Magical or Magic-user?

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our first month of regularly scheduled posts! We have four posts planned for this month, opening with this one of mine. Katie’s going to be busy with traveling to and from LonCon3, so I’m running the show. *evil laugh* Enjoy!

There are two types of characters in the world: the magic-users, and the inherently magical beings. Well, okay, there are more than that, but let’s just take a close look at these two different types, what separates them, and where they’re most useful.

The reason I wanted to cover this is because I feel that a number of aspiring authors may not have paid much attention to the efficacy of these character types in different roles. Let’s look at magic-users (mages) first.

Mages are common to the point of saturation in fantasy. And they are necessary, I’m not about to argue that point. But so often, I see them become something either more or less than I think the author intended them to be.

Gandalf is an excellent example of a properly-executed mage. He has his powers, and he has his limitations (some of them quite stringent). He never attempts to work outside of the limits placed on him by the higher powers of the world, but exceeds them through self-sacrifice and faithfulness. Even in his reborn state, though, he is limited: he still cannot face Sauron head-on, and that is made very clear.

Where I see writers fail is when they A) don’t put any limits on their mages or B) don’t clearly demonstrate the limits on their mages. Either of these fumbles can lead to a sense of purposelessness in the hero’s activities– after all, if the old wizard here has such enormous power, why doesn’t he just take out the villain? So the key to having a good magic-using character is to both set and show us their limits.

Now, sometimes, even the most well-intentioned of writers will fall down on the job when it comes to delineating their mage’s powers. This leads to a slippery slope where a character who was formerly a magic-user begins to turn into a magical being.

Magical beings are capable of… well, anything. True, they may have limits, but those limits are usually so far beyond a mere mortal’s as to only matter in relation to other magical beings. Instantaneous teleportation (at no cost), creation and intense manipulation of matter, invisibility, multi-dimensional existence… you get the picture.

Using magical beings in your work becomes dangerous (in terms of plot) because their powers tend toward the deus ex machina end of the spectrum. Still, they can be used efficaciously in some circumstances, at your discretion. I’ve seen a couple of instances/character types that work very well with magical beings.


Tired of this mortal plane? Have you ever considered ascension? There are great benefits to being a non-corporeal collection of magic/energy. Plus, we have our own Diner! (Yes, I’m an SG-1 fanboy).

Regardless of the manner in which it’s achieved, Ascendancy is essentially the development of godlike powers (and, often, attendant responsibilities), usually achieved by abandoning the physical body and moving to a higher plane of existence (theologically iffy, I know; but we’re not here to debate that). Your character may achieve this as a direct result of their advancing arcane knowledge, or they may choose it in order to escape a worse fate, or it may be the only way left for them to help the protagonist out of a tight spot (but make sure it’s been at least lightly foreshadowed because of the below).

At this point, your character has even more potential for deus ex machina, so it’s usually a good idea to get them distracted by some celestial struggle or the burdens of godhood, or maybe smack them with a non-interference contract. Just so long as you don’t use them as a crutch for your main character, you should be fine.


This is usually (but not always) the exact opposite of Ascendacy. Pawnship is where your inconveniently powerful character is suddenly forced to serve an even more inconveniently powerful character for the latter’s own, likely sinister, ends. Or perhaps your character was given their powers specifically to trap them into that servitude?

Whatever the cause, your magical being of a character no longer has much of a will of their own. This essentially removes them as a viable deus ex machina tool and in the same moment gives you a new antagonist. Hey presto! Life is tough again.


And there you have it: the difference between magic-using and simply magical beings. Use them with judicious care and you should avoid the stumbling blocks I mentioned.


Coming up this time next week, we have a post from Jordan Smith on writing with a team! Stay tuned!

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