What Counts as Magic?

The more I think about it, the more I’m having trouble defining ‘magic’ in the context of fictional worlds. You could say it’s performing unpredictable, incomprehensible, or impossible acts, but the most satisfying fictional magic has a system behind it, sometimes a whole science. It’s not inexplicable or arbitrary, though it may be difficult.

But engineering is difficult. If you have a world where a small class of people can, through their arcane arts, create a pile of stones that hold each other up in midair over a rushing river, such that people and even whole cartloads can pass over them dry as a bone, is that magic? No. It’s a bridge.

At least, I don’t think that counts as magic.

Let’s get a couple red herrings out of the way early on:

  • Illusions don’t count; if it’s just a clever use of curtains and trap doors, that’s not magic for our purposes.
  • I think we can also exclude the purely arbitrary; call it chaos. If it’s fundamentally, inherently inexplicable (not just obscure or difficult), it’s more tautological than magical. A whale appeared because a whale appeared. Poof.

Ok, I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to get away from Clarke’s Third Law here. The tricky one is technology. Broadly speaking, we could define a technology as something that systematically harnesses natural forces in order to carry out a process with greater power and/or efficiency. That’s off the top of my head, but I think it’s a decent start.

So why is a laser gun technology and a staff of lightning magic? They’re both tools that use knowable (if obscure) systems to harness natural forces to accomplish something with more power or efficiency.

It’s not about a visible causal chain, chanting spells instead of yanking a lever. Plenty of technology uses invisible, mysterious forces. Like a radio. Or an airplane.

It’s not about complexity, or simplicity, or incomprehensibility, or difficulty. It’s not that science is systematic and magic is fuzzy; some of the best magic systems ever written are the most rigorously systematic. (Why else are schools or universities of magic such a common trope?)

It’s not that science is more egalitarian than magic; you could (and many stories do) have a technological or scientific elite working as a secretive ruling class. It doesn’t make them magicians; in fact it’s often a running tension that the ignorant populace thinks they’re sorcerers even though they’re not.

And what about the fuzzy boundary? Is teleportation magic or sci-fi technology? What if you call it apparition? Is alchemy science or magic? (Or both? Neither?) Is Asimov’s Second Foundation advanced technology or rudimentary magic?

But if there’s no clear difference, why are the categories so persistent? Even if we can’t pin down the definitions, most of us can easily categorize a list of tools or actions into magical or non-magical. Fireball. Dynamite. Resurrecting Aslan. Destroying Alderaan. Summoning demons. Warp drive.

Easy, right?

The closest I’ve come to making sense of it is that magic involves crossing a boundary between worlds. Depending on the story this could mean drawing on metaphysical energies, crossing into a fae/interplanar/supernatural realm, seeking divine power, or whatever.

Next project, of course, is to define ‘worlds’ more rigorously in this sense of it, but it seems that as long as something is explicable entirely in terms of one world, it’s scientific/technological (or natural), but when it involves crossing boundaries, it’s magical.

What do you guys think? Leave me a comment and let me know.




  1. My wife and I had this discussion last night. She would argue that cell phones are, in fact, magic. I disagree. My perspective is that magic is any art or ability that cannot be explained by science as we understand it, or would generally contradict laws of physics. This sweeping generalization would tend to put a lot of science fiction into the realm of fantasy, but I really think that’s where a lot of it belongs anyhow. That said, I wonder if, at some level, it’s really more a matter of what label you stick on it.

    1. That proposed definition is exactly where I think the question starts getting really interesting. Magic seems to contradict the laws of physics, except that any well-written magic system has rules and patterns that it follows, and those rules are, by the nature of the case, part of how the world works, and so at least arguably within the laws of physics (unless they pertain to a realm beyond physics somehow, but even that realm presumably has some sort of rules or patterns by which it operates, which is what allows people to draw on it for reliable magical results).

      So then we have to start asking where the boundary is beyond which we no longer count rules or patterns as “laws of physics.” Unless, of course, you’re talking about any (fictional) art or ability that contradicts (non-fictional) laws of physics.

      That gets into another very interesting question I’ve been playing with about degrees of realness, but that’s for another night.

      1. Ok. I want to start by quoting the sci-fi great, Author C Clark, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To a pre stone age person your bridge example might be more “magical” than a flying carpet. Yet, even when we read a book or watch a movie in a science fiction setting we never think, “Look at the magic,” regardless of the level of advanced technology. I think some of that is setting. When a story is set in our universe, and the plot gives us cues to expect advanced technology we see technology.

        Almost universally when I identify something as magic (whether set in our universe or another) it is because it seems to violate something I know to be true of our world. I can imagine a lightsaber being ‘possible’ through a certain combination of technological advancements. I cannot imagine concentration combined with a specific combination of spoken word to cause a fireball to spontaneously appear. Even if there is a system behind why it does, if that is not a system I believe to have a chance a being possible, it becomes magic. If it’s explained in such a way that I can’t rule out its real-world possibility, then it has a chance at technology.

        I think you were getting at something when you talked about violating physics. Even if some science fiction does the same (though good Sci-fi will explain why our current understanding is/was wrong). Though the line can get fuzzy–I’ve seen flying carpets in both sci-fi and fantasy, and both have worked. 😉

      2. I think that the fictional art that contradicts non-fiction laws is what I’m referring to, but of course there is a lot of gray area there as well. I suppose in thinking about this, I keep going back to it’s really more a matter of what the writer labels it than anything.

  2. I think there is also often some element of nature (magic) vs. the man-made (technology), accompanied by some sense of the differences of historical “progress”. While that doesn’t exactly hold up under close scrutiny, there are a lot of examples of such things forming the distinction between magic and science. So, I think the general trope is to mix nature + more ancient to get magic, and to mix man-made + newer to get science/engineering:

    wooden wands vs. metal lightsabers
    summoning a spirit vs. building a mechanical creature
    manuscripts vs. computer monitors
    flying carpets vs. the Enterprise
    language (powerful words) vs. money
    universities vs. businesses
    emperors vs. presidents
    alchemy vs. chemistry

    So, really, I think in a lot of fantasy realms, it is antiquity that gives magic its foundation as distinct from science. Where the cut-off line for the is, however, is more wibbly-wobbly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *