Nothing Up My Sleeve

By Brian Kaufman

Fantasy fiction employs magic—influencing events through supernatural means. The concept of magic dates back to the dawn of civilization. In Mesopotamia, ritual practices were developed to affect reality. Defensive magic was the accepted protection from demons and ghosts. Rites were used to purify a person’s sins. Another branch of magic involved love spells.



Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.




“Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace.”

~Eugene O’Neill

I’ve been thinking about magic and pop culture, and I’m surprised how often stories, regardless of genre, resort to wizardry.

Magic in fantasy literature means giving characters or objects certain powers that can help in a battle against seemingly overwhelming foes. There are two important aspects to these powers:

  • They come at a cost. This might mean that a sacrifice is required to initiate the powers. Or it might mean that using magic costs the user energy or life force.
  • There are limitations to the power (lest the user defeats the opponent too quickly.) One way to restrict magic use is to tie the power to a rare commodity or require negative consequences for the user.

There are critical life lessons to be had in these two essential aspects. First, nothing is free. Second, what makes people (and characters) interesting are their limitations.

The fantasy author devises a magical system—a series of rules under which magic operates. This gives the use of special powers some consistency within the story. Readers will accept magic as long as it’s consistent. When authors break their own rules, readers throw books at walls.

“Any sufficiently badly written science is indistinguishable from magic.

~Aaron Allston


The sub-genre hard science fiction resulted from a desire for scientific accuracy in stories that feature advances based on accepted principles of science and math. In this particular genre, magic is avoided—the exception that proves the rule. Most science fiction (mainly what’s on television) leaves the realm of science much too quickly. (If you hear a whooshing or groaning sound when the spaceship passes, you’re playing with magic.)

What about other genres? Too often, magic serves the author’s desire for something to happen without a natural explanation.

Start with the detective story. Ever watched the old network show Starsky and Hutch? The plots follow a familiar pattern. A crime is committed. Starsky and Hutch visit Huggy Bear, the worldly source of all information. “Keep an ear to the street,” they tell him, and sure enough, after the commercial, Huggy calls the boys with the needed info. All that’s left is the car chase.

Huggy stands in for magic. Detectives Starsky and Hutch do no actual detecting. They chat up their guy, and that’s it. Perhaps the show’s writers wanted to write about detectives. Still, they didn’t know enough about the job to do so with authority. In the absence of expertise, some authors resort to magic. 

What’s the problem with that? The two essential aspects of magic systems—costs and limitations—are missing when the magic involves the author’s shortcuts.

Some magic owes something to the demands of drama. Real life is often flat, stretching on for years. In stories, though, the Uber arrives on time—just when you need it. Ditto for that parking space coming open. Protagonists seldom go to the bathroom.

Too often, though, magic involves asking the reader to buy plot holes, silly concepts, or unrealistic moments:

  • St. Crispin’s Day aside, not all motivational speeches lead to unanimous agreement from the crowd. Even Kenneth Branagh’s Henry must have left someone muttering, “Bullocks.”
  • Expositional speech and info dumps don’t happen in real life (with the possible exception of business Zoom meetings).
  • When the circuit breaker mysteriously blows, the protagonists do not go into the basement without a flashlight to see what’s wrong.
  • Villains don’t keep talking or step outside to handle a phone call, allowing the protagonist to escape or turn the tables.
  • Sadly, that cute guy probably doesn’t like your protagonist for who she is. He likes the hot gal. And the manic pixie girl isn’t interested in saving the world-weary professor. She wants good grades.

Does magic have a place in your writing? Of course, it does. Life can be magical. But the story fails when authors substitute magic for solid plotting, character motivation, and a firm grip on reality. When that happens, the author “jumps the shark.” (This phrase was coined after an episode of Happy Days where Henry Winkler’s The Fonz used water skis to jump over a shark.) Jump that shark, and once again, readers throw books at walls while giving us a new classic colloquial phrase.

“Everything you do is about creating an experience in the viewer’s head. Your magic is irritating if you’re rude or irritating as a performer.”

~Derren Brown



My advice? Don’t squander your reader’s suspension of disbelief. That means good research, solid plotting, and character motivations that make events inevitable instead of far-fetched.

I saved the most egregious example of misused magic for last—the pop culture depiction of aspiring authors. Television is the worst at this trope—lots of angst while writing the book (which may even take several episodes).

Then, suddenly, the Great American Novel is published. The author automatically goes on a book tour. Reviews are great. The novelist gets the girl or the guy. Money rolls in.

Magic, I tell you.

Science Fiction is Magic

Clarke’s Three Laws

SF Universes that include Both

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