Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Price, Magic?

Posted by: Nicole Luiken

I love me a cool magic system.  What do I mean by ‘system’?  Basically, the magical laws that set out how the magic works in that particular author’s world.  The possibilities are limitless.

Here are just a few of my favourites:
  • Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series.  Magic is based on ‘binding’ things, such as two enemy’s weapons, together. 
  • Rachel Aaron’s Eli Montpurse, thief extraordinaire, can talk inanimate objects into doing what he wants, such as a prison door into disintegrating. 
  • Dave Duncan’s hero in A Man of His Word, grows magically stronger every time he discovers a new magic word—but five proves to be too many.

Does magic have to have rules?  No.  In fact, some argue that giving magic rules takes away from its essential *magic* and that magic should not be treated like a science.

Wild magic often incorporates creatures such as fae, which are inherently magic by their very nature.  Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry wields magic of this kind: strong, but often unpredictable and carrying a bloody price.  The magic does what it wants, when it wants.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters whether or not magic has rules so long as it comes with a price of some kind.

I confess I’ve grown jaded about the old-school wizardry, where wizards spend years studying magic and memorizing spells.  The magic has a price, sure, but it’s usually paid somewhere off-screen before the action takes place.  (And it means all your wizard characters are bearded-Gandalf-old or long-lived elves—or both.)

If magic appears at the mere snap of a finger, then it becomes too easy for your main character to get out of difficult situations.  (Teleport spell!)  Which can lead to boring scenes.  This can be the equivalent of a Mary Sue character.

When I wrote Gate to Kandrith, I decided that magic came with a high price, a sacrifice.  In fact, it’s called ‘slave magic’ because the price is so high that only the truly desperate are willing to use it. 

However, the price of magic needn’t be sky-high.  While Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden obviously spends time and effort on his magic, he can also use magical artifacts like his staff to simply blast away with in a fight.  Yet Harry remains very readable, because he’s always facing opponents with greater magic than him and getting beat up.

Or the price of magic may be more societal: becoming an outlaw who is pursued and hunted down by those who want the power for themselves or who have forbidden its practice.

One type of magic that comes with a built-in price are creatures such as werewolves or vampires.  They are super-fast and super-strong, but have well-known weaknesses: sunlight and stakes for vamps, silver and forced change by the moon for werewolves.   

The rules can, of course, be bent and changed—J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood of the Black Dagger are fascinatingly different from Bram Stoker’s vampires. 

One drawback can be discarded (for instance, not many modern vamps fear garlic), but beware of weakening the price too much.  If, say, your vampires sparkle in sunlight instead of bursting into flame, you may end up paying a different price with your readership.

What are some of your favourite magic systems?  Do you prefer magic systems or wild magic?  Do you think magic should come with a price?


  1. Great post, Nicole. I have several projects that incorporate magic and each has different rules / repercussions for those who use it. I have a witch with the ability to control time, she's ageless, unless she wonders too far from her (hidden / secret) alter - then her body reverts to a dried husk - with her still alive in it and able to feel the physical agony of all those years.

    You're right about Jim Butcher's series - I love Dresden because for every bit of progress he makes with his magic, there are at least several losses - either physically or emotionally.

    Magic should never be easy.

  2. I REALLY liked the magic system in Gate to Kandrith. I prefer magic to be a natural talent rather than a skill that can be learned but agree that either way, it's much more interesting when there's a downside to its use.

  3. Interesting post. I'm partial to soothsayers and those who enter the dreams of others. And I love when a perfectly logical and rational character struggles with the concept of magic after witnessing it. :-)

  4. Judith--Your ageless character sounds interesting. And I imagine she has to pay the price at least once. We authors are so mean!

  5. I loved the magic system in Gate to Kandrith. But it didn't seem much like a magic system to me--it seemed more like a system of religion, in which the gods grant powers in exchange for sacrifices. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it immensely!


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