(This week’s Monday Masterclass is a little bit late. Maybe I should call it Tuesday Taster Class.)

Last week I wrote an introduction to secondary worlds. That post quickly got longer and somehow less detailed than I had intended, so this week, I’m going to start exploring some of the various aspects of secondary world creation that fantasy writers must consider when starting a project.

Choose Your Magic

First and foremost is magic. Magic – whether in the form of a raw energy that can be utilised by people with special abilities, or in the form of magical creatures, objects, events or places – is the defining aspect of fantasy. A great deal of thought must be given to the rules of any system of magic in a good fantasy story.

Perhaps the most basic choice a writer has in designing the secondary world is high-magic or low-magic. A high-magic world is one that is, maybe not full of magic and things magical, but one where such things are not uncommon. A low-magic world is one where wizards and beings and artefacts of power are extremely rare.

Other things to consider are: Is the power to use magic innate or can it be learned? What can magic do and not do? What are its drawbacks and risks? What kind of energy is it? Does it come from within the magician or is it drawn from the environment in some way? Can it be harnessed as a raw energy or are special substances, objects etc required? Are there different types of magic? If so, how do they interact with each other?

The question of who can use magic is an interesting one – and one that can be interpreted politically. Many fantasy worlds require magic-users to have some innate magical propensity for their talent. There is a sense in which this is an elitist view – in other words, some people are just better (ie, more magical) than others. In other secondary worlds, there is a more democratic ethos – that is, anyone can learn magic as long as they put in sufficient effort.

High and Low

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a good example of a high-magic world. The magic-users of this world are all part of a powerful organisation that, while based in one city state, has great influence across the continent in which the story takes place. Many of the main characters of the books can use magic; those that don’t often have quasi-magical abilities. The hero’s two best friends, for instance, aside from being affected by something called ta’veren, which twists fate in their presence, have between them unnatural luck, memories from past lifetimes, wolf-like senses and the ability to communicate with wolves, and access to the World of Dreams.

Although J K Rowlings’s Harry Potter books take place within the wider, non-magical world of muggles, magic and its use are so prevalent in the stories, that we can call the Britain of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic a high-magic secondary world.

The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, on the other hand, is perhaps the very lowest of the low end of low-magic worlds. There isn’t really any magic in Titus Groan’s world (unless you count the high technology he encounters in Titus Alone – but that’s more sf territory). In the first two books, at least, there is an air of darkness and mystery, there are baroque ceremonies and a vast, labyrinthine castle, there are larger than life characters and strange events – but no definitively identifiable magic.

You’ll notice that I’ve contradicted myself by saying that magic is the defining aspect of fantasy and then introducing a fantasy story without any magic. Clearly, by this definition, the Gormenghast books are not fantasy – but they do take place within what appears to be a pure secondary world – one with no connection to our own.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a low-magic world. In TLotR only certain beings can perform magical feats. The Valar, the gods of that world have long since left it to its own devices. Within Middle Earth there are still a few of the Maiar, powerful beings created in the early days of the world; Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron are all of this race. Apart from them, the elves are the only others who are capable of magic, and elven magic is less powerful, more territorial. The rest of the magic of Middle Earth is contained in objects like the Rings of Power and in beings like the Ents or Shelob.

Indeed, what gives Tolkien’s masterwork its elegaic beauty is the fact that much of this magic passes away at the end of the story – the One Ring is destroyed, which in turn destroys the other Rings, the elves sail west to the Undying Lands.

George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is another well known low-magic world. In it there are dragons – but only three – wights – but they are rarely seen – and sorcery – but only performed by one or two characters and with indirect or vague results. Instead, A Song of Ice and Fire is a study of medieval conflict, brutality and politics.

Detail and Description

In some secondary worlds, magic is a mysterious force, the practicalities of the use of which are not explained. In others, magic-use is explained in great detail.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Maiar can use magic because of their divine heritage; others are able to use magic because of their great learning. But how either perform their specific works is not elaborated on – the reader just has to accept that the characters can do what they can do.

In The Wheel of Time on the other hand, magic and its use are described in great detail. Magic is called the One Power; this comes from something called the True Source. The One Power is divided into a male half (saidin) and a female half (saidar); it is further divided into five elemental Powers, Air, Water, Earth, Fire and Spirit. Channellers must have the innate ability to channel – which may be weak or strong – then they are trained for years, or they learn on their own, often unconsciously (these latter are called wilders).

Creating a magical spell, or weave, involves seizing hold of the appropriate half of the One Power (each of which has different, but fairly cosmetic qualities) and then creating strands of each element required. Creating a fire, obviously requires only Fire; if you wanted that fire to move through the air, as a fireball, you would need Fire and Air. Healing is the most complex form of channelling and requires all five elements woven together in intricate form.

Channelling is tiring – the more complex the weave and the more One Power used to create it, the more tiring it is. At the beginning of the story, only women are legally and practically able to channel – in a previous age, the male half of the One Power was tainted by the Dark One (the evil god) so that male channellers eventually go mad and start destroying everything around them. This twist and its ramifications is one of the more interesting aspects of the world Robert Jordan created.

Other Examples

In most fantasy stories, mages, wizards, sorcerers come into their power by come combination of innate ability and long training. In Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, however, the main character (Thomas Covenant) comes into his powers by the simple coincidence of having a wedding ring of white gold – a material of extreme rarity in the world he finds himself in. In order to use this magic, he doesn’t need to go to a magical university – instead he needs to find his self-belief, an issue that is intimately tied up with his belief in the Land in which the story takes place.

Donaldson created another interesting take on magic in the Mordant’s Need series. In it, magic – called Imagery (which cleverly contains the word ‘mage’) – requires mirrors. The mirrors, correctly used, translate things from other worlds. The hero, Terisa Morgan is translated to the world of Mordant in this way. In one scene, two mirrors facing each other across a field of battle summon a chasm in the middle of the ground.

In Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen magic comes from places called warrens with exotic names like Omtose Phellack and Kurald Galain. These warrens are not just sources of magical energy, but entire realms that can be entered physically. Omtose Phellack, for instance is a realm of ice and the special warren of an ancient race called the Jaghut.

Magical items are a staple of fantasy and often serve the function of emphasising a hero’s righteousness – Arthur’s Excalibur, for instance – or of thrusting a modest character into the midst of great events – Bilbo and Frodo’s Ring. Also, magical artefacts are simply the tools of the trade of a mage – such as Harry Potter’s wand. Sometimes they may be relatively simple and tractable tools; often, though, their use comes with inherent dangers: the wild magic generated by Thomas Covenant’s white gold ring always threatens to get out of control, and could even destroy the world; Michael Moorcock’s character Elric of Melniboné must contend with an evil sword that brings him strength but also misfortune to those around him.

Places can also be loci of magic. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter has the mundane realm of Erl neighbouring the magical realm of Elfland, where magic is possible and time flows differently. Elfland or Faerie or similar ideas have been around in folk tales and fairy stories for hundreds of years. Magical locations can be more specific: the wizards’ school in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories has two special places where powerful magic is easier to perform. In Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Ryhope Wood seems to be a small English forest from the outside, but inside is a vast magical realm where archetypal beings come to life.

Times, too, can be magical. The full moon is the most obvious example – a time when werewolves transform and lunacy is rife (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from ‘luna‘ – ‘the moon’). In Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan novel, Night of Knives, the action takes place over the once in a generation event called a Shadow Moon, when the warrens become permeable and eldritch powers vie for control.

Words and Language

In some secondary worlds, language is key to the use of magic. For the wizards of Earthsea, names are vital; to know something or someone’s true name is to have power over it or them. However, when a wizard travels to other lands, language changes, and if the wizard doesn’t know the new language, his power over things diminishes. The magic of Harry Potter requires the use of special short incantations, which form a kind of sham Latin. In R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse series, mages effect magic by simultaneously speaking words in one language and thinking words in another language.

This leads on to a further point – the terminology used to describe magic in a fantasy novel. I feel that words like ‘magic’, ‘mage’, ‘wizard’, ‘sorcerer’ are overused to the point of cliché and parody. A believable secondary world needs terms that are original but authentic. Robert Jordan used terms like ‘channel’, ‘weave’, ‘One Power’, as well as making up new names like ‘Aes Sedai’ (the female order of magic-users). Other writers, like Stephen R Donaldson, use obscure synonyms for magic, such as ‘puissance’ (‘power’), ‘thaumaturgy’ (‘miracle-working’), or ‘theurgy’ (‘divine intervention’).


There are many more types of magic used in secondary worlds than I can cover here: necromancy, telepathy, divine intervention, deals with devils and so on. Hopefully the above gives you some idea of all the considerations a writer must undertake before settling on a system of magic for his or her new secondary world. Personally, I’m planning a system that requires a kind of meditative state to alter reality, using an original set of of words that I’ve adapted from Latin roots.

What are your favourite kinds of magic from fantasy stories? Which ones are the most original? Which are the most believable? Post below with your comments and ideas.