Writing Magic in a Real-World Setting

By Liz Keller Whitehurst

For centuries, people have been spellbound by magic and the supernatural. Ghosts, curses, talking creatures, portals to alternate dimensions…there’s just too much creative fodder for authors not to plumb those depths. Over time, mainstream fantasy has given way to many other genres—particularly those where magic is being used in a real-world setting.

Melding the fantastic with the everyday definitely has its challenges, but it can be done. Whether you’re writing magical realism, fabulism, or an undefined genre in a similar vein, you’ve got to thread the needle when it comes to blending magic with the real world. Here are some tips on how to do that.

The First Rule of Magic is Containment

Creativity guru Julia Cameron uses this concept in her Artist Way work, but she certainly didn’t coin the phrase. What does the first rule of magic is containment mean?

Keep the mystery.

The best magic is always shrouded in mystery. Here’s where “show, don’t tell” is your best friend. Don’t explain too much of your magic or how it works to your readers. Readers love to figure out what’s going on in a story, to feel the frisson of wondering, is there a logical explanation for this or is something more going on? Leave them wondering. Do the same with your characters, especially the ones who observe the magic rather than create it. What do they think about it? How do they try and explain what’s happening?

A Little Magic Goes a Long Way

Integral to the idea above, don’t overwhelm your reader with too many magical or fantastical events. If you do, you’ll ruin the mystery. Season your writing with it. Don’t make every character a part of the magic or even include it in every scene. Less is more.

Magic Has to Make Sense

Whenever you decide to include magical elements or events, be certain of two things. First, you, as the writer, are very clear about what is happening and how it’s happening. You clearly understand the parameters, the ins and outs of the magic. As we discussed earlier, you do not reveal all of this to your reader. But it’s crucial that you “get it.” Also, the magic must be organic to both your story and/or character, not come out of left field. If it looks like you just threw it in, you’ll break what one of my writing teachers called the narrative dream. You’ve crossed the line. The reader’s suspension of disbelief will evaporate.

Make Your World Real

To successfully incorporate magic into your real-world setting, your first job is to clearly establish the world in which the magic occurs. Creating a detailed, concrete setting is key. And that starts with the five senses.

Sensory details ground your readers so they have their bearings. Fill your writing with specific details about how this world looks, sounds, smells—be it New York City or a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Make your fictional world accessible and relatable. As much as possible, make the setting so vivid that it becomes like a main character. Setting as character will anchor the magic and create credibility for whatever might then happen.

Make Your Characters Real

Your main characters should feel real, also. Strive to create strong, multi-dimensional characters readers feel like they know, so any magic they create is just one dimension of their complex character. They should have flaws, insecurities, and events from their past that have molded them into who they are in the current-day story. Understand what their emotional range is so you can write realistic and consistent responses to the things that will happen to them.

Your main characters should feel real, also. Strive to create strong, multi-dimensional characters readers feel like they know, so any magic they create is just one dimension of their complex character. They should have flaws, insecurities, and events from their past that have molded them into who they are in the current-day story. Understand what their emotional range is so you can write realistic and consistent responses to the things that will happen to them.

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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