As a magic-builder and writer, you will get asked many questions about your story, your world, and your magic system. There is one question in particular that I’m sure you’ve already been asked many times, and it is vital that you have a good answer prepared.
The Question: How common is magic in your world?
To properly answer this question, you need to analyze one of the fundamental qualities all magic systems possess. These fundamental qualities are called magic system variables, and in this case, we are most interested in the variable of Prevalence (or rarity). So let’s stop worrying about the looming question for a second and take a closer look at the prevalence of magic and what it means for your system.
In this post, we’ll go over what prevalence is, look at its detailed components, examine the prevalence of magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how prevalence can impact your story, and how to change it.
What Does the Prevalence of Magic Mean?
Prevalence determines how many forms of magic exist in your world, the percentage of magic-users among the population, where it can be found around the globe, and how likely people are to encounter it on a day-to-day basis. Like most of the magic system variables, the prevalence of magic exists on a scale.
At one end, the magic-users and magical effects are limited to a few rare cases. Take The Nightmare on Elm Street, for example. The story of Freddy Krueger and his return from beyond the grave to hunt children in their dreams is exceedingly rare (low prevalence). On the opposite end of the scale, the magic is commonplace and can be found anywhere and everywhere in the world. Magic in The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher is extremely common (low rarity / high prevalence) because every Aleran has access to furycrafting. Well… almost every Aleran, but you get the point.
If a magic system sits in the middle of the spectrum, it should be common in the world but still isn’t everywhere or available to everyone. The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory is an excellent example of this, where a few select mages rule over the primary city of man. There are a variety of forms of magic-users and magical creatures in the world, but your characters aren’t guaranteed to meet one.
To set this variable for your magic system, you need to understand how prevalent or commonplace it is within the setting. What percentage of the population has magical powers? Is magic something performed and witnessed every day or only once in a hundred lifetimes? Do magic-users exist everywhere throughout the setting or do certain areas contain more than others? These questions are all designed to identify the prevalence of your magic.
But I’m not happy leaving you with a couple of open-ended questions. So, I did what I do best; I broke it down into smaller pieces.
The Five Forms of Prevalence
The prevalence of magic can be broken down into five forms: the prevalence of raw magic, the prevalence of magic users, the prevalence of various power levels, the prevalence of specific abilities and effects, and the prevalence of use. Each form builds on the previous one, taking a closer look at the specifics of your system.
Prevalence of Raw Magic
This form focuses on the overall presence of magical abilities and magical energies throughout the setting. Your setting may have lines of power that wind across all reality. Or maybe magic only exists around a specific location or phenomenon. Magical energies may swirl through the air, condensing into reality-warping clouds. It might be an anomaly that exists solely within the magic-users themselves and nowhere else in the universe.
The Prevalence of Magic-Users
Here we look specifically at sentient creatures, plants, and people capable of producing magical effects. Magic may be limited to a specific demographic of the population, lie dormant within every person just waiting to be used, or even assigned entirely at random. Inspect the various populations within your setting and decide how uniform and common magic is within those populations.
Once you know how your magic-users are distributed, you can inspect the prevalence and distribution of magical strength across the users.
Prevalence of Power Levels
Maybe every user has the same level of magical strength and conflicts are determined by skill, creativity, and cunning. Conversely, magic-users may vary wildly in the strength of the magical effects they produce and characters have to be careful to stay within their weight class. It could be that most people are mostly equal with a few outliers that skew the system. The decision is yours.
Prevalence of Effects
Then there’s the prevalence of specific abilities and effects. You can make everything completely uniform, giving every magic-user an identical set of abilities. Or maybe some abilities are commonplace, while others only appear once a generation or so.
This brings you to the final form of this variable.
Prevalence of Magic Use
This portion determines the likelihood of a character using or encountering the magic on a day-to-day basis. There are an endless variety of factors that influence this. Magic may be used to handle mundane tasking, entire careers might revolve around expertise in a specific application of magic, or the magic may simply be too powerful to unleash on a whim. Cultural taboos or personal phobias are just as likely to influence this aspect as system-wide rules and limitations.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Most of the Marvel movies take place on earth in the modern-day as we know it. Given the nature of our world, it is safe to say that there is very little, if any, raw magic floating around us. Of course, there are extraordinary beings that possess various forms of magic. Some of these beings are human and some are not. Either way, such beings are a rare occurrence (one or two in a billion).
Prevalence of Raw Magic
There is almost no raw magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The closest thing to this would be the Infinity Stones. Beyond that, magical energies and effects are seldom drifting around in the world without the direction of a magic-user.
Prevalence of Magic-Users:
This is also quite low in the marvel universe, with the extraordinary beings we see being quite rare indeed. That is one of the major draws of the universe and provides good reasons to fixate on specific characters.
Prevalence of Power Levels: Most of the heroes and villains are roughly on the same level of strength and/or ability. We see this in the first Avengers movie when Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America slug it out in the forest and again in Civil War.
Prevalence of Effects: The abilities and weaknesses of the various heroes and villains can vary a great deal. There are, however, a few abilities/traits common to all magic-users in this universe (and yes, Iron Man’s tech counts as magic). For one, every character seems to have access to superhuman strength and endurance to one degree or another.
Prevalence of Magic Use: While the number of magic-users is quite low, they are frequently seen out in the world, fighting crime, taking down dictators, or stopping large-scale destruction. Some people in the world will witness the magic every day (watching Iron Man fly overhead and such) but some may only ever hear about it on the news.
This leads to a system with an overall prevalence setting of medium-low.
How it Impacts Your Story
More than anything, this variable affects how different characters will react when encountering the magic.
If it is something they see every day, they might ignore it completely. On the other hand, if they’ve never seen the magic before, their response is likely to contain more fear and wonder.
Then again, a character may be intimately familiar with the power they are witnessing and have it scare them to death. The display may seem simple enough, but they have enough experience to see how dangerous it can become.
With the prevalence of magic, it’s all about actions and reactions. Be sure to examine what reactions the characters have when using or witnessing the use of magic and how this guides their own actions in the future.
How to Change the Variable
There are a number of ways to change or set the prevalence of magic in your world.
It could be that, in a previous age, all magic-users were hunted down and put to death. Now only a few people in a generation have the right mix of genetics to access the ancient powers. You could limit the magic to a specific gender, age group, nationality, or even hair color. In the end, it’s just a matter of how you explain it.
That said, one easy way to increase the prevalence of a magic system is to make it function like technology. The fact that it is understood enough to mass-produce, or at the least consistently reproduce, will lead to greater availability of the magic. The more it is available it is, the more likely people are to encounter it in their day-to-day lives.
And that’s the basics you need to know to understand and manage the prevalence of magic in your world and story.
That’s All for Now
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Stay safe, stay sane, and stay aweseom. Rowenson out.