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Good people, bad magic, and how magical systems shape character in fantasy – An essay by Ginn Hale

Today, we are delighted to welcome Ginn Hale back to the blog to celebrate her new novel, Master of Restless Shadows (out today!) and to talk about magical systems and characters in Fantasy.

From metal-eating allomancers of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to the deity-enslaving rulers of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, systems of magic in fantasy books might seem both wildly imaginative and a bit arbitrary to readers.

Alternately, they may simply appear to be conceits of a plot. After all, it would be tough to tell stories about magical schools like those in Harry Potter and The Magicians if the system of magic in those books weren’t ones that could be taught. But to my mind it’s actually a protagonist’s character development that is most directly tied to the philosophy that underlies any given system of magic. 

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books present magic as a kind of deep, enlightened state of mind. Mastering it requires an emotional oneness with the world and oneself. ‘The wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things.’ In contrast, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell aligns the magic of her England with materialism. It resides in hoarded spells, brokered deals and above all in the exploitation of other people.

Gifted students of magic figure in both worlds. Sparrowhawk longs to be the wizard in A Wizard of Earthsea while Mr. Norrellis intent upon mastering magic in his world. Both characters begin their stories as arrogant and largely self-obsessed. Both of them even make a terrible violation of natural law in the pursuit of their own glory.

But because the magic of their worlds comes from profoundly different sources, Sparrowhawk and Mr. Norrell are required to grow into almost diametrically opposed kinds of characters as they delve deeper into the mastery of their arts.

Mr. Norrell’s standing and power grow from his horrific bargaining away of half Lady Pole’s life because magic in his world is materialistic; something bought, sold and hoarded because it is inherently limited.

The system of magic that Sparrowhawk must master, on the other hand arises from a profound understanding of the truth— Or as Kurremkarmerruk explains to Sparrowhawk, “For magic consists in this, the true name of a thing.” This is knowledge in its purest form. But to know himself and everything around him Sparrowhawk is required to take a path of enlightenment, humility and compassion and achieve his goals.

In both cases, these systems of magic are in no way arbitrary but instead integral to the resolutions of the protagonists’ story arcs as well as the plots of the books. And despite the very different outcomes for the characters both narratives require that protagonists who seek the power of magic to be shaped by that magic. Put simply, Sparrowhawk has little choice but to become kind and enlightened, while the magic in Mr. Norrell’s world does nothing to foster generosity or compassion in him.   

But what then of works that present magic devoid of apparent philosophy or system? Whimsical, even surreal works? One outstanding example is Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. Here readers are presented with a school for children who were once whisked away to fantastical worlds but have since been returned to their mundane lives.

At the outset it becomes obvious that none of these magical realms are consistent with each other. The protagonist Nancy hails from the Halls of the Dead and yet there’s a completely separate realm of dancing skeletons that she knows nothing of. In some realms time passes differently, in others mad science rules. Even in the mundane realm the rules of magic don’t seem to apply equally. At one point Jack is able to wield a pair of bloody scissors and open a door back into the fantastic world of the moors, but Nancy can’t do the same to return to her beloved Halls of the Dead. Despite all this the story feels like it makes sense. And it does. Because in this case the author has flipped the roles of character development and magic. The two are still intimately linked but in this story, magic arises in response to character development. Only when Nancy has come all the way through her adventure and when she is certain and secure in her identity does Nancy’s doorway open for her.

Now, you may wonder why any of this is at all important. It’s for two reasons.

The first reason is simply that magic represents power and magic systems readily translate into power structures.

The second is that in numerous studies works of fiction have been found to exert profound influences upon people’s outlooks and attitudes. Psychologists Timothy Brock and Melanie Green note that fiction “radically alters the way information is processed.” In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Johnathan Gottshall states “In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than non-fiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.”  

As escapist and light as any fantasy story may seem they all possess the power to hold sway over readers’ mindsets in profound ways. Gottshall goes on to cite studies wherein peoples’ acceptance or disapproval of races and sexualities other than their own have been shown to shift after viewing just one episode of a prime-time television drama.

And this is why ways in which characters are shaped by magical power structures is worth thinking about. Each of these stories speaks to how we personally seek power and how we wield it over those around us.

Perhaps most importantly, fantasy stories Like Every Heart A Doorway offer us an alternative to being shaped by the requirements of imposed systems or philosophies, by instead presenting us with the wisdom that in being true to who we are, we are already manifesting power over our own lives. That, I feel is a magic of its own.   

About Master of Restless Shadows:

Freshly graduated Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm has left his home in Anacleto and journeyed to the imposing royal capitol of Cieloalta intent upon keeping the youthful oath he made to a troubled writer. But in the decade since Narsi gave his pledge, Atreau Vediya, has grown from an anonymous delinquent to a man renowned for penning bawdy operas and engaging in scandalous affairs.

What Narsi?and most of the larger world?cannot know is the secret role Atreau plays as spymaster for the Duke of Rauma.

After the Cadeleonian royal bishop launches an unprovoked attack against the witches in neighboring Labara, Atreau will require every resource he can lay his hands upon to avert a war. A physician is exactly what he needs. But with a relentless assassin hunting the city and ancient magic waking, Atreau fears that his actions could cost more than his own honor. The price of peace could be his friends’ lives.

About Ginn Hale:

Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many cloudy days observing plants and fungi. She whiles away the rainy evenings writing fantasy and science-fiction featuring LGBTQ protagonists. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. She is also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Rainbow Award winner.

Her most recent publications include the Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and The Rifter Trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones.

She can be reached through her website: as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Her Instagram account, however, is largely a collection of botanical photos…so, be warned.


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