This week, I’d like to mine some material from my now defunct online Worldbuilding course. This, on the subject of magic in fantasy, and to some extent, technology in science fiction…

In both fantasy magic and science fiction technology, the rules for how things work are entirely yours to create. You set the rules, and those rules can be anything, but once you set those rules, it’s essential that you follow them, or give your readers some good, story-rich reason for why the rules have changed. This is how you lend your setting, however bizarre and unearthly, a sense of plausibility: by the consistent application of a clear set of rules.

According to Bronislaw Malinowski in his book Myth and Primitive Psychology, magic is meant to accomplish one of three things:

  • Produce

  • Protect

  • Destroy

And it’s easy enough to extend that out to technology as well. This is a great place to start. Think about how magic or technology in your world might accomplish one or more of these three basic tasks.

Here are some examples of magic that…


The garden, planted and tilled so privily, and sealed by its metal roof from the orbs of heaven, was illumined solely by a strange, fiery globe that hung in mid-air at the centre. Adompha regarded this globe with awe, for its nature and purveyance were mysterious to him. Dwerulas claimed that it had risen from hell on a moonless midnight at his bidding, and was levitated by infernal power, and fed with the never-dying flames of that clime in which the fruits of Thasaidon swelled to unearthly size and enchanted savour. It gave forth a sanguine light, in which the garden swam and weltered as if seen through a luminous mist of blood. Even in the bleak nights of winter, the globe yielded a genial warmth; and it fell never from its weird suspension, though without palpable support; and beneath it the garden flourished balefully, lush and exuberant as some parterre of the nether circles.

From “The Garden of Adompha” by Clark Ashton Smith


There was a tattoo of a sailing ship. “Look,” and there was a fairy with a wand. “I’ve been tattooing pieces of your and your sister’s lives, your passions, your dreams, maybe a lot of things you aren’t even aware of, onto my body since before you were born. It’s my map to my children. Once I add her disappearance, I’ll know right where she is.”

From “Domestic Magic” by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem


The horror reached a culmination on November 18, when St. John, walking home after dark from the distant railway station, was seized by some frightful carnivorous thing and torn to ribbons. His screams had reached the house, and I had hastened to the terrible scene in time to hear a whir of wings and see a vague black cloudy thing silhouetted against the rising moon. My friend was dying when I spoke to him, and he could not answer coherently. All he could do was to whisper, “The amulet—that damned thing—” Then he collapsed, an inert mass of mangled flesh.

From “The Hound” by H.P. Lovecraft

Of course, magic that can do all three of these things, depending on who is using it and why, could be seen as a fantasy worldbuilding trifecta!

—Philip Athans

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