Magic is a defining feature of many fantasy books, but it’s not the only way to make a story fantastical.
It’s true that when you think of “fantasy,” you probably imagine magic. Whether it’s the dragons and wizards of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or medieval-era folk who call on fey creatures in Robin McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast, magic is often at the heart of these stories — and it can be hard to imagine them without it!
But no, fantasy doesn’t need magic, since there are plenty of other ways for authors to create fantastical worlds and experiences for their readers,. Instead of magic, the sense of awe and wonder magic provides can come from different sources. For instance:
- Using tropes from science fiction or historical fiction that don’t require magic. For instance, time travel or steampunk technologies.
- Giving your characters superpowers or inherent supernatural powers.
- Creating worlds where human laws have been changed somehow, so that they behave differently from ours. For example, a world where everyone has super strength.
- Creating worlds where there are no humans at all.
For example, if you set your story in a world of animals, you have to think about what those animals would look like, how they’d act and talk — and how their society would be organized without humans around to tell them what to do.
Fantasy Isn’t Defined by Magic
Fantasy isn’t magic. Magic is a tool that can be used in fantasy, but it doesn’t define the genre. There are many ways to create a fantasy story without using magic at all.
If you’re a curious reader or even a writer who is unsure whether to include magic in your story, here are some things to keep these things in mind:
How Magic Functions Matters More than Whether it Exists
Magic is a tool that can be used to solve problems, create conflict, and create a sense of wonder. It can also be used to create a sense of mystery or even awe.
But as a tool, how magic functions in a story matters more than whether it exists or not. For instance:
- How do those powers fit into the context of a story and its characters’ motivations?
- What about it’s world-building and conflicts?
- Does it impact the theme or otherwise feel like an organic part of the story, rather than slapped on?
Fantasy Needs to Feel Fantastical
Whether you use magic or not depends on your setting and world, and there are many different kinds of settings and worlds to explore in fantasy.
You don’t have to include magic, specificially, if you’re writing in the genre of “fantasy.” But you probably want the experience of the story to feel like fantasy, instead of, say, that of a science fiction or horror story.
In other words, it still needs to feel fantastical.
What might that ‘fantastical’ feeling entail?
There’s no one silver bullet that makes something feel fantastical. However, the right combination of fantastical elements – or enough of them, could create that otherworldly experience.
Overall, these elements are settings, tropes, and more that create feelings of:
- Awe and wonder
- Mystery and fascination
- Spectacle and grandeur
- The sublime or transcendent
- Mythical or ‘magical’ qualities
Examples of this include:
- Epic wars, with national or world-altering stakes
- Supernatural abilities that create a profound impact on the fantasy world and it’s people
- The rarity or uniqueness of the supernatural abilities could be used to create a sense of mystery
- Monsters and fantasy creatures, whether beneign or malicious
- Impossible stakes or a seemingly undefeatable villain for a highly unlikely protagonist to overcome
- Invoking a sense of miraculous workings, timings, fate, prophecies, etc. (ex: a prophecized Chosen One protagonist)
- A world radically different from our own in some sense
- Much, much more
You can, of course, have a story that doesn’t involve magic at all.
So Can You Write Fantasy Without Magic?
Yes, it’s possible to write fantasy without magic. Some of these stories feature supernatural abilities that aren’t strictly magic, such as controlling the elements or superpowers. However, fantasy stories with neither magic nor supernatural abilities tend to focus more on how characters’ psychology or how the world works and why.
An example of a popular story that comes close to this is A Game of Thrones. While the series as a whole isn’t completely absent of magic, its presence is small, especially in the earlier books. In this case, the vicious political battles in the imaginary world of Westeros drives the bulk of the conflict and tension.
Magic is One of Many Storytelling Tools
In some stories, this tool is so deeply integrated that taking out the magic would cause major issues. For instance, what if Harry Potter never found out he was a wizard? The entire series would fall apart, because the plot – and Harry’s development as a character – hinges on this revelation and his journey into the wizarding world.
Magic is often used to move the story forward, create tension, and develop characters. It’s also a tool that can be used in worldbuilding or to add an element of suspense or mystery.
But no, if a story can still feel like fantasy and delivers its emotional punches in ways other than magic, it’s not ‘mandatory’ for a book, movie, or TV show to have it to be considered fantasy.
Not every fantasy book is packed with fireballs and lightning bolts, but these stories can still feel magical — and we wouldn’t want them any other way.