Guest Post: Fantasy Without Magic?

Writing Fantasy Without Magic

by Richie Billing

Writing fantasy without magic can sound like an outlandish thing to do. But it’s becoming more and more common.

Having written many fantasy stories with an absence of magic, I’ve learned a thing or two about the benefits and the downsides, both from the writer’s perspective and the reader’s.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at different types of fantasy magic, whether or not you can have fantasy without magic, how to write fantasy without magic, and we’ll take a look at some examples of fantasy books without magic.

The Different Approaches to Writing Fantasy

Fantasy is awash with subgenres. Over time, cunning writers have merged together different types to form new ones, like combining historical fantasy and dark fantasy to forge historical dark fantasy—yes, that’s a thing. Another example would be high fantasy and medieval fantasy, giving us (you guessed it) medieval high fantasy.

Rising up among the genres are those in which magic isn’t a focus. Maybe it doesn’t feature at all. Perhaps the most well-known of those sub-genres is low fantasy.

Now low fantasy seems to cover a pretty wide range of story types, and no doubt it will splinter into further subgenres in time. But for our purposes, low fantasy encapsulates:

  • Stories that may be set in a secondary fantasy world but one lacking magic.
  • Or if magic does exist in these fantasy worlds (which can often be the case), it does not play a significant role in the story.
  • Low fantasy is also used to describe stories which aren’t set in secondary worlds.

Why is low fantasy popular? Well, as we’ll see below, it allows writers to align their stories more closely to the real world, giving them opportunities to explore real-world and relevant issues, while having the freedom to explore and experiment.

As fantasy writers experiment more and more, niches will emerge, allowing writers to better define their stories. This, in turn, allows readers to hone in on their likes. Because let’s face it, the fantasy genre is broad as a dragon’s arse, and sometimes when looking for books, we can get a little lost!

Can You Have Fantasy Without Magic?

So as we’ve seen above, low fantasy is arguably becoming a more popular subgenre. Yet, for the traditional fantasy fan, the prospect of reading a story without the presence of magic may seem off-putting.

This is an issue that I was all too aware of when writing Pariah’s Lament. I’m not a massive fan of writing with magic, but I love the possibilities associated with it. So this is what I focused on. I showed the reader that magic did exist in the world, but I kept it in the background.

Instead, I focused on the characters. On their trials and tribulations, their internal struggles, their path of growth and development.

Other writers have experimented with this too. We’ll look at some specific examples of good fantasy novels without magic below, but in short, it can allow you to follow types of characters who don’t need or rely on magic to get by. Morally-grey assassins are all the rage at the moment. Likewise are the thieves and charlatans. Generally, such characters don’t possess magical abilities.

The point I’m trying to make is that you can, of course, have fantasy without magic—if that’s the type of story you want to tell. If you have a character-driven plot, you may not wish to get drawn into the intricacies of magic systems if you feel it’ll detract from the issues you wish to focus on.  

Similarly, you may be writing a story constructed around a theme or premise, and magic may not play a role in that. Or it may even contradict the point you’re trying to make!

So just because we’re writing fantasy doesn’t mean magic always has to be present. Let’s look at some other considerations when it comes to writing fantasy without magic.

What About Dragons, Elves and Dwarves?

You may wonder then about the inclusion of magical creatures and races, like dragons, elves and dwarves?

It’s a totally fair question. The presence of dragons, for instance, which are traditionally magical beings, may jar with what may otherwise be a pretty low fantasy story. On the other hand, as we’ll see below when discussing fantasy books without magic, it may not.

My attitude is that you can still have different races and creatures without the presence of magic. One of the benefits of writing fantasy is that we don’t necessarily have to explain ourselves to the same level as, for example, science fiction. We’re allowed a little more creative freedom.

And this can be quite a beneficial approach to take when it comes to the writing of the story. If this is the type of world you want, and these creates and people exist, end of, there’s no need to lose pages to describing their origins, which may lead to info dumps.

Let’s look at some examples of fantasy books without magic.

Fantasy Books Without Magic

One of my biggest influences when it comes to writing fantasy is George RR Martin and the A Song of Ice and Fire series (ASOIAF). To a certain extent, I think they’re great examples of fantasy books without magic (probably the last two books to come excluded, when things get pretty magical).

The ASOIAF series is very much character-driven. And while there are definite magical elements (dragons and white walkers), magic is by no means the focus. The challenges and obstacles the characters are faced with are very much physical, things that we can relate to in our own lives.

There are times when magic features, but particularly in the earlier books it’s more of a flirtation, and you’re never quite sure if it’s legitimate or not. Melisandre is a pretty good example. Steeped in an air of magic, you’re often left wondering what abilities she possesses, but her efforts can fall flat.

Another controversial example I’m going to draw upon is Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle. Now I know the first book is called Magician, and magic does feature heavily throughout the series, but Feist created some wonderful characters and stories lacking in magic altogether. Perhaps the most popular is Jimmy The Hand and his ancestors. Prince Arutha is another and so too Rupert Avery (aka Roo).

In both examples, we’re very much in fantasy worlds, yet following stories and characters lacking in magic.

More examples of fantasy books without magic

Here are some good fantasy novels without magic, as well as tips on where to find more.

More Guides On Writing Fantasy Without Magic

Thanks for reading this guide on writing fantasy without magic. Before I leave you, I thought I’d share some other guides of mine that may help when it comes to finding non-magical angles with your writing.

About Richie Billing

Richie Billing writes fantasy fiction, historical fiction and stories of a darker nature. His short fiction has been published by, amongst others, Kzine, TANSTAAFL Press, Bewildering Stories, Liquid Imagination, The Magazine of History & Fiction, Aether and Ichor, and Far Horizons.

His debut novel, Pariah’s Lament, will be published by Of Metal and Magic Publishing on 17th March 2021. He co-hosts the podcast The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed, a venture inspired by the requests of readers of his critically-acclaimed book, A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook.

Most nights you can find him up into the wee hours scribbling away or watching the NBA. Find out more at www.richiebilling.com.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Fantasy Without Magic?

  1. The confusing thing to me is, what makes it fantasy if there isn’t any magic or any fantastical creatures in the story world? I would never call Hunger Games fantasy: it’s science fiction, which is what I (we, I thought) generally call alternate worlds/ timelines that have different cultures but still follow all the rules of physics. It seems that many of the other examples (e.g., on the Goodreads list) are just alternate worlds/cultures with a medieval flair to them and an adventure aspect, so maybe they’re called “fantasy” because we’re so seeped in the idea that fantasy = quasi-medieval adventure with swords.

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    1. There’s a clear difference, at least in my mind, between science fiction and fantasy. It’s focus and function, rather than setting. Science fiction is focused on the science–that is to say explanation. Science is all about figuring out how things work, explaining the world. Fantasy is focused on the story and lacks explanation. Neither is bound to any particular setting. You can have fantasy in space (Star Wars or He-man) and you can have science fiction set in past-like settings (I’ve got a book in my read pile that’s supposed to be like a naturalist’s examination of dragons as a biological species). The difference is where the author puts most of their focus. Science fiction books tend to be high concept, focused on the big “what if”, but with generic characters. Fantasy tends to focus on characters and plots, and pay less attention to how the world works. Just having technology doesn’t make something SF, if you never explain how the tech works. There are shades of gray, of course, to the point where these labels are largely arbitrary. I haven’t read the books, but based on the films, I’d be more inclined to call the Hunger Games fantasy than science fiction. There is very little examination of the systems of the world. Instead, it’s a very archetypal hero story that could easily be superimposed on a medieval setting.

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      1. Interesting take. I spend a lot of time reading and discussing the difference between fantasy and science fiction and I don’t think I’ve heard someone make the distinction that way before.

        But my question was more about what makes it fantasy if there’s no magical elements in the story world. I’d have a hard time using your definition for that: if fantasy is something based on character rather than science, how do you tell the difference between fantasy and all other sorts of non-speculative fiction?

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      2. Non-speculative fiction is, by definition, set in the real world. So the difference between historical fiction and medieval fantasy is that one takes place in at least semi-accurate portrayal of earth, whereas the other takes place in a made up world (and is thus speculative). The speculative elements of fantasy could be magic or creatures, or it could just be a made up world.

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      3. That’s a unique take on it. So you would consider most of what Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as fantasy, because it takes place on made-up worlds and doesn’t focus on science (not the physical sciences, that is)?

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      4. I am sad to say I haven’t read any Le Guin yet, though she’s on my TBR list. One of these “The Word for World Is Forest” which I would at least partially define as Sci-fi because it is thematically bound to the real science of it’s time–environmentalism, climate change, etc. On the other hand, my (unfinished) read of Dune suggests that book is mostly space fantasy (or space opera), not sci-fi. There’s a lot of tech, but it’s mostly unexplained. The most scientific part is the description of the water retention suits. That book is very much a hero/messiah story that just happens to be set on another planet in “the future.” Ultimately, I don’t think you can have “science” fiction without a connection to science. This is, of course, a little different from how science fiction was used a hundred years ago, but science was different back then (perhaps a lot more lofty and imaginative) and now we have a much wider genre and content spread in speculative fiction. So it’s worth redefining our genres to be more useful. If they aren’t useful, why bother using them?

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      5. The way I’ve seen that distinction made is to differentiate *hard* science fiction from other types of science fiction — that hard SF is focused on explaining some particularly interesting technology/science element of the story world whereas other types of SF simply occur in that world and interact with those elements.

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      6. For me the difference between hard and soft sci-fi is not that the latter doesn’t focus on explaining, but rather that the former applies actual published scientific theory to the issue. For example, STAR TREK would not be considered “hard” sci-fi by most. Sure, there’s a lot of explanation (we use a warp drive, that creates a warp bubble, and relies on anti-matter as a power source, etc), but little of it is real science (even as science starts to catch up to ST–such as warp drive theory–the shows go off in other directions like the bio-drive in Discovery, breaking away from real, published science). But ST is still focused on explanation at its core. On the other hand, THE FOREVER WAR is hard sci-fi, as its main concept is applying Einsteinian time dilation to an intergalactic war. On the softer end might be Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND (haven’t read yet), which I understand to simply examine the sociology of an alien visiting earth, without applying direct scientific concepts. Still concept-focused over character, though. Anyway, that’s how I would parse it, but everyone has a different perspective.

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