New website is under construction.

Feb 6, 2012

Blunders to Avoid Designing Magic Training

by Rayne Hall

To become a mighty mage, your character needs training.  Mere talent isn’t enough.

Like in any other field, success  in magic comes from a combination of natural gift, determination,  study, and practice. It's similar to writing: you can have the greatest natural literary gift in the world, but unless you learn the craft and actually practice writing, you won't achieve your potential.

Give your magician character a backstory which includes training, or send him (I'll use the male pronoun for this article, but everything I say applies to either gender) to magical school.


1. School of Magic

Your novel may have a school of magic for children, a college of magic, a mage academy, or even a university offering postgraduate degrees in comparative magic and magical anthropology. Students sign up for full-time study, most likely on a tuition-and-board basis. If the novel is set in the modern western world, the classes may meet the requirements of the national curriculum in addition to providing magical training. In ancient Egypt, most magicians were priests, and magician-priests were brought up from a young age at the temple.

Depending on the type of school and level of education, a magic school is likely to teach subjects of relevance to magicians: for example sciences (especially botany and chemistry), medicine (conventional, alternative or complementary),  music (especially chanting and drumming), physical education (especially dancing), philosophy and ethics (especially the ethics of magic spells), ancient languages (e.g. Latin, Aramaic, Sanskrit),  religion (especially if it's a temple school), astronomy, astrology, mythology, psychology, divination, and more. A modern school may also have compulsory classes in health and safety.

2. Apprenticeship

A master magician takes one or several apprentices. The apprenticeship is similar to that of other trades, bound by similar rules. Typically, the master signs a contract with the youngster's parent, which indentures the apprentice for several years, and in return, the master teaches his craft. There may be payment involved; either the parent paying the master or the master paying the apprentice. The apprentices may live in the master's house, and practice under his instruction. Typically, they may be put to hard work, including non-magical chores such as scrubbing floors.  This form of magical training has been prevalent in many cultures and periods, especially for shamans.

3. Self-study

A magician can plausibly teach herself, learning from observation, trial and error.  This suits reclusive, organised, studious types who have a high education, a lot of self-discipline and intense curiosity. She needs access to learning materials, as well as the money and leisure to devote herself to the study. Self-taught magicians are plausible among the educated wealthy upper classes in the western world from the Renaissance onwards.   Sometimes, a magician has initially served an apprenticeship and outgrown her master (or fallen out with him), and is pursuing further studies on her own.

4. Part-Time Study

Although it takes several years of full-time training to become a professional magician, it's also possible to practice magic as a hobby, and to devote only a few hours every week to training. The part-time path is particularly plausible in the modern world, where many adults take up magic while earning their bread from a day-job. Many organisations offer part-time classes: community colleges, Pagan religious groups, New Age societies. Classes may be in classroom environments, by correspondence, or online. In about a year, the student can achieve enough skill to work a little magic, and this may be all a hobbyist wants. If she wishes to go further, then decades of part-time study can make her a magician of significant power.

5. Informal Learning

Non-professional magicians may pass on their skills informally, especially among family members. For example, a mother may teach her daughter a few things she picked up from her own mother, and make the little girl practice it until she gets it right. The range of applications is limited, typically involving skills of practical everyday use, such as how to make the cow give more milk and how to make the potatoes boil faster.  This type of magic is often called 'folk magic'. It won't equip the student to battle the sorcerous evil overlord and save the world.


Schools, universities and masters are choosy about the students and apprentices they take. Before a candidate is accepted for training, there will be an interview and an aptitude test. Typically, the teacher will assess some or all of the following:
When testing future apprentices, magicians may check for one or all of the following:

- ability to concentrate
- ability to follow instructions
- creativity and imagination
- ability to visualise
- ability to memorise
- motivation (Why does this person want to learn magic? A candidate who replies 'To hurt my enemies', 'To get rich quick', 'To seduce chicks' or  'It sounds fun, much better than doing real work' will be rejected)
- moral integrity
- obedience (especially in traditional-style indentured apprenticeships)
- ability to control thoughts
- ability think and act under pressure
- patience
- health
- sensory awareness
- certain features traditionally attributed to magicians of that form of magic (e.g. Nepalese shamans may look for a child who instinctively climbs trees)
- natural affinity for magic
- existing skills in related fields (e.g. clairvoyance, astrology)
- faith and piety (especially for religious magic, e.g. training in temple schools)
In addition to the candidates character and aptitude, other  factors may play a role, such as money, politics and connections. A college may give preference to the offspring of distinguished alumni, and a master may take on the apprentice whose parents pay most.


Magic requires a lot of practice, which students may find tedious.  Every spell needs to be drilled and repeated, perhaps hundreds of times. There'll be a lot of visualising exercises, sitting still for an hour while keeping an imagined image of a yellow brick or a red flame in the mind's eye. Some forms of magic involve a lot of rote learning and recitations, others require the steady stirring of simmering potions at just the right rhythm all night long. The average teenager will probably hate much of it.


Harry Potter by JK Rowling. The children attend a specialist school,
Hogwarts, for several years, studying several forms of magic and related subjects.  The students at Hogwarts learn theory, but they also practice a lot, and some scenes show them practising until they get it right.  Several years of study is appropriate.

Mage Heart by Jane Routley. A historical fantasy novel, a story about a young girl who grows into her powers as a magician at the same time as she grows into womanhood. The heroine started her magical training as apprentice to her adoptive father, a magician. Then she enrolled in a College of Magic for several years of formal classes. The novel is set during her final year at college when she takes on a magic job to boost her finances.

Krabat by Otfried Preussler. A powerful YA dark fantasy novel, huge bestseller in Germany, winner of several literature prizes. It's little known in the English-speaking world, although it has been translated and published variously as Krabat and as The Satanic Mill. A boy starts an apprenticeship as a miller, and is delighted to discover that he'll learn magic at the same time. The dual apprenticeship - miller and magician - takes several years. Several apprentices and journeymen work at the mill. Gradually, the boy realises that the magic he delights in is evil.

With A Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans. An enjoyable, light-hearted, humorous heroic fantasy. It plays with the idea 'What happens if an apprenticeship doesn't work out?' An apprentice magician is left stranded when his master dies. The master had used the apprentice for mundane tasks, always promising to teach him real magic, but never teaching any. The boy is too old to apprentice himself to a new trade, and he can't find another master willing to take him on.  The only spell he knows is how to start a fire. Now he must make his way in the world with no other skill but arson.

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. A beautifully written, witty YA fantasy, highly enjoyable for adults as well. The government controls use of magic and arranges for talented children to be adopted by professional, government-approved , magicians. An unusually talented precocious boy is gets apprenticed to an not-very-good magician. While pretending to learn at the slow pace set by his master, he secretly teaches himself more advanced stuff, soon overreaching himself by the summoning a powerful demon. This is a combination of 'apprenticeship' and 'self-study'.


* The protagonist discovers that she has magical talent, and this makes her a powerful magician... as if magic didn't require study.  That's the equivalent of getting a black belt in karate without any training, purely on the basis of natural talent. 

* The protagonist discovers an ancient book of magical which instantly enables him to work spells... as if magic didn't require practice. That's the equivalent of someone finding a book on Russian grammar and instantly speaking fluent Russian.

* A master mage or an old witch invites a child to spend an afternoon with her, and in this time she teaches the kid everything she knows... as if a lifetime of learning could be crammed into a few hours. That's the equivalent of  becoming a brain surgeon by spending an afternoon with a brain surgeon.

* * * 

Rayne Hall teaches an online workshop 'Writing about Magic and Magicians'. Create believable magicians (good and evil), fictional spells which work, and plot complications when the magic goes wrong. Learn about high and low magic, witches and wizards, circle-casting and power-raising, initiation and training, tools and costumes, science and religion, conflicts and secrecy, love spells and sex magic, and apply them to your novel. This is a 4-week class with 12 lessons and practical assignments. If you wish, you may submit a scene for critique at the end of the workshop.
The next date for this workshop is:
2012: Lowcountry RWA

Rayne's workshops include 'Writing Fight Scenes' and 'Writing Scary Scenes'. For an up-to-date schedule go to

Rayne has had more than twenty books published under different pen names, with several publishing houses and in several languages. Her latest novel, Storm Dancer, is a dark-heroic fantasy  about magic and demons. 

Purple wizard: Artwork by Kuoke, copyright Rayne Hall
Amrut/Egyptian magician: Artwork by Kuoke, copyright Rayne Hall
Beltane/Wiccan witch: Artwork by Leah Skerry, copyright Rayne Hall

 * * *

And don't forget!

If you'd like to receive a free copy of Wing, please sign up for my newsletter. When you sign up, be sure to tell me what ebook format you prefer.

No comments: