Monday, July 9, 2012

The Price of Magic

I once found myself on a panel at an SF con, listening to a famous author talk about creating magical systems.  He said that magic always has to have some cost attached to it, in energy, in money, in years of study and meditation—something that kept it hard enough so that not just everyone could do it.  That it was important, in both the laws of physics terms and of creating good fiction, that magic not be “free.”  Being someone who is willing to argue (politely—honest!) with even famous authors, I pointed out that while I didn’t necessarily disagree with him—in fact, I was inclined to agree—in Harry Potter, magic is pretty much free.  You’re born with the ability to use magic, and while some training is required, it’s no harder than school is for everyone else—and let’s face it, Defense Against the Dark Arts is a lot more relevant than your average history class.  So it seems clear that you can write wildly successful fiction where magic has no cost. 

On the other hand, last year I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  And after I got over being blown away by the way Laini Taylor uses language, I was promptly blown away by her world building.  (Spoiler alert—and if you haven’t read this book already you really should!)  In the world of the chimaera and the seraphim the price of magic is pain.  This is about as far from free as you can get!  And if she’d just left it there, magic probably wouldn’t be common enough to matter very much, because hardly anyone would use it.  However, she went that one fantastic step further and made it so it didn’t have to be your pain that fueled the magic.  That one simple twist made the seraphims’ use of the chimaera as pain slaves almost inevitable, and the chimaera rebellion equally inevitable.  In fact, the entire war that has utterly shaped both those societies, and forms the core of the story in the way it divides the hero and heroine, springs completely from the horrifically high price placed on magic. 

Although Laini Taylor blew me away with the system she created, I have to admit, in my own books I’m usually closer to the J.K. Rowling model.  It’s not always exactly the same, but in my stories magic is usually some kind of natural force, that a person with a gift for it is somehow able to channel and shape to their will, though it usually requires study and practice. 

So how do you handle magic in your world?  Charge a high price, or give it away for free? And what kind of system do you prefer in the novels you read? 


  1. I agree, Kate, that the sacrifice doesn't necessarily have to be directly due to the use of magic. Magic can have social costs, as in Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper. (Though in this tale, Corin/Corinna realizes her magic might have physical costs, as well.) Perhaps limits and logic are more important than costs? To prevent the deus ex machina, and to deepen the relationship between fantastic and real elements.

  2. Contrariwise, I would say magic must be, if not predictable, anticipated -- no fair having someone suddenly solve a plot problem by turning invisible on page 256 with no foreshadowing. When abilities like this come out of nowhere, it tends to unbalance the story. I want to see characters solve problems with the resources they already have, not ones they are suddenly gifted with by the author halfway through. This really comes down to handling, though; it's more a question of whether the reader anticipates that something is possible than if the character does. Invisibility as a result of an intuitive leap (McKillip - Alphabet of Thorn) or a gene that only manifests in adulthood could work.

  3. I tend to write worlds where magic is more or less common place, and society is built on and by magic, but... while it may not always be stated explicitly in my stories, magic does have a limit, and not everyone has the same capabilities, the same talents, though everyone is able to perform some basic things like open doors or do the dishes.

    But while I think a society built on magic is entirely possible, you can't have magic without limits.

    It's only logical that magic has limits. Everyone has limits, no matter what sort of being we are (and I don't just mean mortality). Without energy (food, drink, well being) a being is basically useless and can't do anything but sleep and/or replenish their energy. To me magic is the same, overusing stresses reserves and leaves a being exhausted. Ignoring the warning signs means weeks, even months of not being able to perform even the most basic tasks without exhausting oneself.

    The challenge in that is that while everyone knows their limits, sometimes pushing those limits is a choice they HAVE to make. Will it be worth the sacrifice, the consequences? That's for them to decide.

  4. I think at the very least, magic should have its limits or be unpredictable. It can't be a get-out-of-jail-free card or the story becomes boring. Besides, the MC needs to sacrifice somehow, even if it's not a direct result of using magic. Sometimes the problem is simply that using magic makes the person a freak who has to hide his/her ability. So I think there are related issues even if you don't cause every spell to have a big pain cost. That said, what Laini Taylor did with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, as you mentioned, and what Holly Black's curse workers suffer in White Cat, etc., is pretty cool!

  5. great blog post, hilari, and an interesting topic indeed. i am of the camp that there should be a "price of magic" if your heroine or hero happens to be magic. it doesn't have to be something as literal as money or pain for me. in my debut, Silver Phoenix, my heroine doesn't pay specifically other than some confusion and getting used to her power. but in Fury of the Phoenix, the entire book is about Consequences and the Choices she made with her magical ability in the first book.

  6. I like it when magic costs a price, as that tends to give the magic user a trade-off between what they're willing to sacrifice and how much power they want. I didn't think about how magic in the Potterverse is "free" actually, which is quite interesting. I think I come from a D&D type background though, where magic generally takes an extreme physical toll.

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