The common misconception is that magic operates in a single linear direction -which of course it doesn't. This is the primary difference between the magic in fiction and the magic employed by genuine magical practitioners. In fiction magic brings about an immediate, tangible and very specific result - in reality magic is far less predictable and unfortunately far less dramatically immediate. I always liken spell work to being similar to knocking down the first domino in the domino rally. As a witch I have influence and power over the first domino and I have the ability to set the magic in motion. I also have a pretty good idea of what I want the end outcome to be. However the process by which the magic actualises itself may go through many stages and most of these steps I will have little direct influence over. To use the domino analogy - I've given the magic a shove but then it is down to the magic itself to bring about the intended end effect.
You will often hear witches speak of the Web of Wyrd which very simply put is the idea that everything in our lives is linked by interlacing threads of energy. Magic is manipulating energy to influence the movement of the threads and as a consequence to bring about changes in the world.
Successful use of magic is predominantly achieved through will. Witches argue as to the role intention plays in magic but all would agree that to varying degrees intention is a key element of magic. To relate this back to energy transfer - magic is the ability to translate your will into energy and then to direct that energy for a specific purpose. Witches use different tools and consumables to achieve this end. Some of these are used to generate the mood - the right head space in which to form magic - and some are an integral part of the magic itself. When I sprinkle salt at my doorway to keep malign spirits at bay I am not readying myself for a spell the salt itself is performing the required action. So intention plays a major role but the herbs, oils, crystals and various other interesting substances employed have their own role to play as well. Magic is not as simple as saying "I want" and pointing...
The fact that magic is limited by natural law is also a key difference between reality and fiction. This isn't a statement absolute, there are individuals who do claim to be able to use magic to break natural law but generally speaking magic is limited by the constraints of the physical world. By this I mean magic cannot be used to defy gravity, alter time or defy logical possibility. I'm not excluding the fact that there are some very few and far between individuals who may possess rare powers that do break the laws of nature - think the yogis who have mastered levitation... but this isn't the practise of magic as the average witch/magical practitioner would know it. Magic is a practical skill not an esoteric personal power. Those who practise magic may well not have unique powers beyond the magic they utilise in the same way that an individual with the gift of telekinesis for example may not practise magic. Inherent talents and the practise of magic are often confused in the public conscious but in fact they are very different things indeed.
As to why magic is limited by natural law... There are a few theories. Some witches believe that power is limited by deity who do not want humans to have powers rivalling the Gods. Others believe that natural law is simply a more powerful force than magic and magic no matter how well wielded is unable to overcome it. Many witches believe that the purpose of a witch is to work in conjunction with her natural environment and that creating magic which breaks the laws of that environment would not be in keeping with the relationship between the witch and nature. All interesting theories. The answer from me of course is that I don't know. I do know that the magic I employ does not break natural law and sadly I have no more ability to float a pencil in the air than the next person.
It is important to observe that magic is more than the momentary casting of an individual spell. For the witch who works closely with magic it is woven into the fabric of her life. The simplest tasks can be infused with intent and purpose and the witch is constantly and steadily tweaking those threads of energy that surround the world around her. The practise of magic is not so much about learning spells but about learning how to incorporate the will of the witch into the world. Again - less immediate impact but consistent influence and results.
I find it frustrating that there is so little information as to the actual nature of magic readily accessible. When I answer Ask a Witch a Question I'm aware that I'm often the last resort for people who have already turned to more conventional methods of support and advice only to be told there is nothing that can be done. When I have to tell a young woman that I cannot take her lover's age back 20 years or tell a young lad that magic will not give him the sex change he so desperately wants I am saddened that there are witches/magical practitioners out there who have given the impression that all is possible with the practise of magic. I believe strongly that we should not sacrifice ethics in favour of ego. Magic cannot influence and help in everything and we need to be honest about this and not pretend we possess every power under the sun and moon. I for one am not prepared to give my readers false hope that magic can achieve any more than we know that it can. Yes magic is a powerful force and yes on many occasions we can use it to make our lives easier but it doesn't work in the way that books and films would have people believe it does.
Magic remains a practise that few understand and even fewer can explain with any confidence. It is a tangible force in its own right whether sceptics like it or not. But when viewing the role that magic can play - please be realistic - if witches could change time, gratify their every wish with immediate effect and manipulate natural law to the extent that some of you seem to think we can - don't you think we'd have taken over the world by now?