Casting 9 to 5: Magic as Profession

Valerie ValdesWelcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Valerie Valdes. Valerie teaches for The Brainery, which offers online writing workshops focusing on speculative fiction. Her latest work can be found in She Walks In Shadows, the first all-women Lovecraft anthology by Innsmouth Free Press. Valerie copy edits, moonlights as a muse and occasionally plays video games if her son and husband are distracted by Transformers. 

Some fantasy portrays mages and witches as mysterious practitioners of an ineffable art, occasionally taking amateurs under their wings to impart the secrets of the cosmos. THE BELGARIAD by David Eddings is one example, with Belgarath the Sorcerer and his daughter Polgara teaching their young protege Garion the power of the Will and the Word. In other stories, though, the magic system is explained thoroughly enough to allow magic to evolve into a profession, with all the baggage that entails. Welcome to Hogwarts, collect your robe and wand, and watch out because the Ministry of Magic is watching. So what happens when magic moves from isolated towers and forest huts into colleges and guild halls–or even to stage and screen? And how can you deal with those questions in your own fiction?

Once you start looking into what makes a profession, you get a dry-sounding list of milestones:

  1. There’s enough work involved that someone can do it full-time.
  2. Somebody puts together formal qualifications and standards to separate the fakers from the Real Wizards and Mages, no seriously, check out this business card.
  3. Along with standards come training, testing, rules and regulations governing who can do what, and what happens when they fall on their faces or blow something up.

Depending on where and when your story is set in its own world history, the practice of magic may be closer to the beginning of this evolutionary process, with people just starting to make a living at it and arguing about what makes someone a Fake Wizard Girl. Or it might be all the way at the end, with firmly established unions or guilds, full-fledged magical universities awarding degrees, perhaps even strict governmental control over the process of certification and licensing. It’s up to you to decide what works best for the story you want to tell.

How it all comes together is a reflection of the society and culture of your world’s inhabitants.  This, in turn, is shaped by the nature of magic itself. For example, if you go with a more patriarchal system, there would likely be barriers to entry for women interested in learning to use magic professionally–a magical glass ceiling, say. Wizardry in Terry Pratchett’s DISCWORLD novels is a satirical example of this, with the eighth son of an eighth son automatically being a wizard, and unpleasant blowback occurring when a woman happens to take on that associated power. If magic is considered a feminine art in your world, however, a man trying to practice it would be the one to face ridicule or scorn, whether mild or severe; see Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series for a particularly extreme example of how that might unfold. If magic is hereditary, you might want to make nepotism prevalent, with guilds and apprenticeships instead of colleges for study. Or your colleges might be elite institutions that form their own rivalries, perhaps based on which magical families patronize them. The Triwizard Tournament in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example, brings together students of different academies to compete against each other for a hefty prize, and everyone is more than happy to cheer on their own and rag on the rest.

If magic is generally low-powered or common–if anyone can do it given the right tools and those tools aren’t themselves hard to find–you could have it be taught in school much as science is today, with professionals engaging in the most complex and experimental forms after years of post-secondary education. There might also be specialization in terms of types of magic, leading to discrete professions like alchemy, or illusion, or enchantment. A hierarchy could develop, with certain kinds of magic perceived as more or less valuable than others, whether because of their level of difficulty or their usefulness to the general populace. How much does a wizard get paid, and does it vary from person to person, from spell to spell? Pop quiz: who’s more popular and better paid, a clerk at the Ministry of Magic, or a Quidditch player? A mere Potions professor, or a celebrity author of books about encounters with dark creatures? You get to decide, because it’s your world.

Since training is a vital part of magic as a profession, you’ll want to consider the nature of that training in your story’s world. As noted, this can be as mundane as magic being integrated into a typical public school curriculum, or it can be more like an elite private school with entrance exams and a hefty tuition–or both might coexist if your world is big and varied enough. Do your colleges have adjunct professors, overworked and underpaid, or are the instructors highly esteemed and compensated accordingly? Do masters and mistresses get to pick their own apprentices, or are they assigned by guilds or unions based on complicated or secret criteria? And who, in the end, is paying the bill for everything, including spell components, repairs or medical care in the case of accidents, even room and board if applicable? Scholarships? Government aid? Student loans? Is magic more like science, or more like art, and how does that affect the way it’s taught? How much of its success is based on talent, how much on skill?
She Walks in Shadows
Regulations, along with ethics, tend to be a major part of formalizing a trade as a profession. Professions tend to self-regulate at first, but as the government becomes more bureaucratic  and starts poking its nose into more places, you may want to invent statutory bodies to do that work. Of course, with great power comes great lawyers. Someone has to deal with the abuse of magic and power, right? You might even have a secondary system of auditors or inspectors to ensure compliance. In other words, magic in your world might be something like law, or medicine, or architecture, with all the liability issues that entails. Do mages need malpractice insurance? What ethics are associated with the practice? Like doctors, do wizards swear an oath to help those in need? Or are they more like accountants, who are expected to be extremely accurate? Or more like artists, with different styles and no particular requirements beyond audience satisfaction? The more power they wield, the more likely their code of ethics will be strict and strong, because the consequences of violating that code are more serious.

And don’t neglect the darker side of the professional world. The stricter the rules, for example, the more likely you are to have people taking advantage of loopholes for their own selfish ends, or operating outside the system for any number of noble or naughty reasons. If you need work experience to get a job as a mage, you might end up as an intern somewhere, working your butt off for little to no money or recognition in the hopes that someday you’ll make it. Maybe licenses to practice magic are prohibitively expensive, so poor people do it on the sly and the government cracks down on them when they’re found out. Maybe corporations have taken over and mages have to work for The Man to get by, while sole practitioners struggle to compete. Gray markets, black markets, underground economies, price-fixing scandals, monopolies… Take into account the ways that control of goods and services will naturally lead to people trying to slip the leash when it’s unjust, or even merely inconvenient. Or perhaps they try to be the ones holding the leash in the first place.

Sometimes, the nature of your story’s world naturally precludes the evolution of magic into a profession. In The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, for example, magic is hereditary and predominantly confined to the royal family, appearing in strange places because of the occasional unsanctioned amorous liaison. When magic is rare like that, it’s less likely to become a profession simply because the pool of teachers and students will be much smaller. And if magic is hazardous, unstable, those born with it may be forcibly sequestered for safety reasons, and only allowed to act under strict supervision in very specific circumstances. The DRAGON AGE series of games puts their mages in controlled environments for this reason, as any mage has the potential to be taken over by an evil demon, who will almost invariably wreak havoc until killed. The culture itself may also view magic with suspicion or straight-up hatred for whatever reason–religious stigma, some negative historical or political background, even a particular event that shifted public opinion rapidly and forcefully. Professions are generally considered more prestigious than other forms of employment, so if magic is low-powered and common then it might be industrialized, made in factories, packaged and sold in stores instead of hand-made by skilled artisans.

While this may all feel mundane, it’s worth giving thought to the foundations and framework of a system where magic is treated like other professions. Even if none of it goes into your story explicitly, knowing some of the rules gives you a deep well of information that you can draw on when forming your characters and your plot, which in turn enriches the setting, making it feel more organic and less contrived.

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. There are standards to be met, after all.

Readers, what is your favorite magical system you’ve encountered in fiction? One lucky commenter will receive a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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8 comments

  1. The Demon Cycle series is one of my favorites with how the wards are used for their magic and they have to be placed perfectly to work

  2. Editor’s note: We had a glitch database glitch yesterday and had to restore a backup. We lost the comments, but have a screenshot:
    Valdes Comments

  3. Since the DB are my post, I don’t feel bad about reposting (with better editing).

    The magic from Max Gladstone’s Craft sequence. There are two forms – divine and necromantic (aka the Craft). And the practitioners went to war and nearly wrecked the world.

    Divine magic is powered by sacrifice – from prayer, to blood and pain, to human sacrifice. This last bit is something the Craftsmen tend to object to vigorously. Usually with lightning and ice. Priesthood can run in families, but in Four Parts Dead there is a priesthood with apprenticeships, career paths and a fairly bureaucratic process. Full Fathom Five has one that resembles a corporation. Even though the priests and gods lost the war, and don’t have the influence they one had, they persist and have some firm of power.

    The necromantic form of magic is powered by starlight and souls. And portions of soulstuff (replenished over time) is a currency where they hold sway. And a person can spend themselves into debt and zombie-dom. The Craft is a lot like law and banking, with the Craftsmen organising themselves into firms (some elite, some not and some downright shady). There are also elite schools of the Craft (formed during that works damaging war) and they are important places of research. Given its nature, the Craft places much importance on agreements and contacts. The arbitration and negotion of those contracts is where the Craftsmen earn their keep. Another trait of the Craft is that it slowly eats away at your physical humanity. Thus the oldest craftsmen are liches, and still very human.

    So, I like it. I like the trimmings. And I’ve no doubt there are all of the things Valerie describes above included in it. It’s made me think about magic more than any other series of books I’ve read in a while.

    One more magic system that is also a lot of fun is Walter Jon Williams Metropolitan series where the source of energy is buildings and is quite a resource – one worth fighting and killing over. It’s also a setting where magic is part of everything! Well worth reading.

  4. I love the magic of the Libromancer series by Jim C. Hines. What reader of fantasy hasn’t dreamed of being able to bring parts of their favorite stories into their own life by simply reaching into the book!

  5. You mentioned magic being low-powered or common in some works and I think the best example is in The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede. It isn’t that everyone has it but it is prevalent enough that it is taught in regular schools. Really good series there. I haven’t checked recently to see if she’s written another one.

  6. I think Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems are really cool. I love the Mistborn books, especially.

  7. Melanie Goldmund /

    I’m quite fascinated by the magic system of D. B. Jackson’s Thieftaker books. Ethan Kaille has to have something to help him conjure, such as water, wood, or even grass, depending on the spell and the strength of it, but most often, he needs blood, usually his own. He’s always cutting his forearms or biting into the inside of his cheek, but if he’s tied up and gagged and can’t make himself bleed, then he’s significantly disadvantaged.

  8. Vince, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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