Over the years, a few fantasy stories relying on magic (Harry Potter, The Green Rider) have captured my interest. The crux of the stories is often formulaic.
Generally there is some hereditary component. In some cases, certain species wield magic while others cannot. In other stories, children whose parents were adept at magic typically have some power, even if they were not raised by their parents. Of course, as with many genetic traits, magic sometimes “skips” an individual or generation.
Occasionally you also find individuals from “non-magic” lineages. Perhaps if you trace back family history, you might find an ancestor with magical abilities. Or maybe it’s just a random mutation.
Whether inherited or not, though, a character has to start with an innate ability. A kid with no magic power doesn’t develop it just by trying really hard. (Magic clearly provides a basis for exploring genetics, and the world does not disappoint. It’s part of a lesson in the National Library of Medicine exhibition Renaissance Science, Medicine, and Magic in Harry Potter’s World.) Perhaps on occasion, magic is “bestowed” upon an individual but usually at a price.
A core tenet of magic stories is that those who do have an ability have to practice. They can use their power without training or practice, but typically there are limitations. The results of “raw talent” are sporadic or uncontrolled or exhausting. They need instruction and guidance to harness their potential. On the flip side, someone with average magical talent can excel by spending a lot of time practicing, doing a task over and over again until mastered. (We hear similar true stories of individuals with incredible aptitude for sport, music, chess, and other activities.)
Another central theme is light versus darkness. Inevitably there is someone with great magical power to fight. (Let’s face it: They’d be pretty dull stories otherwise.) Often they have a similar origin story as the protagonist or another “good” character in the story. In fact, it’s not uncommon that they were trained by the protagonist’s mentor but became corrupted in some way. This is the ages old story of power and the effect it has on people.
The antagonist typically has greater power and a mighty force behind them. They may draw in those at the fringes of society, sometimes those who have suffered from or been left behind in the progress of the dominant “good” society from which our protagonist hails. Sometimes they create their armies, from the dead or by transforming captives or bending creatures to their will. The recruitment approach can prompt us to examine what the cost of “progress” and how “good” societies are built. The creation strategy is effective from a storytelling standpoint, because it clearly communicates to the reader that the antagonist has no boundaries.
The end comes down to a showdown. The odds are stacked against our protagonist. There’s no way they should be able to win. They struggle valiantly. They come to the verge of defeat. Then, just as all hope is lost, a solution appears—sometimes magically. Our protagonist overcomes. It is the antagonist who falls, shocked by their demise at the hands of this underdeveloped upstart.
Despite the formula, these stories of magic can still be fun to read.