Spoilers for season 1 of The Magicians (and if you know what happens later in the books…you know where this is headed).

The idea that certain people can tap into an incredible amount of power but at an incredible cost is interesting story material. You can play with motivations. What circumstances would push a person to take on that much power, knowing they will probably die?

TV Tropes calls it the Deadly Upgrade. In The Magicians, a deadly upgrade results in a niffin, a malicious spirit of magic.

Do you know what a niffin is? It’s when too much runs through you. It consumes you. Only the magic is left. But you’re not you anymore, you’re lost.

– 1×03 “Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting”

What if most magicians have something like a gag reflex when they get up to high levels of power? Some kind of hard-wired reaction that makes them back down so that they don’t turn into niffins. What if certain magicians can ignore that reflex and keep using a dangerous amount of power, even though it’s harmful to them?



One of my favorite things about fantasy stories is when they make up their own rules for how their world works and then stick to those rules.

Here’s a list of what magic is and what it isn’t, according to characters in season 1 of SyFy’s The Magicians.

“There’s so such thing as safe magic. Might as well take a risk.” (1×01 – Unauthorized Magic)

“Funny little irony they don’t tell you. Magic doesn’t come from talent. It comes from pain.” (Eliot, 1×02 – Source of Magic)

“Being a magician has always been about, in part, accruing power. Power over yourself, the elements, the future. But power, as you all know, does not come cheaply.” (Dean Fogg, 1×03 – Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting)

“Magic doesn’t solve problems. It magnifies them.” (Conversation between Quentin and Dean Fogg, 1×04 – The World in the Walls)

Quentin: What is the point of magic if we can’t fix real problems?
Dean Fogg: We can fix some things. So we fix what we can. (1×05 – Mendings, Major and Minor)

“A great magician is magic.” (Mayakovsky, 1×07 – The Mayakovsky Circumstance)

“What we call magic is a set of tools left over from Creation. […] The tools were left for us to find.” (Richard, 1×08 – The Strangled Heart)

“Magic is science. Hard to crack on your own but far from impossible if you have the natural bend.” (Kira, 1×09 – The Writing Room)

Quentin: Okay, what is magic actually for?
Julia: For fixing things, dummy. (1×12 – Thirty-Nine Graves)

Hero, Sidekick, Villain

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a classic trio of characters with his Sherlock stories: hero, sidekick, and villain. For example: Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Moriarty.

I took a look at other stories to see how closely they fit Conan Doyle’s setup. These aren’t in any particular order and this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list — just off the top of my head.

Story Hero Sidekick Villain
Sherlock Sherlock Dr. John Watson Moriarty
Harry Potter Harry Ron, Hermione Voldemort
Merlin (v1) Merlin Arthur Morgana
Merlin (v2) Arthur Merlin Mordred
Fringe Peter/Olivia Walter, Astrid Walternate
Superman Superman Jimmy Olsen Lex Luthor
Batman Batman Robin The Joker
Doctor Who The Doctor [companion] The Master
Teen Wolf Scott McCall [his pack] [multiple]
Haven Audrey Nathan, Duke the Troubles
Chuck Chuck, Sarah Casey [multiple]
Back to the Future Marty Doc Brown Biff
Dresden Files Harry Murphy, [multiple] [multiple]
Roswell Max [his friends] FBI
Matilda Matilda (none) her parents, Trunchbull
The Sandlot Benny Smalls the Beast
Star Wars (original triology) Luke Han, Leia Darth Vader

In books, movies, and TV shows, we use different words to describe people with magic. Sometimes the words specify gender or if the person uses magic for good or evil. But the terms and their meanings are not consistent across different stories and fantasy worlds. I wanted to compare the dictionary definitions of witch, wizard, sorcerer/sorceress, and warlock to how they are used in a few fantasy worlds that I am familiar with.

Most common dictionary definitions:
witch – A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
wizard – One who practices magic; a sorcerer or magician.
sorcerer – One who practices sorcery; a wizard.
sorceress – A woman who practices sorcery.
sorcery – Use of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits; witchcraft.
warlock – A male witch, sorcerer, wizard, or demon.

How these terms are used in fiction


In Merlin, the dragon Kilgharrah calls Merlin “young warlock.” Warlocks can sometimes be associated with dark power (see “demon” in the definition above), but the dragon never seems to think that Merlin might use his power for evil purposes. In Merlin’s world, then, “warlock” is synonymous with wizard or sorcerer (x). The prophecies call Merlin a “sorcerer,” and that is the general term used in the series for anyone who practices magic.

The Dresden Files

“Wizard” refers to a man or a woman with a substantial amount of magical talent. Sometimes “dark wizard” will be used for someone who uses magic for evil purposes. “Warlock” is the term for anyone who breaks any of the Seven Laws of Magic (x).

Harry Potter

“Witch” refers to a female and “wizard” refers to a male. In the Harry Potter series, “witch” and “wizard” do not carry with them a certain expectation of power or experience. Twelve year-olds studying at Hogwarts are witches and wizards and adults who work for the Ministry of Magic are witches and wizards too. “Warlock” usually denotes a person with high skill or achievement (x).

A Modern Witch

In this novel by Debora Geary, “Witch” refers to a male or female with any level of talent. No mention of any other terms for people with magical talent.

I like that writers use already-existing words for characters with magical talent, but at the same time, it can be confusing that these words do not have universal meanings. There’s another way of looking at this though: molding these terms to their specific worlds means that writers can form their own structures for how magical talent is defined in their stories.