You know the score by now. If not, feel free to acquaint yourself with this series.
The Ministry. The Counsel. The Tower. The Order. The Chosen. The Circle.
For fantasy and science Fiction fans, such labels conjure images of wizened robed figures studying dusty tomes in exotic halls of arcane learning. How many titles can you recall in the next minute that use one or more of those labels for associations of magic-users? I got nine (I’ll throw my answers at the end and check them, for the curious). Would you be surprised to know I made that list at random, without any particular work in mind? Humans are social creatures. We tend to group around common ideology, interests, and, yes, even simple proximity. There is a natural instinct in our writing, then, to imagine how the special few with magic would relate to one another. Let’s explore some common options, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they say about your story.
First, a common foundation: For the purposes of this article, a Magical Guild is any formal association between persons with supernatural powers. Ready? I am.
You know I love throwing this curveball. Our first guild is the no-guild option. Is that cheating? Maybe, but it is interesting. Choosing to have no association between mages in your setting sends a specific message, and supports telling certain stories over others. To lack all organization, magic is probably either rare or illegal. If it is illegal, then I would argue that it stretches suspension of disbelief to assume that the oppressed will not organize themselves to fight back. Your story then becomes about how the scattered and harangued magicians unite to change their world. Guild formation becomes a goal.
Eschewing guilds is more sustainable if mages are few and far between. This dynamic raises different questions. How do these isolated mages deal with receiving their powers? How do they hide them from the world? How do they handle the temptation that comes with wielding more power than 99.9% of the people they meet? How do they deal with the loneliness of being so utterly ‘other’?
Here, I mean party in the political sense, not the fraternity/happy-birthday sense. A step up from no structure at all, our this proto-guild is more a philosophy than an organization. If magic-users are people (and regardless of their physiology, all stories are about ‘people’), no two will hold the same attitudes towards the source of their supernatural gifts or their incumbent responsibilities. Even so, humans have a tendency to grasp at shorthand labels that summarize our worldview; labels that identify us as part of a tribe.
What would this look like in a magical setting? What is the dividing line between your magical outlooks? Why does this line spark passion and conflict? Unlike a more structured guild, a party can have an agenda or a platform, but it cannot control. Beneath the umbrella of their basic worldview, what shades of understanding can you paint? How do the moderates and extremists interact? How does magic amplify the stakes on these common human concerns?
The Secret Society
Magic is too dangerous to be left unguided. Humans fear magic too much to be left unmonitored. Mortals are too shortsighted to be left untethered. Enter the magical secret society. Whether their primary purpose is to protect mages from the outside world, or use them to control it, your story’s illuminati are sure to move your setting.
The shadow-guild raises interesting questions. The need for secrets implies fear of discovery. What drives that fear in your setting? How does the guild hide from the world? How do members find one another? How do they win fledgling recruits’ trust (or, do they?)? How do they interact with the larger word? Are they isolationists, keeping mortals at arms length regardless of the problems magic could fix? Are they
terrorists freedom fighters at war with a world that hates what it doesn’t understand? Are they the true power behind every throne, the whisper in every leader’s ear?
The Other World
This is the most formal guild: a full-fledged magical government. This choice implies magic is widespread. How does a fully realized supernatural culture interact with the mortal world? Even as I pose that question, I catch the assumption that sets this choice apart.
Until now, each choice has explored how a magic sub-culture might exist in a non-magical world. It implies mortal dominance. If you choose to write in a setting with a magical government, that may just be the end of it: society is magic. The supernatural is natural. Now you’re into the tippyverse. How would everyday magic reshape the world? Would it supplement or supplant the technology we know today? Would it reach new heights, or languish as users take the everyday miracle for granted?
If, however, you choose to have a Magical Government in a mortal setting, how do those power dynamics interact? Are they at war? Do they basically get along, as with the Potterverse’s Ministry of Magic? Is the Other World a grand, swollen secret, straining against its bonds under its own weight? Perhaps peaceful coexistence is a charade. How does the mortal governments plan to counteract the threat of magic gone rogue?
As always, I hope this stirs your imagination and makes you think about how magic culture interacts with the non-magical world in your setting. Each of these questions has infinite possible answers. There are interesting stories out there waiting to be written. I hope you find the one that speaks to you.
Appendix: My 9 shoot-from-the-hip Magic Guilds In Pop Culture:
( Choices: The Ministry. The Counsel. The Tower. The Order. The Chosen. The Circle. )
1. Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic
2. The Lord of the Rings has a Tower, although we only ever see two wizards in it and hear about two others off-screen.
3. The Order is both a Netflix show, and
4. … an unrelated video game.
5. I thought the Witcher franchise had both a Circle of Druids and…
6. … a Tower of wizards, but I’m not ashamed to say I got this one wrong. They have a “Counsel of Sorcerers”.
7. A book on my wish list explicitly calls their mages The Chosen.
8. DnD/Pathfinder has a Circle of Druids. Why are Druids always in a Circle?
9. The Wheel of Time mages live in the White Tower. If there ever was a guildy guild, this is it.
Some of these are admittedly debatable, but that’s an honest picture of what came to me in a minute. Drop a comment with your list if you want to compare.
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