A good magician never reveals his tricks.
Magic systems are always one of my favorite things in fiction. They open up a new realm of fantastical possibilities that could make the world of the story infinitely more complex and interesting. From spell-books to unicorns and dragons, I’ve been a sucker for the fantastical my entire life.
Yet it’s abundantly clear that more and more fiction writers don’t understand what makes magic so… magical (That was fucking terrible, I’m so sorry). How so? They keep fucking explaining how it works!
So many movies TV shows, books and other such things nowadays spend so much time explaining how the magic system in their world works. “It’s not magic, it’s actually a microscopic life form found in all living things!” “Magic is the art of the sorcerer willing the vibrations in the air to do their whims!” So on and so fucking forth.
This is a problem especially prevalent in long and extremely successful. Fans see the magic and the magical creatures within the world, and they catch their fascination. They want to know how they work. Or at least, they think they do.
Here’s the problem: if the magic is explained, then the magic is gone. At that point, it isn’t something fantastical and impossible. It’s science. Visually interesting and intense science, yes, but science nonetheless.
For example, let’s look at the first Thor movie. Instead of letting Thor’s lightning powers and the different devices of Asgard simply be magic and be done with it, the story grinds to a halt so Thor can explain that it’s all science to Natalie Portman. It doesn’t benefit the story, world or characters in any way. It grinds everything to a halt to drop some exposition onto the audience and lessen their interest in the world.
Think of it this way. Would the Ring from the Lord of the Rings be so terrifying if you knew how it worked? If Gandalf spent ten minutes in Fellowship of the Ring telling Frodo that the Ring gave the wearer whatever they wanted by manipulating the particles in the air around them somehow, would the story be any better? Or if he explained that it released a specialized pheromone that tempted people to take it for themselves? The answer is no!
We don’t need to know how the Ring works. Breaking it down into a science removes all the threat and intrigue of the item. This isn’t Star Trek, where the science of the different machines is… well, science.
Intriguing magic works in a similar way to intriguing monsters. Think about it: when you watch a horror movie, which do you find scarier? A mysterious creatures beyond human comprehension and understanding that defies the laws of nature? Or a monster that the human race understands like the back of their hand?
In the end, it boils down to mystery. Nothing is more intriguing than a mystery. It gets you interested, makes you ask questions, and forces you to think in order to solve it. But sometimes, the most thrilling mysteries can’t be solved.
Magic is so interesting because it’s mysterious. You don’t need to know how it works, because it would slaughter the intrigue of it if you knew. For example, the original Avatar: The Last Airbender knew never to waste the audiences time by explaining how the Avatar is reincarnated, or how they can bend all four elements. The Avatar was something unique and interesting, and the show knew that it wouldn’t benefit them in any way to explain it.
Something that The Legend of Korra completely failed to understand.
Who cares how the people can bend the elements? They just can, because it’s magic. We don’t need to know how Harry and his friends can lift a feather by waving their wand and muttering Latin (at least I think it was Latin, it might’ve just been gobbledygook)! It’s magic, and that’s all we need to know!
Let this be a bit of advice to any writers out there. Never ever explain the magic system of your world. By doing so, you risk sacrificing the ruin and intrigue of your world. Don’t ruin magic by making it something else. Preserve the mystery and just let magic be magical.
Simply put: don’t write Mediclorians into your story. Dodge that bullet.