  1. Excellent. Yes I agree and it applies also to more mainstream areas such as mystical realism etc.

    I also found the comment about supporting the opinion with references a quite funny meta-argument of exactly what the article is about. LOL!

    Thanks for this!

  2. If magic is based on science it’s IMHO totally wrong. There would be digital magic by now… or is it already here? Another question to pose is about magicians. Was it Fantasy or did they really succeed to deliver tangible results? To write about the Magic of Fantasy is apt in generating a heated debate. Thanks to Sheila.

  3. I venture to add a comment even though a bit late – I had to re-read the whole lot… Magic has a track record going back thousands of years. So, Magic is solidly based on Earth, miracles, spells, etc. No science! Automatic Writing still remains to be fully explained.

    Fantasy has no boundaries – anything goes. As of 2016, it’s by now a new style, not related to fairy tales and borders Sci-Fi to some extent. Coming up with a truly new angle in one’s plot isn’t easy!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Sheila. In my creations, I want my fantasy worlds to be as fantastic as I can possibly make them. For me, I don’t need to know the source of magic. If the author feels it necessary to explain it, fine.

    For me, fantasy is an escape from the world I live in. The further it recedes from real life the happier I am. If making things “real” works for an author, more power to them.

    I guess it all comes down to the adage of “write what you know”. I’d rather be happy than right any day.

  5. I couldn´t agree more. It´s really frustrating when you go watch a horror movie and people start questioning everything instead of just enjoying the freaking movie! I mean, one would think they know what to expect when they choose a movie titled “The undead”… The same thing with Fantasy… Read the word: fan-ta-sy! I really do not understand why some would want everything to be explainable and plausible.. if you are reading it and your mind is being taken to another place, if it makes you even forget that you exist and that you are, in fact, only reading; if it makes you feel, laugh, suffer, hope… then…who cares whether the author has a scientific explanation behind every bit! If you want to have an explanation behind everything you write… good, go ahead, whatever works for you and whatever makes you happy, but don´t go wanting every other fellow writer to do the same. To each his own!
    I think the article was really good,friendly,clear,and respectful.
    Thanks a lot!
    Loving the unreal indeed. 😉

    • Hello Abrahel.

      Your comment makes me think once again of what is the true work and duty of a Fantasy Storyteller: We have to transport our readers to another world, and to make them feel, laugh, suffer, hope, enjoy and cheer the characters and the story in which they live.

      When that is accomplished, the Storyteller has done his or her work well. This is very difficult to perform and it’s like Magic itself, a truly beautiful thing to do.

      In my opinion, having a great story to tell is the most important ingredient for having success in our craft.

  6. Hello everyone.

    Nicholas: Your comment has brightened my day a lot, thank you so much. It is a pleasure to have caused inspiration in a fellow Storyteller, and I hope that your future story will be incredible.

    All the best!

    Russ: Thanks a lot for your great comment. You have brought up a very important point to our discussion, and that is the fact that a reader that picks up a Fantasy book is already willing to enter the suspension of disbelief.

    It’s not like they think: “I am very grounded in reality, so it will be a challenge for you to convince me that your world is real!” In fact, it’s more like: “I want a good story, great characters! Entertain me, take me to a different world…”

    Also, I had not considered that the tendency to create very detailed and carefully designed Magic systems could have its origin in Role Playing Games. In those settings it’s really necessary to have that style of Magic because a game must follow strict rules, but Storytelling is a completely different world.

    I believe very firmly that Storytelling is a form of art, we are giving birth to artistic creations. The rules of writing are important too, but when a person gives them too much attention then the storytelling itself can suffer.

    This is why I consider myself a storyteller in first place, and a writer in second.

  7. Quite enjoyed your article and quite agree with you, which I think means my tastes in fantastic settings runs similar to yours.

    I see the same trend in both published works and on this board about making fantasy worlds more and more “realistic”. I think there are reasons for that.

    One is that some people think a more realistic world helps with the suspension of disbelief. As Moorcock says:

    “It became a convention to suspend disbelief by making the invented world as ‘believable’ as possible. I preferred mine to be as supportive of the story as possible and not bother to suspend disbelief because my readers already knew what they were reading and why. You don’t have to persuade someone who has picked up a fantasy book that it is ‘real’. What they want is a good story and characters, some good marvels, and maybe a bit to think about.”

    On this board I think some of the efforts to make magic compatible with science reach the point of the ludicrous. If it is compatible with science can you really call it magic?

    I also think systems of magic being so carefully defined and described has some of its origins in RPGs where balance and quantification are the focus rather than good storytelling. Magic needs limits or the story becomes boring and undisciplined, but I don’t need to know how the entire magic system works to be properly entertained.

    There is some good academic literature that supports your thoughts on this issue, Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Rhetorics of Fantasy spring quickly to mind, but you really don’t need citations for an opinion piece designed to provoke discussion.

  8. Personally, I love this post. My own fantasy is very much science-based, but I do have a weak spot for extraordinary spaces, like the ones described here. Something for a future book, perhaps. So, thanks for the inspiration, Sheila 🙂

  9. Hello Tamara, and thank you for your excellent comment.

    I think you have a great point here: Some Fantasy writers could be too worried about keeping every detail of their Magic explained and under control, in order to avoid any possible plot hole or an eventual complication with the Deus Ex thing.

    It’s true that the limitations of Magic are what keep it from becoming a solution for everything, and so the Fantasy story continues to be interesting. This is part of the beauty of Magic too, how it can limit itself and be part of a great story even if we do not calculate every bit of how it works.

    They have a great way of limiting Magic in the Worst Witch TV series, for example. Magic can do incredible things and it’s never really explained, but if you use too much of it (or too often) it can unleash the Foster’s Effect: The spells begin to multiply out of control, and this can potentially cause severe disasters.

    Something like that is an excellent way to have Fantastic Magic, enjoy all of the super cool things that it can do and at the same time still keep some reasonable limits on it.

    • Exactly. The limitation doesn’t have to be in the magic itself either. Maybe the society the character lives in fears magic, so she can only use it when no one is looking, and if she ever gets caught she could be burned as a witch. That’s going to make her think twice about using magic to solve every little problem.

  10. I think that partially what these scientific fantasy writers are struggling with is maintaining a balance between fantastic magic and good storytelling. A fantastical world can be a wonderful sensory experience, whether it’s on a page or on a screen, but if there are no rules governing the working of magic, it becomes a deus ex machina, a literally magical cure all for the character’s problems, and that doesn’t make for a very satisfying story. We want the characters to struggle for their reward. We want there to be setbacks and sacrifices because that gives us hope that our own struggles will eventually yield a reward. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, to have magic that wows the reader without making things too easy for the character. Brandon Sanderson says in his article “Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic” that the prevalence of magic in the story has to be directly proportional to how well you explain the rules of said magic. The crazier and more incomprehensible the magic is, the more marginal it has to be to the story. However many writers misunderstand this rule. They think they need to understand every detail of their magic system as well as scientists understand electricity. Explaining how things works is not the same as explaining why they work that way. I understand that Elsa can create snow and ice. I don’t need to know why. That in itself is a set of rules with limitations. She can’t create fire or chocolate. Spiderman has the abilities of a spider, not the abilities of a bumblebee. Limitations, not scientific exactness, are what keeps the magic from becoming a cure all and keeps the story interesting.

    • Tamara, you’ve tightened up the argument considerably. The author has misdiagnosed the issue. If I can piggyback on your comment–

      There have always been rules in fantasy. The first one is that magic must have a price–it is not something that can be used frivolously, wantonly, heedlessly. This rule is reminiscent of scientific laws like the conservation of momentum or entropy, etc. The trend I’ve noticed is a lightening of this law, not a tightening. Godlike teenager characters have become more common, no? Contrast to the ring Frodo carried, the consequences Ged faced, the Monkey’s Paw.

      In general, when magic has a price, when it is a scarce resource like all of those in the real world, it is easier to believe–for me, at least. I have trouble identifying with people snapping their fingers and having the seas part for them. They are gods, not human beings.

      By the same token, having monsters be scarce, half-glimpsed, shadowed, is usually more effective. A witch one never quite can see is scarier than one whose every wart is described. I am reading a story about dragons right now where they are so commonplace, the main one has ceased to become a dragon in my eyes. She’s more like a formidable substitute teacher.

      That being said, effective stories can be written where magic doesn’t have a price, and monsters are described in loving detail and used for perfectly mundane purposes–why not? It certainly makes it harder to craft a dramatic story when anything can happen, but kudos to those who can succeed with it. It’s simply an aesthetic choice. Perhaps a reflection of the world, as well.

      Why not both?

  11. Vmfranck: Your situation is similar to mine. My life is a disaster and countless awful things have happened to me, which explains why I am very escapist in my Fantasy works.

    Many years ago, I created a quite complex Fantasy universe about a mighty intergalactic civilization. It was so huge in scale and so glorious in how powerful they were, that I was sure that it was going to be the greatest Science Fiction ever.

    Yeah, I used to think that completely imaginary physics would count as Science Fiction. It was only as years passed that I came to understand that I was writing Fantasy, and I came to accept and embrace Fantasy for what it is.

    Mythopoet: My article is an opinion piece. I am stating my personal opinion and feelings about this, and I am not even trying to force my point of view on anybody out there.

    Star Wars fans do question how everything in their favorite universe works, and that’s why they have an entire system of in-universe imaginary physics to explain how a lightsaber works and how the Death Star is able to blow up a planet.

    The vast majority of them do not question it from a truly scientific point of view, and they are confused if you ask them how many Watts a lightsaber generates.

    Like I said before, I am completely alright with in-universe Fantasy physics. It’s the attempts to make wild, impossible Magic pass as plausible, real-world science that I strongly disagree with.

    Imagine this scenario: While the Disney Team works on Frozen, they think: “No, we cannot just handwave Elsa’s powers as Magic! There must be a scientific explanation for it… Think, let’s find a logical solution!”

    Well, they would still be stuck trying to figure it out and Frozen would probably never reach the theaters.

    • I don’t see the point of comparing a work where there clearly was no intention of applying real world science (star wars, Frozen) to works where the writer is building up their own world from scratch with the intention of trying to make it work by real world standards as much as possible. When you try to theoretically reverse engineer something that was not meant to be realistic, of course its going to seem ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous if that’s the aesthetic you’re going for from the beginning. Some writers and LOTS of readers find it far more interesting to try and explore their fantasies through the filter of the known. That’s not anti-fantasy because the real definition of fantasy is basically “anything you can imagine”.

  12. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Warwick: I was inspired to write this article as a result of several discussions that have taken place in the Mythic Scribes Forums lately. I do not know of any well known works that could be examples of the trend that I mentioned.

    ChemistKen: Exactly, you and I agree perfectly. I also like to have a system that explains how my Magic works and why my magical characters can or cannot do something in particular.

    However, those explanations are in-universe only and I never even attempt to provide a real world, scientific scenario to explain how my Mages blow up entire cities with incredibly destructive beams that come out of nowhere.

    My article is about Loving the Unreal, which I believe to be one of the most important aspects of the Fantasy genre.

  13. This article appears to be a very long personal definition of what the author personally desires out of the fantasy genre. However, there is no reasoning behind it. There are no sources, references or clear arguments for why the author feels that fantasy should be the way she wants it to be. At best, there’s a few appeals to emotion.

    The author asks, “Millions of Star Wars fans love the Force. Do they stop to question how it works?”

    Well, yes, lots of them do. There are fans out there who question how everything in the Star Wars universe works because they are interested in knowing more about it.

    Also, “When you watch Frozen, do you stop to question how Elsa is making snow? Do you wonder if there is enough humidity in the air for her to manipulate and freeze the molecules?”

    Again, yes. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen for the movie Frozen is that Elsa’s power comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. Many people think there should have been more explanation and that it should have made sense.

    Furthermore, the author’s definition of magic has no source and is very different from any definition of magic I have ever encountered. And her personal definition of fantasy does not appear to be rooted in any historical definition of the term or any well known exploration of the genre that I have ever seen.

    The author is of course free to explore the fantasy genre in any way she chooses and is free to prefer any kind of fantasy that appeals to her, but going so far as to suggest that types of fantasy that differ from hers are in some way diminishing or adversely affecting fantasy as a genre in general is, in my opinion, going to far.

    • This is an opinion piece. The author is simply giving her opinion. She doesn’t need to cite sources, because she’s not trying to prove or establish anything.

      You certainly are welcome to disagree with her. When posting this article, I knew that it would generate controversy, and that many people would disagree with the opinion expressed. In fact, I was hoping for that. It’s an interesting discussion to have, and I’m happy that people are coming down on different sides. That’s what I wanted.

      As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      • Even in opinion pieces, I feel that one should at least give some reasoning for one’s opinion and one should not declare a definition for a term that has no basis outside the author’s opinion. What is the point of an opinion with no substance and no foundation?

      • The author is giving her opinion of what defines fantasy. She does not intend it to be the sole, authoritative definition.

        Also, the author welcomes other definitions of fantasy. That’s why, at the conclusion of the article, she asks the following question:

        “In your opinion, what defines the fantasy genre?”

        She is asking for other opinions on what defines fantasy. This demonstrates that she is initiating a discussion on this question, and is not purporting to give the authoritative answer.

  14. Writing is about doing what the author wants to do with the story. I’ve been writing for a long time and for me writing is escape. I’ve had a lot of awful things happen to me, and in my stories I remedy that. The reader just needs to be able to follow it, and some certainly aren’t going to like what I write. If that’s the case they need to read someone else. That’s it. I won’t be limited by what someone else thinks is or is not part of a genre. I write between genres and/or they overlap. I write what I like to write and then go back and make it make sense on a level that works for me. That’s pretty much it.

    I didn’t realize I wrote fantasy until I submitted a work to a publisher, and she told me that’s what I was writing. I thought it was paranormal. Sometimes we trip over the words we use. Writers are all into words and meanings, but those words and definitions should not hold us back. If they do, what’s the point of writing? I do this for me, first. Conformity kills creativity.

  15. Hello Reilith.

    As I said before in my reply to Jotunn, I completely agree with the need to have Magic that is consistent from a in-universe point of view in order to avoid plot holes and Deus Ex situations like you mention.

    What my article is about is a totally different subject: While it’s great for Magic to be explainable and plausible within our Fantasy settings, why would we want it to be plausible from the point of view of the science of our world?

    I would be okay with that approach as long as it really remained within the limits of science, but now some people are attempting to explain very wild, impossible magic like it could be scientifically plausible and that’s what I address in my article.

  16. I think that in an attempt to come up with magical rules, it’s become common for some writers to give the magic some sort of “real” scientific basis, if only because it makes coming up with the rules a little more straightforward. I kind of like having a bit of an explanation for why magic exists in my stories, but only enough to get me started. After that, all bets are off, and if I can’t explain how a spell my character cast turned the moon blue, then so be it.

  17. I’m wonder if there are particular works you had in mind, because I find myself unable to think of examples of this phenomenon.

    The closest thing I can think of is usually soft SF/science-fantasy clarktech masquerading as magic, but the author is usually going for something very different if they’re doing that. Even the most ‘rigorous’ actual magic I’ve encountered tends to dispense with thermodynamics as a start before doing violence to other aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology.

  18. I actually like both types. It is pseudo-science, for sure, but it can be interesting and rewarding to get an explanation of how something works. I like to know how magic works, simply explained, doesn’t have to be anything super complicated or fancy. I like to set boundaries on magic in my writing as well, cause if you don’t then you get Deus Ex and a lot of OP characters and that doesn’t make it interesting. Where’s the plot if the MC can incinerate the baddy instantly, or the wizards have time travel that helps them be exactly in the right place at the right time? Ofc, it’s not that simple, but I think that either way of describing fantasy magic is good – it’s fantasy! Explaining it or not, it is still magic and it is still fantasy – it doesn’t take out of the experience either way!

  19. Hello Jotunn, and thanks for your comment.

    I agree that it’s necessary to have consistency and certain logic for how Magic works in a Fantasy world, but that only needs to apply from a in-universe perspective.

    Magic follows certain laws and restrictions in most Fantasy works for this reason, but that does not mean that we have to make it logic and consistent according to our own universe…


    Because it’s Magic, and it’s Fantasy. I think that building our own sets of imaginary physics and rules to explain Magic is alright, as long as we do not attempt to transform it into something that the science of the real world can approve.

  20. Well, I think the readers do not need to be bothered with all the science behind the magic, but the author should have some form of an idea where the boundaries of his magic lie and how it really works.
    Otherwise, you’ll get unwanted plot-holes where people start wondering why didn’t he cast the shockwave when he did that back there 150 pages ago?
    While we could tolerate that in Lord of the Rings (Gandalf’s sortiment of spells), the new generation readers are like that and it isn’t wrong to adapt.

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