Magic plays a huge role within the fantasy genre. Many people would even say that magic is what helps define the genre itself. However, not everyone agrees on how magic should be used within fantasy. There are two basic camps. The first camp likes a well thought out and extremely detailed magic system with a concrete set of rules. In these stories, the magic almost takes on the form of science. The second camp likes to keep magic mysterious where the reader never gets all the answers on how things work. Below, I’ll give some of my pros and cons of each approach and close with my own personal thoughts.

Camp One: Detailed system (examples: Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brent Weeks)

1. Rigid set of rules ensures no deux ex machina ending.
2. The reader can more closely relate to what a magic user is going through as they solve problems.
3. Allows for stronger creativity of the author in developing the system.

1. The magic system will at times dominate the story, pushing aside characters, setting, and even plot.
2. May lead to info-dumps or lengthy (and sometimes boring) explanations on how the magic works.
3. Could potentially cause more problems for the author as they are now bound by their own rules when using the magic and a reader can more easily spot mistakes.
4. Action scenes told through a magic user may become tedious and bogged down as the mechanical aspects are explained to the reader rather than focusing on the emotions of the characters fighting with magic.

Camp Two: Mysterious (examples: Glen Cook, George RR Martin, and Steven Erikson)

1. With magic in the background, the story and characters are better able to take center stage.
2. A lack of understanding can lead to a greater sense of awe from the reader when something magical does happen.

1. In the hands of a poor storyteller a lack of rules could make it easier for an author to lean heavily on magic to solve plotting problems, leading to a deux ex machina.
2. A lack of rules can also cause characters to grow exponentially in power since a ceiling has never been established.
3. With this approach, if magic is used too frequently, it can become boring rather than awe inspiring.

Generally speaking the first camp has really become more popular as of late thanks to someone like Brandon Sanderson whose books pretty much revolve around a created magic system. Most people seem to be leaning toward this process as the preferred method of dealing with magic.

I personally prefer to read and write with the second camp in mind. The biggest reason I’ve stated above in the pros and cons section. For me, in most (not all) of the books in the first camp, the emphasis is placed on the magic itself rather than the characters, plot, and world.

Using George RR Martin as an example, I like the fact that magic stays mysterious. Magic is used from time to time in Martin’s books but it isn't the focus of the story. There are limitations and consequences that are touched on (such as the role of dragons) but the details of how the magic works isn't explained to death. And when magic is used, it adds a greater sense of tension to the story.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy detailed magic systems, but overall I prefer the less is more approach.

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