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How much magic?

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I was describing my WIP to a non-writer the other night. I have always considered it to be a middle grade fantasy, and fellow writers and an editor who have read parts of it have all called it fantasy. It has never even been a question: it is fantasy.

So, I am describing it to a non-writer friend. I say that it’s about a princess who ends up being forced to choose between protecting her right to the throne versus helping the greater good of her people. There are no mythical creatures, no witches or wizards, no epic forces of evil. There are mystery elements, references to classic fairy tale themes, and a set of superstitious beliefs that drive much of how my made-up world thinks.

My friend, said, “Well, what about the magic?”

That’s easy, I said. There is no magic.

To which my friend says, “How can you call it fantasy when there’s no magic?"

Hmm…a really good question. There is nothing in my story that defies the forces of nature. All of it scientifically could happen. But it describes a totally made up country and culture with a different history and belief set than any real culture. It deals on a more epic level, in that the stakes for the mc succeeding or not could affect her entire country, not just her own life or the lives of those immediately around her. I could probably go on with this list of reasons why we as writers instinctively characterize books like this as fantasy. And yet – there is no magic.

So I just thought it would be interesting to hear from fellow fantasy writers: how much magic does your story have? And by magic, I mean anything from mythological creatures, to wizards, to a variation of the basic rules of physics, to made-up kingdoms with just enough wisteria to make us feel we’re inside a fantasy world.
#1 - July 13, 2012, 03:37 PM

I've always considered magic one of the things that makes fantasy fantasy, so that, conversely, if a story doesn't have magic, it's something else. Interested to hear what others have to say...
#2 - July 13, 2012, 03:40 PM
Robin

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If it's a made-up place that isn't earth, then I'd call it a fantasy, magic or no magic.  I've written one of those as well.
#3 - July 13, 2012, 04:03 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
www.marissadoyle.com
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Robin -- I tend to agree, which is why the question caught me off guard. And yet, I've never thought of my WIP as anything other than fantasy. Maybe because the world view of the people in the story seems as improbable as magic?

Marissa -- which book? I'd love to read a novel like this! I found a thread on this same topic on another site but I was not familiar with any of the books referenced.
#4 - July 13, 2012, 04:09 PM

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Ha--it's on my hard-drive because I've been too busy with other stuff to work on revisions.  But you might look at Richard Adams's Maia. As I recall, it contains no magic (though there is a mysterious occurence related to the world's religion at the end--not sure that it qualifies as "magic") but takes place in an incredibly richly imagined world.
#5 - July 13, 2012, 04:26 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
www.marissadoyle.com
www.nineteenteen.com

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I agree that it sounds like fantasy, but some might call it alternate history.
#6 - July 13, 2012, 04:46 PM
Kell Andrews
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I'm writing a fantasy that's going to have a limited amount of magic, but I think there definitely are fantasy books without a magic element. Jennifer Nielsen's THE FALSE PRINCE, for example, or Megan Whalen Turner's THE QUEEN'S THIEF series.
#7 - July 13, 2012, 05:01 PM

Marissa--Doh! Okay, well you have your first pre-order customer!

Thanks, Mike--more for the list!

Kell--alternate history is definitely a possibility. I always considered that a subcategory of fantasy.

Someone on a different site cited the book THE PRINCESS BRIDE because the only magic that takes place, by Miracle Max, is pretty dubious. I thought that was an interesting one because I could have sworn there was magic but I as I backtrack through the story, there really isn't. Although when I think about the movie rather than the book, I'd call it adventure rather than fantasy, but we don't talk much about an adventure genre in books. (Too bad because in film it's one of my favorite genres.)
#8 - July 13, 2012, 05:16 PM
« Last Edit: July 13, 2012, 05:17 PM by ChristineCA »

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You had me scratching my head or a moment. I'm so used to associating fantasy with magic, it's strange to think of a fantasy without. Since you mentioned a princess, I imagined it as a fairy tale.

Then I looked up some definitions of fantasy where one site said:

"Fantasy usually describes those stories that could not happen in real life. Fairy tales by known authors, such as those by Hans Christian Andersen, are considered modern fantasy and have no problem relating to young children; in fact most adolescents grow up believing in fantasy. They wish on candles, wait for tooth fairies, talk to their stuffed animals and play with imaginary friends."

And wikipedia which states:

"Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common."

I'm not sure how much you can trust these sites, but it's interesting to see they have different ideas.

Overall though, I still think you're safe with fantasy
#9 - July 13, 2012, 06:07 PM

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As long as your story supercedes or flips the norms of reality, then it is Fantasy. By extension, magic is not required for a novel to be labled Fantasy. Twilight, the first one at least, has no traces of what constitutes as magic, yet it is labled as such. And that's basically why genres exist: to allow booksellers to catagorize titles and for readers to easily find books they're interested in.

I wouldn't worry about it at this stage in the game. It will sort itself out when the time comes.  :whitebunny
#10 - July 13, 2012, 06:09 PM
Wannabe Middle Grade Fantasy author and total superhero geek

http://tdmcfrost.blogspot.com/

See, it's interesting, no?

Zorro came to mind as another example. Although you could call it historical fiction.

To clarify--I was more curious about
starting a discussion than what the classification of my WIP is specifically. I'm not worried about what genre it is or anything like that.
#11 - July 13, 2012, 07:18 PM
« Last Edit: July 13, 2012, 07:30 PM by ChristineCA »

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" it describes a totally made up country and culture with a different history and belief set than any real culture."

Especially if there is no reference to any real history or culture or geography--that is, if the story takes place entirely in what is sometimes called a "secondary world"--I wouldn't hesitate to classify it as fantasy.
#12 - July 13, 2012, 07:29 PM

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Another one of those with a broad view of fantasy who would say the only requirement is that it takes place in a world that's not Earth. So I'd include alternate histories, steampunk, etc in the category.

There are plenty of subcategories in fantasy (like, er.... alternate history and steampunk) to further distinguish as needed.
#13 - July 13, 2012, 07:56 PM
The Farwalker Trilogy
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Your book sounds like a solid fantasy to me. No magic required. (My fave example is Guy Gavriel Kay's THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN, an adult fantasy.)
#14 - July 13, 2012, 07:57 PM
Above World, 2/2012, Candlewick
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Horizon (Book 3), 4/2014

That makes sense, Joni and KMT, about the world itself being made up.

Jenn--thanks, I will take a look at that book!
#15 - July 13, 2012, 08:16 PM

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FYI, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay are frequently about places that are not Earth, but have zero magic, mythical creatures, ancient evils and the like.  "The Lions of al-Rassan" is one such book.  It's basically about a war and the people in it, in a made-up version of the Middle-East, but it's just as normal as our world.

It, and his other works in the same vein, are classified officially as fantasy.

As for my own story, the most recent one I wrote has magic, but it's treated more like a science in that there's no religious subtext to it.  There are mythical creatures, like demons, but the majority of the world doesn't believe in them and they're treated as fairy tales.

That being said, fantasy in no way requires either magic, or mythical creatures to be fantasy.  The vast majority of Game of Thrones on HBO has zero magic for almost the entire first, and second season.
#16 - July 19, 2012, 12:18 AM
« Last Edit: July 19, 2012, 12:22 AM by JustinDono »

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Your story sounds like fantasy (a la THE QUEEN'S THIEF) to me--unless your kingdom is set into an otherwise real time and place--like the middle of 10th century Europe--in which case you might want to call it historical fantasy.

I'd definitely not call it alternate history. That describes a story which changes the course/outcome of some specific, real  (and usually well-known rather than obscure) event in history. Often (but not necessarily) the split is caused by the entry of a fantasy element. And there's often a strong strain of irony and/or intellectual humor--because the more you know about the real history, the more you relish the alternate version. (My favorite example is Harry Turtledove's GUNS OF THE SOUTH, in which the course of the Civil War reverses when the Confederates meet a time-traveler who gives them a supply of AK-47s.)

#17 - July 19, 2012, 06:50 AM

Hi Susan -- that actually makes a lot of sense about alternate history. And the more I thought about it, my story really can't be alternate history because there are no real countries or cultures in it.
As for my own story, the most recent one I wrote has magic, but it's treated more like a science in that there's no religious subtext to it.  There are mythical creatures, like demons, but the majority of the world doesn't believe in them and they're treated as fairy tales.

I really like that premise! Very juicy. Sounds like if suddenly we found demons existed in our own world--how creepy.

I really like what you said about magic being in a scientific context versus a religious one. I have been creating a religion for my fictional world, as it has sparked a lot of other ideas and layers for the story.
#18 - July 20, 2012, 12:36 PM

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