By Liz Keller Whitehurst
For centuries, people have been spellbound by magic and the supernatural. Ghosts, curses, talking creatures, portals to alternate dimensions…there’s just too much creative fodder for authors not to plumb those depths. Over time, mainstream fantasy has given way to many other genres—particularly those where magic is being used in a real-world setting.
Melding the fantastic with the everyday definitely has its challenges, but it can be done. Whether you’re writing magical realism, fabulism, or an undefined genre in a similar vein, you’ve got to thread the needle when it comes to blending magic with the real world. Here are some tips on how to do that.
The First Rule of Magic is Containment
Creativity guru Julia Cameron uses this concept in her Artist Way work, but she certainly didn’t coin the phrase. What does the first rule of magic is containment mean?
Keep the mystery.
The best magic is always shrouded in mystery. Here’s where “show, don’t tell” is your best friend. Don’t explain too much of your magic or how it works to your readers. Readers love to figure out what’s going on in a story, to feel the frisson of wondering, is there a logical explanation for this or is something more going on? Leave them wondering. Do the same with your characters, especially the ones who observe the magic rather than create it. What do they think about it? How do they try and explain what’s happening?
A Little Magic Goes a Long Way
Integral to the idea above, don’t overwhelm your reader with too many magical or fantastical events. If you do, you’ll ruin the mystery. Season your writing with it. Don’t make every character a part of the magic or even include it in every scene. Less is more.
Magic Has to Make Sense
Whenever you decide to include magical elements or events, be certain of two things. First, you, as the writer, are very clear about what is happening and how it’s happening. You clearly understand the parameters, the ins and outs of the magic. As we discussed earlier, you do not reveal all of this to your reader. But it’s crucial that you “get it.” Also, the magic must be organic to both your story and/or character, not come out of left field. If it looks like you just threw it in, you’ll break what one of my writing teachers called the narrative dream. You’ve crossed the line. The reader’s suspension of disbelief will evaporate.
Make Your World Real
To successfully incorporate magic into your real-world setting, your first job is to clearly establish the world in which the magic occurs. Creating a detailed, concrete setting is key. And that starts with the five senses.
Sensory details ground your readers so they have their bearings. Fill your writing with specific details about how this world looks, sounds, smells—be it New York City or a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Make your fictional world accessible and relatable. As much as possible, make the setting so vivid that it becomes like a main character. Setting as character will anchor the magic and create credibility for whatever might then happen.
Make Your Characters Real
Your main characters should feel real, also. Strive to create strong, multi-dimensional characters readers feel like they know, so any magic they create is just one dimension of their complex character. They should have flaws, insecurities, and events from their past that have molded them into who they are in the current-day story. Understand what their emotional range is so you can write realistic and consistent responses to the things that will happen to them.
TIP: For deep-level character exploration, there’s no better tool than the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers.
Dialogue also goes a long way in fleshing out a character beyond any magic they might bring.
Make your Plot Real
Every successful story contains a dynamic plot and a strong narrative arc. Any magic must seem organic to both plot and arc and serve to progress and enhance them. Magical twists must feel inevitable instead of veering into plot detours that suck energy out of the narrative arc you’ve fueled. Ask yourself: Could this plot twist be told without the magic? If your answer is No!, you’re on the right track.
Magic in the Real World is Hard Work
Using the above tools to add magic to your story world will spice up your writing. Trusted first readers can be crucial to guide you to step back and analyze how successful your efforts are. It’s also important to study the writers who have done well in your magical genre. How did they do it? How did they maintain your suspension of disbelief without waking you from the narrative dream? How did they incorporate magic in a way that you cannot imagine the story without it?
There’s no doubt about it. With focused study of the fantastic and a little extra effort, you can create…well, magic.
Liz Keller Whitehurst is the author of the recently released novel, Messenger, and author/creator of the serial podcast MESSENGER: A NOVEL IN 16 EPISODES, which she launched in 2020. Her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and journals. She was also a finalist in Nimrod International Journal’s Short Story Competition.
In addition to fiction writing, Liz has spent her professional life writing and teaching. She’s done corporate, non-profit and freelance writing and has taught English and writing at the university level. Her last teaching post was co-leading a memoir writing class at the city jail.
Though born in Ohio, Liz grew up in Winchester, Virginia and has lived her adult life in Richmond, Virginia. She shares her current 1891 home, located in one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods, with her husband. You can find Liz on her website, Instagram, and Facebook.