This is how fantasy allows us to talk about how we feel about our reality through the power of magical symbolism.
Fantasy is a genre that allows us to escape our dull reality. It's a genre that spans period pieces to the modern world, allowing us to explore what once was and what could exist just beyond the veil of reality. It’s exciting to watch fantasy worlds play out on screen, but writing fantasy is a whole other beast to conquer.
One element is consistent in every fantasy film and TV show—the use of magic.
The role of magic in fantasy is often not discussed, yet it is what brings the stories' themes to the surface in a way that many contemporary stories cannot do. That is the edge that fantasy has over every other genre.
So what makes magic so special? The Closer Look examines some of the most popular fantasy films and discovers how you can write magic to effectively teach the characters and audience a lesson through a universal, archetypal truth.
Let’s break down what makes magic work in storytelling, and how you can use magic to sharpen your fantasy screenplay.
The Ideas of Myths and Magic
You’ve heard the Greek myth about King Midas before. In the myth, King Midas is obsessed with a life of decadence and material wealth. One day, the Greek God Dionysus granted Midas a wish, and Midas asked for the ability to turn anything into gold by simply touching it. While the gift was enjoyable at first, Midas soon learned the consequences of his greed when he tried to eat a grape, but couldn’t because the food had turned into gold.
Crying in despair, his daughter came to comfort him. When Midas held her, she turned to gold. The myth ends in one of two ways: Midas either died from starvation or he voices true repentance for his wish, persuading Dionysus to retract the wish.
In this story and most myths, magic is more than a plot device. Instead, it takes a symbolic meaning, representing the faults of the character’s nature. In the myth of King Midas, he must take accountability for his greed or choose to face the negative consequences of his actions.
This is essentially the premise for Spider-Man: No Way Home. Upset that everyone knows his identity, Peter (Tom Holland) goes to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with the request for a spell that makes everyone forget he is Spider-Man. As the spell is underway, Peter starts to cherry-pick and choose the terms of his wish, avoiding the negative consequences of the problem rather than taking accountability for it.
In the end, Peter’s failure to take responsibility and accountability forces him to make an even greater sacrifice.
Can you imagine an ending where everything gets resolved and Peter gets exactly what he wants without issue? No, because it wouldn’t satisfy this unconscious truth of accountability. Something fundamentally human in our subconscious understands that accountability is a challenging thing to accept, but avoiding it has far greater consequences.
This ending is only achievable because of Dr. Strange’s ability to erase everyone’s memory across the universe. Without the magic, Peter’s character arc and the final moment of the story wouldn’t have had such an emotionally impactful and cathartic effect on the audience.
Magic allows for these universal truths we all understand to rise to the surface, manifesting into a physical action that holds symbolic meaning.
The Symbolic Embodiment of These Universal Truths
Stories do need exciting plots and entertaining characters. But the story can be elevated by the truths explored that end up saying something insightful to the audience.
Deep down, we want stories that have a deep meaning, revealing something fundamentally truthful about the human experience. Myths do this by speaking to a human desire and exploring the consequences of actions.
One of the best fantasy films to examine is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the final fight sequence, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is the only one brave enough to face off with the basilisk, while everyone else is too fearful of being petrified by the large snake. Once Harry faces off with the basilisk, Fawkes, the phoenix, uses its claws to gouge out the eyes of the snake and save Harry from being petrified.
This scene uses magic to convey the truth of our response to fear. The basilisk is a symbolic embodiment of fear itself, and the character's response to the basilisk is either to run away, be petrified, or fight.
Harry deciding to be brave has consequences, just as the characters who do nothing face the consequences of the monster. While the phoenix’s appearance feels like plot convenience, it does take away the power of the monster and leaves the audience satisfied that Harry is being rewarded for his bravery.
There is another truth in this sequence as well. Harry defeats the basilisk but is poisoned by the tooth of the creature. The phoenix, a symbol of rebirth, then heals Harry’s wound. This moment captures the truth that when people directly confront their fears head-on, they can get hurt. But the hurt is temporary and will allow the character to experience a metaphorical rebirth from the ashes of their former self.
It seems simple, right? But writing something that speaks to a universal known truth that is ingrained into our collective unconscious is difficult—that is, if you are not writing a fantasy story.
Magic can exaggerate the truth, bringing abstract ideas like fear, hate, obsession, and power into a physical being. Fantasy allows you to write a story that detaches from reality enough to mold these truths to a perfect symbolic representation and provide commentary on those ideas.
Your symbol could be a powerful Ring, a giant snake, an enchanted sword, or a throne made of iron. Whatever your symbol is, it will reveal something about the character that interacts with it, providing laser-focused, insightful commentary on the ideas surrounding the fantastical object as well as perspective.
Magic can do so much more for your story. The trick is to not think too hard about writing an all-encompassing symbol and forcing the world to revolve around it. The story will come naturally to you once you’ve found your symbol. Moments that might seem like plot conveniences will pay off in the end, satisfying your audience.
Don’t be afraid to use magic to transform your world. Make the magic mean something more than its physical function in the story’s world. Your story will have a lot more to say about our collective truths without you having to try.
What are some of your favorite magical symbols in film and TV? Let us know why in the comments below!