How to Build a Magical World

At Writers Digest, Steven Harper Piziks talks about how to write paranormal/fantasy novels. One big difference between fantasy and other kinds of fiction obviously boils down to the magical elements. Piziks says:

“The need to explain the magic [is] the biggest challenge, really. It’s so easy to use big expository lumps, but that bores the reader. “

I can definitely see this as one of the hardest parts of fantasy writing. You want to make sure your reader understands what makes this world/these characters magical, but you don’t want to bore them with an infodump. If your character is living in a magical world, wouldn’t he/she not really call attention to a lot of the magical elements? It would be like a character in a contemporary novel explaining in length what a television is or how a garage door opener works. (Although I bet Arthur Weasley would find that pretty fascinating.)

I think the introduction of these elements works best when they’re introduced gradually and naturally. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss doesn’t really talk about what led to the collapse of the US and the rise of Panem. She wouldn’t because she doesn’t need to think about it. But we find out what Panem is and how classes are structured because she has to worry about who’s in charge and where her family will get food. In The Golden Compass, we meet daemons long before we find out what exactly they are, and can slowly pick up on the subtle differences between the real Oxford and Lyra’s Oxford.

Being able to balance necessary information with compelling forward momentum is enormously difficult, and I salute any writer who can do that well. What are your suggestions for creating compelling magical worlds without all the exposition?

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