Magic’s Price

20 Oct

Or, On More Principles Tricks of Good Fantasy and How Authors Screw Up The Third Principle of Good Magic

Now, those of you in the know have probably noticed there was something missing in my previous post on balanced magic. That’s right, the most abused principle of good magic systems: The Principle of Appropriate Cost. Oh, and its corollary The Principle of Suitable Sacrifice.*

The most widely used excuse for poorly balanced magic systems is the “cost” of magic. Cost can be physical energy, physical backlash (as in Lackey’s brilliant cost of… headaches?**), life essence(whatever that is), actual years off of life, powered by nebulous energy which may or may not be renewable or unending, blood, human and animal sacrifice, deals with spirits or demons, and many others. After “limits”, cost is the most badly abused balancer in fantasy. Why? Because a lot of costs don’t really “cost” anything. Maybe, if the author is feeling really reasonable, cost can limit the duration or strength of magic, but it’s still transient. The mage is back after some bed rest and a good meal, ready to go at it again. Or they just snag the nearest ley-line.

Another form of abuse is one that violates my First Law of Delayed Gratification, which most simply translates to “the sooner, the better”. Sure, years off your life sounds bad, but it’s a long way into the future. For example, how many teenagers do you know who would sacrifice ten years of life in the future for the chance to fly or throw fireballs now? Or get whatever wish they want most met? How many adults like that do you know? Probably enough to understand my point. Just like a newly married couple handing over their first-born child. “That’s okay. We don’t want kids.” Right… Readers like costs now, or at least costs that they know about. Writers, don’t wait too long to bring on the pain. Or we will bring on the wall.

There are all sorts of great costs that magic could have, but authors afraid to really hurt their characters will not use them. Happily-ever-after is fine, but have them earn it. There’s no conflict in an obvious decision, authors. Characters should suffer, have regrets, feel guilty, make tough choices. And while we’re at it, no fake costs. No fair bringing a character back to life after they’ve sacrificed it to drive the magic. No, Ms. Lackey, not even once. Or as a ghost. Paid costs should stay paid–unless the magic is undone in return… and it matters that it is.

Another thing that is commonly ignored is external costs. That is, the cost to other people of the character using their magic. Call up an earth quake to trap the villains in a rockslide? What about the village a mile down the road? Is it still standing after? Magic nuke that destroys the enemy? What about the innocents caught in its path? Burn down the vineyard the enemy is hiding in? How is the owner going to pay his taxes? Everything has consequences, and those consequences have consequences. Drain this node and the one down the road, and how will the next village’s magic dam stop the flood? But now we’re leaking into logical effects. More on those later.

Summation: Make your costs cost—permanently.

*As in, headaches don’t make fire.  And sacrificing squirrels doesn’t defeat the Dark Lord.  Now, the hero(ine)’s Love Interest… that could do it.

**I love Lackey, really. Not the best fantasy I’ve ever read, sure, but I was using light sarcasm; I don’t bite.  And she gets it right, sometimes.  Lavan Firestorm, anyone?

Next post: On Setting Limits and Why Breaking Them is Bad. Bad. Bad!


Posted by on October 20, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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5 responses to “Magic’s Price

  1. Ellyn

    October 29, 2009 at 5:39 AM

    This is very true. Magic systems are among the most frequently botched things in fantasy. That, and travel. I can’t get over what people get away with when their characters are travelling.

    I love your blog– I’m subscribing.

  2. atsiko

    October 29, 2009 at 8:54 PM

    Glad you found something useful here. I plan to keep it up.

  3. Aaron Christiansen

    August 4, 2015 at 3:55 PM

    To build a super collider, one must have a very thorough understanding of quantum physics, of digital electronics, computing, etc. I view magic the same way. To be able to create spectacular feats of magic, the “caster” must have an equally thorough understanding of the “science” underlying the magic being used, whatever that system is. The main reason the average person can’t/doesn’t use magic in fantasy worlds is that they have not the time to dedicate to the level of learning they would need. Just as the number of particle physicists is proportionately low in a given population, so would the number of wizards capable of creating the heat/explosion necessary to cast a fireball.

    • atsiko

      August 4, 2015 at 6:16 PM

      That’s true to an extent. Another issue to keep in mind is access to resources. You need more than just the knowledge to build the collider. You need technology capable of living up to the theory, and you need engineers to build the tech. Then you need the metallurgy to make the parts, etc.

      Depending on the magic, you may not need as much supporting tech, people, and knowledge, and so you can have a higher percentage of wizards.


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