Yes, before we start, just in case, I do believe it’s possible to write fantasy without magic, I don’t consider it an essential requirement of the genre, I don’t think that any novel set in another world but not using magic is therefore “historical,” blah blah blah. If you’re dead-set on convincing me that this isn’t true, save your keystrokes. I’m simply not going to agree. A novel set in a world with invented history, invented people, invented countries, and so on can be fantasy. It doesn’t have to be alternative history (particularly if it’s not closely based on an Earth country), and it doesn’t have to be science fiction (particularly if it doesn’t deal closely with science and the effects of science on human lives). Neither do we have to make up a whole new genre label just for these books.
So. What happens when you take away the magic but write in another world? I’ll be discussing that below. (I suppose there could be a way to write urban fantasy without magic, but as I can’t think of what then would separate it from a mainstream or mystery novel set in a city, I don’t discuss it).
1) Set up a plot that depends on people and setting.
Very few fantasies actually do this. The plot gets its kick-start from something magical—a prophecy, a god, a talking sword, a magical inborn ability, a group of wizards. And really, I don’t see much wrong with that, as long as the magic isn’t an obvious Plot Device for the author to excuse every implausible action with.
But, if you’re not going to use magic, then you can’t kick-start the story using it, obviously. So what do you use?
You can still use religion, but you’ll have to tread carefully there. Many fantasy readers are used to novels where the gods are a true and living presence in the world; they indisputably exist, and characters argue with them, get chosen by them, receive gifts from them, and change their lives on their say-so. If you have a god appear in your fantasy world with blazing clarity, then the reader may decide that the only magic comes from the gods, but there is still magic in that world, oh my yes. Keeping your gods vague and distant, with at least some doubt concerning their existence, is probably the best course here. I don’t believe that Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint mentions gods at all, and while Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan is closer to alternative history and uses the concept of religion to kick-start the plot, none of his feuding religions’ gods appear in the world to make a pronouncement, either.
Instead, use mortal forces. The great attraction of doing this is that you don’t have to consider all the weight of history that rides on setting a historical novel on Earth. You could set up a world where, due to a combination of circumstances, the world’s tech-level isn’t twentieth-century, but there are still equal rights for women. You could create a world where polytheistic instead of monotheistic religions dominate, where one empire has lasted ten thousand years, where there are no nations but feuding collections of city-states. And then imagine what is going to come from that, what kind of plots will be born with certain kinds of people interacting with those historical forces—and what kinds of people will naturally be born in that world, as you no longer have the excuse of magic making someone different from the norm.
This can be a richly rewarding experience, since it requires intertwining character and setting until you can’t tell where one begins and one ends. But it does require intense study, and no slapping up of magic paint over plotholes.
2) If you want special effects, use low-tech.
Fantasy does have technology, of course, but a lot of the weapons and communications on which the plot turns depend on its magic. I personally think this is more due to a desire for drama than anything else. It sounds more dramatic to have a sorcerer scream his message mind-to-mind just before he gets slaughtered than to have a courier carry it in panting after weeks on the road. And the attitude seems to be that, if you can’t have high technology or high magic, what’s the use?
Yet there will still be plenty of industries in an average fantasy world, and depending on where you choose to set the tech level, there can be more. Perhaps they’re just developing steam engines. Perhaps they’re just developing the printing press or gunpowder. They will probably already have all kinds of “common” tech which can aid the plot but which fantasists mostly tend to ignore, from making glass to making quicklime, from whaling to illuminating manuscripts. Pyramids, enormous churches, and other massive structures were lifted in our own world long before modern technology became available. Imagine what could happen if your protagonist is the first to discover a certain chemical reaction, or art technique, or scientific principle, or weapon. Here’s a great kick-start without relying on magic, though it will probably take more research.
And, of course, an author once again has the opportunity to write in a world where such technology has an effect that he or she is interested in writing about on the local history and politics and people. There are only so many reasonable directions that the printing press could have affected England in our own world, considering the weight of history by the time it was invented. In another world, you have the freedom to set up your own consequences and reception and imaginings.
3) You can use nonmagical heroes.
I wrote one whole rant on ordinary person heroes, so I won’t repeat verbatim what I said there, but there the lack of Speshul magic is only one part of the whole. Here, I want to give it more room.
I’ve spent some time thinking, and can’t come up with a whole lot of protagonists, even in series I love, who don’t have magic. They aren’t even mages, in some case. They could be fighters with intelligent weapons, or telepathic animal companions (“telcom” is the abbreviation I like to apply here), or bards whose magic comes from their music. But they still have that power to fall back on. Very rarely does the author let them save and damn themselves through qualities like cleverness, temper, impatience, honesty, courage, and cunning working alone or with other personality traits. If the hero does screw up, he has the magical backup just waiting to charge to his side.
What are the advantages of not having this? Some are the same as with point 1; the plot has to be more carefully worked-out when the author can’t just paint over any old hole with magic. Some are in suspense, in adding an element of real risk. I’ll breathe more tightly if I know that the hero just made an unpopular political move and can’t dodge from assassins’ knives with magicked reflexes, or fire lightning bolts back at them. And some are in the refinement of the characters themselves, rather than the refinement of objects. Sometimes I get the sense that any character from the fantasy world could do what the hero does, as long as he was armed with the powers or objects that the hero possesses. But not everyone is going to have the same fascinating, irritating, strong, fragile, deep, and shallow mix of personality traits. Here’s a chance to show how Edgar the Bald saves the world, not just a magical sword.
4) There’s a greater place for charlatans, false prophecies, and other sleight-of-hand tricks.
I’ve commented before how rare this is in most fantasy, with the sole exception of the “bad” religion having false priests who want to obscure knowledge of some central truth (often having to do with the real history of the religion). Yet even in societies in our own world that accepted magic in the past, there were certainly those who didn’t really practice it. And those people are often ideal for starting off a plot, a mystery, or a chain of intrigue.
Want a way for your non-magical heroine to survive on the road? She could very well pretend to be magical. If she pretends to see spirits and be protected by them, robbers might leave her the hell alone. If she pretends to be able to read minds and can give a good simulation of it, then pushy men in an inn might decide to go bother some other woman. And if she pretends to be able to see the future and can simulate that convincingly, people are likely to pay her.
Thief heroes and rogue heroes are often tempting to write and easy to sympathize with, as most authors write them. However, they’re still stealing from people, and the author may fall back on the clichés of thieves’ guilds, of physically impossible feats, and of magical artifacts. A conwoman heroine is a bit different. She’s tricking people out of their money, yes, but she’s doing it by matching her cleverness against theirs, not by breaking through protections that any person, clever or stupid, might have trusted to. She’s doing it face-to-face, which might seem more sporting. She’s probably going to be more of an independent spirit than a thief in a guild or a thief working on commissions from a wealthy patron. And if she’s trained herself to notice and observe other people as well as practice a somewhat risky trade, she’s likely to be the kind of protagonist that will notice another trickster or a stranger doing something suspicious, and who’s bold enough to get involved. That’s a much neater and more commonsensical entry into an adventure than yet another powerful person stealing back a magical artifact and deciding to spare the life of the thief who stole it for no particular reason.
Then there’s what the tricks will do to other people. Perhaps the heroine sets out confident of supernatural protection from a prophecy or an amulet about her neck, and then learns halfway through the adventure that the prophecy was false or the amulet is a useless bauble. Oops. Now what? Does she go back, try to find some other way to achieve her goal, proceed anyway though she’s not guaranteed to succeed?
Lots of room to play here, especially if you want to write transformative fantasy that involves people learning that things they’ve known all their lives are false.
5) Lack of magic may mean there’s less pure infodump.
The world-building should not be any less in-depth, of course, especially given points 1 and 2; you’ll have to know things about your world that you won’t if you could just add magic. But as far as getting information across to the reader, you won’t have to have scenes where the mages go on at length about what is and is not possible with supernatural power.
I’m not incapable of enjoying information or history in a fantasy story. (I know I might appear that way). But it needs to be well-written and cleverly presented. Many authors, I think mistakenly, decide that the best way to present magic is in a theoretical framework—like science, in fact. They have mages lecture on it, emphasize “laws” of it, explain exactly when and where the protagonist’s ultra-rare magic last appeared, and intone in dire detail what would happen if the villain got hold of that magic or broke one of the laws. It tends to be boring, because the authors don’t naturally write that way, and it shows.
I hold to the view that authors should play to their strengths as much as possible. If you can’t write a war well, for example, don’t construct a novel where the whole plot hangs on a war. And if you can’t write entertaining academic lectures, then don’t write academic lectures. If you know that you’re weak in one area of writing, build it up, by all means, but don’t do it one way just because everyone else is.
A lack of magic takes away the need for such intimidating academic lectures. It’s a minor benefit, sure, but so many authors seem uptight about magic and explaining it just right that I think it may ultimately be of much greater benefit to the story.
6) Lack of magic allows for less flinching.
Along with papering holes in world-building and helping the heroes achieve their successes, magic is often used to heal injuries, bring characters back from the dead, and protect people or lands from harm that would otherwise befall them. Would the protagonist otherwise live the rest of her life without a hand? No problem! The wizards can attach a silver hand to her wrist and all will be well. It’s even more obedient and stronger than a regular hand! It might even be able to shoot lightning bolts!!
Without magic, the heroine has one hand, or a hook or other natural replica made according to the level of that world’s technology. This is no way diminishes her sacrifice. In fact, it might heighten the tragedy of it. But it does mean that there’s no exact reversal, no going back to the way that it was before, or better. The heroine’s going to be reminded of that loss every time she looks at her wrist.
Writing in a non-magical world can set an exceedingly interesting tone for your story. Doesn’t have to; the plot and characters and world may be such that there’s just no way that kind of extreme brutality will ever come to pass. But it’s another consideration to take into account if you’re pondering how different a non-magical fantasy world could really be from the real world.
7) Depending on how you play it, fantasy without magic can address themes of natural and causal universes.
If there are distant gods who never intrude unmistakably into your story and “show” extremely ambiguous signs that can get interpreted by many different people in many different ways, then I think it might not be surprising to find characters who suspect the gods’ very existence in the novel’s world. Perhaps they would keep this quiet, perhaps they would shrug and dismiss it, and perhaps they would poke at it until they became full-fledged atheists, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
This would be something really cool to read about in an academic fantasy, or a fantasy set in a world that’s semi-Victorian. During the Enlightenment, Christianity lost a good deal of its power among the educated classes, and the nineteenth century in Europe is sometimes called “the Golden Age of atheism.” Religious debate became possible, where before it might be barely tolerated and most often strenuously discouraged. Some middle-class and upper-class men became Deists, believing that God had set the universe in motion and then walked away from it, never intervening in natural affairs after that. And when Darwin—and other scientists—began to propound ideas of natural creation and humanity’s kinship to animals, then the idea that God had to have created the world because there was no starting life otherwise fell away. The idea of evolution got into absolutely everything, from literature to visions of what science should be aiming for to the rhetoric of empire. Not always to good effect, of course. But that’s part of the point.
What do people do in the face of nature, in the face of no afterlife, in the face of faith-shattering truths, in the face of one central idea that supports other ideas unraveling? We know, somewhat, what happened in our own world; I don’t think anyone’s traced all the consequences of it. What might happen in another world, one with entirely different nations and beliefs and people and histories?
A poll on ideas for the next rant will be up shortly.