Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Finding Magic in Mundania

By Jen Taylor

©2001, Jen Taylor 

A man who communicates with dead people. 

A television set that inexplicably turns itself on and off. 

A cat who wakes her owner by biting his ear when he has fallen asleep at the wheel of a car and is beginning to drift off the road. 

A child who announces, "Grandpa's in heaven..." just as the phone rings with a call from the hospital.

Were these things to happen in a novel, you might wonder if you've picked up a rather clichéd suspense thriller. And yet each of these has some basis in reality. Almost everyone has little stories of unexplained occurrences. In that sense, 'magic' is among us all of the time. It's the touch of unreality in an otherwise mundane and boring world. Properly utilized, such small things provide a heady atmosphere of the special, the sacred, and the mystical in any type of fiction, and that atmosphere is exactly what draws many readers to fantasy and science fiction. 

Modern fantasy genre writers have adopted a habit of substituting magic for science. Need a way to get your characters from Point A to Point B, and haven't got cars or supersonic jets? No problem. Teleportation spell. Need long distance communication and Ma Bell isn't around yet? Drop in a magic gourd that repeats whatever's said into it, or introduce telepathy, or send a voice on the wind. I admit to using magic as a convenience in my stories now and then; sometimes it's just necessary. But at the same time, making magic so utilitarian takes away exactly what draws most people to magic in the first place -- the sense of mystery, of power unexplained. The feeling of 'special.' 

Anyone who has ever felt that chill of deja vu knows how powerful even little things like mysterious premonitions can be. Just for a moment, the world doesn't quite fit into the commonly applied limitations. Remember that feeling, brief as it may be, the next time you're describing how one of your characters feels the first time he sees a fireball streak across the night sky. Keep a notebook handy and jot down those occasions when you experience something unusual -- the color of the sky just before a storm, for example. Describe the way the light falls across the landscape as if you'd never seen that sort of thing before. After I started keeping track of these little experiences, I was enormously surprised at how often they occur. Just as writers in other genres utilize real-life events for their stories, so can fantasy writers adapt these 'magical' experiences to better flesh out their own work. 

We as a community often speak of building magic systems in our worlds. In a fantasy world, it's as critical to understand how magic works as to understand basic physics when writing a space opera. It is also vitally important to the bring a touch of the mystical to our systematic magic. 

We writers may need to know exactly how the mechanics of spells and potions work in a universe, but it's just as important to remember what the reader needs: to feel that touch of wonder at the unexplained and come away from our stories with stardust in their eyes at the possibilities of magic.