You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic. And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool. I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so. One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.
Everything has a cost. You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going. The cost of most things is pretty clear. But the cost of magic is different. Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system. I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice… Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.
All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic. And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world. Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs. For this post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:
The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy. Shoot a bow? It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release. By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at. Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together.
So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic? Well, it often is. But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:
1. It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect. Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release. This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip. Makes perfect sense, right? This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.
But what about with magic? How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball? In reality, we can’t. But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow. That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie. Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.
But what about for bigger spells? Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word. No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer. And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region). So now we’re in a bit of trouble. Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.
Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself is not as easy as it would seem). Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow. Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands. A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible. Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow. Jack of all trades and whatnot. So why should magic be so priviliged? Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future… The list goes on forever.
At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit. Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire. But right now we’re talking about cost. There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable. Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own. At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.
2. Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic. One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again. All it takes to level a city is an apple? I find it hard to countenence. What was the creator of this system thinking?
If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine. Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it. But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should. Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story. The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it. Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again. If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward. Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause. So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.
None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires. If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers.
But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later. Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other. Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything. You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time. But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.
Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot. Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature. Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?