Magic in fiction is the endowment of characters or objects in works of fiction or fantasy with powers that do not naturally occur in the real world.

Magic often serves as a plot device and has long been a component of fiction, since writing was invented.

Historical beliefs

Historically, witches such as the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, wizards such as Prospero in The Tempest or characters like Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play of the same name were widely considered to be real.[1]: 1027  Contemporary authors tend to treat magic as an imaginary idea, opting to build their worlds with a blank slate where the laws of reality do not carry as much weight.[1]: 1027 


Within a work of fantasy, magic can help to advance the plot, often providing power to heroes or to their opponents. The use of magic frequently manifests itself in a transformation of a character, if not the transformation of the fictional world.[2]: 143 

For magic to carry out its functions, it often comes at a price equal to its value.[3][need quotation to verify]: 143 

Fictional magic may or may not include a detailed magic system, but it is not uncommon for authors to omit details or explanations of certain limitations, ostensibly for pacing or other purposes; in these cases, it is possible that magic serves more as a convenience to the author rather than as a device for the character.[citation needed]

In nearly any given fantasy magical system, magical ability is limited. Limitations can add conflict to the story and prevent characters from becoming all-powerful with magic, although characters with unlimited power (such as deities or transcendental beings) are not unheard of in fiction.[1]: 616  Fantasy writers use a variety of techniques to limit the magic in their stories,[4] such as limiting the number of spells a character has or may cast before needing rest,[4] restricting a character's magic to the use of a specific object,[4] limiting magic to the use of certain rare materials,[5] or restricting the magic a character can use through its negative consequences.[4] Some works feature magic that is performed through the use of certain words or incantations to cast spells.[citation needed] While many works use this method without offering an explanation for it, others do offer an explanation.[2]: 134 [3]: 167–168 

Hard magic is a magic system with specific rules and regulations; a soft magic system is usually much more vague and undefined with a mysterious aspect to it.

The Magic Circle, 1886 by John William Waterhouse


Authors introduce magic into their stories, and to their characters, in varying ways. Although there is great variation in how spontaneously magic occurs, how difficult it is to wield, and how the guidelines to the magic are implemented, there are a handful of methods for introducing magic found in many fictional works. In many[quantify] fantasy works, writers depict magic as an innate talent, equivalent for example to perfect pitch.[1]: 616  Magic may also be gained through a pact with a devil or with other spirits, a characteristic common in folklore.[6]


Main article: Magic item

In some works, such as fairy tales, magic items either endow the main characters with magical powers or have magical powers themselves. Writers often use them as plot devices or MacGuffins to drive the plot of a story.[7][page needed]

Wands and staves often feature in fantasy works in the hands of wizards.[8] Italian fairy tales had put wands into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages.[citation needed]

Talismans such as rings or amulets may exert magical influence.[9] Seven-league boots and invisibility cloaks have also proven popular.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312198698.
  2. ^ a b Martin, Philip (2002). The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value (1st ed.). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Writer Books. ISBN 0871161958.
  3. ^ a b Attebery, Brian (1980). The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253356652.
  4. ^ a b c d "The Limits of Magic". The Victorian Web. Archived from the original on 2004-08-23. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  5. ^ Card, Orson Scott (1990). How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1st ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. pp. 47–49. ISBN 0898794161.
  6. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. p. 279. ISBN 039473467X.
  7. ^ Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520035379.
  8. ^ Frye, Northrop (1971). Anatomy of Criticism; Four Essays (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 152. ISBN 0691012989.
  9. ^ Note Tolkien's legendarium, for example, or The Story of the Amulet.