Magical Objects in Fantasy

I was thinking about this the other night. I had an idea for a story about questing for magical objects, just for fun. I started seriously considering magical objects in fantasy, what I like and don’t like, and how to make them not too tiresome.

So let’s talk about it.

Only Have it if You Need it

What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t have a magical object, artifact, whatever if it doesn’t play a vital role in your story. As as in this object must be obtained or used, etc. or else the story fails or ends.

Throwing one in there because it makes your hero look cool. Also, this is more of a personal thing, but I hate fantasy where an object overpowers the hero at the last minute for no reason. It feels like a cheat and makes the heroes struggle not really matter at all.

Establish its Existence and Importance at the Beginning

Or as soon as you can. If you introduce it too late and some old wizard comes along and says “Oh by the way, I know the location of this amazing sword that can do anything.” without ever having mentioned it before, it’s going to run the risk of feeling out of place.

You need to establish that it might be possible for a magical artifact to exist. Even if it’s “legend” and no one believes it’s real, still establishing that it’s possible for this thing to exist in this world is important.

Worldbuilding Opportunity 

This is where Harry Potter got it right. In a world of magic and wizards, it made sense that there were tons of magic objects all over the place: books, bags, trinkets, jewels, potions, and on and on.

So you need to consider how your magical objects tie into your world. What do they tell the reader about the world? Its history? Its cultures/values? etc.

Make it Hard

Unless this is like Harry Potter where magical objects are extremely common, then a magical object should be hard to obtain, destroy (if necessary), and/or used properly. Even in Harry Potter there were objects that were really difficult to find/use/destroy, more so than others.

The more power and importance you place on an object, the more difficult it should be for your heroes to use/find/destroy the object. This adds deeper levels of conflict and complexity. It also forces your hero to overcome some kind of difficulty or obstacle.

It Should Fit With Your Magic System

If your magic system is based on superpowers and no where have you established that it’s possible to enchant objects, then a magical artifact is going to feel out of place.

It can be rare, maybe there’s only a few of them and they’re extremely valuable. That’s fine, but again you need to establish that it might be possible for them to exist. Otherwise, they’re going to show up at a convenient time in the story and feel like you’ve broken your own rules. Can this be interesting? Probably, but it would be harder to pull off and may not be the stronger choice.

Like I said, your characters (at least some of them) don’t have to believe it’s possible, but there should be something that clues the reader into it and could explain it.

Consider Making Your Objects Characters

A lot of fantasy stories do this and I think it’s so cool. This is where Tolkien was a genius, in my opinion.

The One Ring in Lord of the Rings, was a brilliant object. It was pretty innocuous but it had personality, it was a villain. It tore apart the Fellowship, called out to people, had a will of its own, and messed with the mind of the wearer/bearer. It was innocuous, but also so dangerous that even the oldest, wisest “good” characters (like Gandalf) could be corrupted by it.

Your objects don’t have to be evil, but they can have a will of their own, so to speak. And why not? It’s fantasy. It also adds deeper conflicts and complexities that are compelling to read.

Give the objects themselves goals, if that works for you. Give them reasons and motivations. To me, it helps bring these objects to life.

What Does it Do and Why?

Now we get to the nitty gritty. What do your magical objects do and why? How do these abilities influence the story?

These things need to be clear and they need to be specific. A “really awesome sword” isn’t good enough. Does it vibrate when enemies come round? Does anyone slain by it get locked away in some magical “otherworld”? Does it only work if the wielder is “worthy” of it?

And how does that influence the story? How many contenders are there for people to have and control this thing? Why does it have to have these abilities and how do these add to or complicate your story?

These questions (and more) need to be answered in very specific ways. Even if the characters are still figuring it out, you, the writer, need to know the answers. The more powerful and important the object is, the more care must be taken with them.

Rules and Consequences

The rules of the object should involve what it does (specifically) and why, who can feasibly use it, how hard it is to use it, and so on. Consequences come in when the object is extremely powerful.

The One Ring drove bearers mad if they held onto it for too long, this was a consequence. In Harry Potter putting parts of your soul into objects required a sacrifice and wore the person down.

So again, the more powerful the object, the greater the consequence, at least in principle. The reason is because otherwise it becomes too easy. Our heroes become overpowered and there’s nothing stopping them from easily defeating the villain. Make it harder.

Relationship to the Hero

Frodo had a relationship to the ring, a unique experience that not very many others could fully understand. Harry Potter had a relationship with the horcruxes by nature of being one himself. He also had a relationship to the invisibility cloak, having been in his family for generations.

In a similar vein, your hero, or whoever wields or bears the object should have a relationship with it. One that has relation to their role in the plot, and also reveals more about their character and who they are.

In our magic sword example, let’s say that the sword can only slay someone if the wielder is the bravest person in the world. If it’s not them, the sword is useless. If someone is born that’s braver, the sword becomes useless again. Let’s say our hero is the bravest person in the world at this time.

What does that mean for the hero? Is this a warrior that spent their whole life training? Is this some peasant kid who stumbles upon it on accident? If they’re the bravest person in the world, the writer better prove it through their other actions and not just because they have this magic sword that can kill any person with even a tiny cut. What does our hero choose to do with it? How do they choose to deal with that responsibility?

Even in simple examples, the questions beget questions. This is a good thing, in my opinion so long as they are answered well.

Try to Avoid the Over-Noble Hero

This bothers me in fantasy. A peasant kid stumbles upon something extremely valuable and awesome, and decides to listen to everyone and only use it for good. Why?

This gets tiresome. If you go this route, you have to really make me believe this poor peasant kid really wants to use it for good, not just because “goodness and wisdom” are personality traits. If you found a really valuable painting in real life, you should ethically donate it to a museum. But if you’re a poor college kid trying to make ends meet, you can’t tell me that you wouldn’t at least be tempted to sell this painting worth millions of dollars to the highest bidder.

What’s stopping this kid from using this object for their own gain or even just selling it? Even if they don’t want to do anything evil with it. If they find a basket that constantly replenishes itself with fresh food and their village is experiencing a famine, they’re not going to want to just burn and destroy it, at least not at first.

Give them a good reason to the noble thing, or maybe have them choose not to the most noble thing.

Where Did it Come From? And Other Questions

Who created the object and how? Was it the gods? A powerful sorcerer? A cosmic event? This should tie into your magic system.

Why was it created? To defeat an enemy? For pure selfish power? Did someone try to do a good thing but it turned out horribly wrong and created a really destructive object?

Is the object a “legend” now? Does anyone believe in it still or is it a children’s story? Where is it hidden? Who knows where it’s hidden? How do they know? How did the object get to where it is? What has it been doing? Does the object want to be found? Is it hiding in plain sight?

Who wants it? Who cares, if anyone? Why do they want it? Is it a collectable or is it actually useful?

Answer these questions. Be specific.

Parting Words

Magical objects are awesome. Make sure to write them and execute them well. Make it hard, give them puzzles, use them as a tool to make your story more compelling.

Writing Prompt

Write a story based around a magical object. It can be a scene, it can be a novel.

Consider:

  • What is the object?
  • Who are the people trying to find or who have found it? What are they going to do with it?
  • What does the object do? Is it awesome or mundane?
  • What is the history of the object?

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