Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider
(And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)
There are a lot of supernatural and magic tropes that are a tad on the questionable side. They don't really make much sense when you really think about them, or they have some odd implications for their universes, or they lend to dull and repetitive characters and plots. So here are some tropes to reconsider using and some tips on what else you might do - whether to make your stories and characters make a little more sense, or to make them stand out a little more, or just because you can!
Table of Contents
- Severe tradeoffs, drawbacks, or consequences for using magic on tasks that have nonmagical analogs (that don't come with severe consequences).
- Arbitrary/non-sequitur costs, tradeoffs, or drawbacks.
- Using magic/the supernatural to explain real-world events, or to always explain events similar to those that happened in the real world.
- Motivationless supernatural evil.
- Magic being limited to non-humans or demihumans, or limited only to specific uses (in settings where magic is heavily based on actual myth and folklore).
- In summary!
Severe tradeoffs, drawbacks, or consequences for using magic on tasks that have nonmagical analogs (that don't come with severe consequences).
For example, Lily suffered a grievous injury, and without intervention she will die! So mage Gordon uses a spell that heals Lily and saves her from certain death - but then because Gordon's magical act has somehow violated "the balance of the universe," some random person somewhere else suddenly drops dead. Now here's the thing: Lily lives in a world where her injury could have been treated with medical technology, and she'd have recovered just as fine as she did as with Gordon's help.
This kind of thing just raises a pretty big question: why does the universe demand such strict penalties and payments when people magically violate "the natural balance" or somesuch, but looks the other way when people use non-magical means to do the exact same thing? That's a pretty big inconsistency. Why is the universe so harsh when people use this one method to accomplish something, but gives free passes on any and every other method when the end results are one and the same? If it's because magic itself is somehow in violation of nature, then why doesn't the universe throw a hissy fit when people defy nature with non-natural nature-defying creations like automobiles, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs? You might argue that these objects are made from natural materials that already exist, but then again - aren't people utilizing some extant force or law of physics when they do magic? What, really, is the difference?
If you want your magic to have consequences or tradeoffs, consider keeping them real - or at least close to something that could happen in real life. For example, just as a chemistry project done incorrectly might have deadly consequences, so might a potion brewed incorrectly. Maybe a fire spell can literally blow up in one's face if not properly cast, or if it's not properly contained and managed it might ignite something one doesn't want burned down. Maybe transforming rocks into food burns more calories than the food would actually provide to the person who ate it.
If you really want or need your consequences and tradeoffs to be more fantastical - well, read on!
Arbitrary/non-sequitur costs, tradeoffs, or drawbacks.
This one seems to happen for three main reasons, any of which may overlap. One of the most common seems to be that writers wanted to avoid making working with magic or the supernatural too easy, so they tossed in some difficult unpleasant cost, tradeoff, or drawback - regardless of whether it made sense in context. The second is that the writers seem to be looking for shock value, and so they threw in something that seemed suitably disgusting or nasty. The third is where the writers seem to be doing it just because they see it as the done thing. Because they don't really put any more thought into it than that, they end up stuffing in some random (if cliched) cost/tradeoff/drawback.
Of course, costs, tradeoffs, and drawbacks aren't bad in and of themselves (even if they are shocking and gross!), but there should at least be some rationale and logic behind them. Stop and think about why you're choosing these particular costs/tradeoffs/drawbacks in particular. What's the logic behind them? Why does the universe work like this, and not some other way?
The logic of magic and the supernatural doesn't necessarily need to be firmly rooted in the laws of physics - it can, but it's not a requirement. But at the very least, it should make a sort of poetic, intuitive sense. For example, we associate roses with romance, so it makes a certain amount of sense that a spell to find a suitable love interest might call for rose petals. It makes reasonable sense that a god of partying might want an offering of beer. It also makes sense that working with some mushroom spirit who just wants to see the world overrun with mushrooms might make you start mutating into a mushroom - either because this spirit's essence and will passes into you and manifests through you thus, or because it thinks that making you a mushroom person is a fair exchange for helping you.
So, let's say for example that a spell requires copious amounts of blood. Why does it take so much? And why blood and not something else instead? If a spirit or deity demands a certain offering or favor, why? Why this and not something else? How does the spirit/deity benefit from it and/or what does it prove to the spirit/deity? Does casting a certain spell or a certain kind of magic cause one to grow monster eyeballs on one's back? If so, why does it have that side effect and not another? And how do any and all of these fit into the broader scheme or overall logic of how magic and the supernatural work in your universe?
Using magic/the supernatural to explain real-world events, or to always explain events similar to those that happened in the real world.
Here's the thing: so far as we know, big fancy magical or supernatural shenanigans like we see in fantasy stories do not happen. No major historical event we've ever documented and investigated - good or bad - has ever required them to explain or make sense of what happened. Time and again, it always comes down to human reasons - EG, hard work and ingenuity, sheer desperation, error and shortsightedness, moral panic ("witch hunt") mentality, and so on.
So if you've got a world where every important and major event involved magic or the supernatural in some way, this raises a pretty big question: if our world can progress and change without magic or the supernatural being involved, what's holding back yours? Are people fundamentally different somehow? Are they severely lacking in the gumption and ingenuity that real people have? Are they somehow immune to the biases and oversights that cause so many problems in the real world? If so, won't that make them less relatable and identifiable?
Instead, here are a few things you might do:
Leave actual history alone, unless you can fit something in without affecting the causes, means, or outcome of the historical events themselves. Let the normal humans keep their history, because they deserve credit for every bit of it, both good and bad.
Rather than having mystical or supernatural forces solely driving dramatic events in your universe, have them supplement it. A demon needn't possess and force a kind ruler to act evilly, but instead might say and suggest things that prey on the ruler's pre-existing fears and prejudices - something that anyone could do. Some major events might have absolutely no demonic influence anywhere, but instead, you might just have people (even fantastic people) using magic to try to accomplish the kinds of goals they could still be after even if there was no magic or supernatural at all in your world at all. Though you'll still need to make sure you use your extraordinary elements to create extraordinary adventures, you can almost never go wrong by making your magical/supernatural characters' goals, motivations, and methods similar or analogous to something you'd find in real life.
If magic or the supernatural is something that only a tiny portion of people have any real access to or control over, let plenty of events involve no magic or supernatural forces - even if the plot never focuses on them or they're just part of your setting's background. Let them play out exactly how their counterparts in the real world might. Keep in mind - by not involving magical or supernatural forces in everything, you keep the cases where they are involved that much more noteworthy. Plus, keeping the actual magical/supernatural stuff less common creates room for reasonable doubt, which means that you can have people unwilling to accept a magical/supernatural explanation without looking as laughably ignorant as flat earth believers.
Motivationless supernatural evil.
It still happens too often that the supernatural forces are up to acts of destruction and malice for no apparent reason beyond "that's just what these kinds of things do." But this makes for shoddy worldbuilding, because what you've got is a bunch of creatures that are weirdly obsessed with humans for no real reason.
Instead, ask yourself: what's the benefit for them? What do they stand to gain from it? Do they need sustenance? Do they crave (or even feed on) attention? Is it about reproduction? Is it about gaining the means to live it up? Does it further a larger goal they're striving for? (And if so, what do they get out of that goal?) Does it just provide them a moment of sport or fun?
Also, consider giving your supernatural creatures a variety of motivations and agendas, and don't make them all antagonistic toward humans - some can be neutral or beneficial, too. And don't just create one stock personality for every member of a particular supernatural race - make them individuals with differing personalities, aspirations, and MOs. This can add richness and complexity to a setting, as well as open up a lot of plot potential. What if just annihilating the supernatural creatures wasn't always the answer? What if the main characters had to try diplomacy and compromise now and then? What if they had to stop and ask themselves whether the supernatural creature actually was a threat, or whether someone jumped to conclusion? What if someone shot before asking the right questions, and now there are consequences?
Magic being limited to non-humans or demihumans, or limited only to specific uses (in settings where magic is heavily based on actual myth and folklore).
For example, magic exists - but it can only be used by a fantastic race. Nobody else gets a whit of magic, ever. And not just that, but magic can only be used to fight off the supernatural creatures that threaten humanity - no using magic on anything like a stained sweater or finding out if it's going to rain on the day you want to have your picnic, nosirree.
Now, here's the thing: what we generally consider "witchcraft" today (EG, folk charms and spells) was for the most part practiced by ordinary people to solve ordinary problems. Some were even what one might consider frivolous - such as various methods to divine one's future spouse.
Yes, there were people who were considered better at it than others (and sometimes other people were a little afraid of them, as people are inclined to be wary of the strange and unknown), but they weren't seen as fundamentally above or separate from humanity. Liminal, perhaps - but not separate unto themselves as, for example, the fae. Sure, it often happens that fae and the like are portrayed as more powerful magic users, but magic itself isn't considered to be something completely beyond human ability, particularly not in folklore. (Read a lot of old fairytales, you'll find that a good number of the characters who use magic are never implied to be anything but human - and what's more, nobody ever really bats an eye at the fact they're using magic.)
So if you're taking mythic or folkloric inspiration and want to maintain a sense of authenticity or historicity, don't remove magic from human use altogether or make it only for certain specific purposes.
- Having the universe or some cosmic power impose severe consequences or tradeoffs for using magic to accomplish things that people do every day without magic makes the universe/cosmic power look inconsistent and arbitrarily petty. If magical actions are to have consequences or tradeoffs, try not to make them disproportionately severe compared to those of their non-magical analogs.
- If your stuff comes with costs, tradeoffs, or drawbacks, aim to have them make a sort of logical/intuitive sense, and fit the overall scheme of how magic works in your universe.
- Don't use magic or the supernatural to explain real-life events, and don't always use magic or the supernatural to explain events that could work without them in the real world. Also, let the magical and supernatural often supplement, rather than force major events in your setting.
- Avoid making motivationless supernatural evils. Give them some motivation for what they're doing. Figure out what they get out of it. And make your supernatural creatures complex, varied, and nuanced.
- Throughout myth and history, much of what we consider magic or witchcraft today has been used by humans for human benefit - and often for frivolous things. So if you're drawing from myths or folklore and are aiming for a sense of authenticity or historicity, don't something like this and make it available only to some non-human or demihuman creature, or make only for certain specific purposes.
And check out these pages!
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Shapeshifters From Getting Overpowered
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Common Werewolf Tropes You Should Think Twice Before Using
Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Vampire Fiction
Tips For Writing Better Immortal & Long-Lived Characters
External resources & references