Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Price of Magic

Couple of weeks ago on a private blog, Ban commented on the snippet I had posted from my paranormal work-in-progress, Outcast. It’s stayed in the back of my mind ever since. “You can't have 'magic' without a price! For every super-power, there must be a weakness”. This was in regards to my vampires and their Achilles’ heel, which I gave them not so much by design but by accident. What she said made complete sense and I decided I needed to investigate further.

It turns out fantasy and science fiction writers follow the logic of The Price of Magic Rule. It’s the cost of doing magic business in which the price must be seen at times to outweigh the benefits. This puts limits on magic use. Which makes great sense as there’s not much of a story if the good guy has all the power or all the answers or unlimited ability to amass all the power and discover all the answers. At least that’s how I interpreted it, not being an authority or in anyway knowledgeable about writing fantasy or science fiction.

But the Price of Magic Rule crosses over and applies to my vampires and their strengths, which must be accompanied by answering weaknesses. Meanwhile a light bulb went on in regards to my hibernating Brotherhood of the Arrow series. My story of three witches and their warriors who find themselves pitted against a powerful, evil warlock. This project has been stalled for a while and now I know why. I had not applied the price of magic rule. What’s more, I had failed to do some very major legwork in setting up my world and it’s magical legacy.

I had not laid out the basic rules for the magic in my story early on. I hadn’t figured out what the characters can and cannot do. The reader has the right to know what’s realistic in my world and what’s not. It ensures I can’t write myself into a corner and decide to solve it by having a character pull off some mind blowing, mega-sized magic spell with no history to back it up.

I had not been clear on the ramifications of using of magic or the price to be paid for using it. Wikipedia lists an Achilles’ heel as a fatal weakness in spite of overall strength, that can actually or potentially lead to downfall. No one in my story has a well-developed and believable Achilles’ heel. They have strengths but no weaknesses. Pros but no cons. This is especially true for Blair, and as she possesses the greatest strengths and the most power, she should take the biggest risks and stand to lose the most.

There must be a balance. The antagonist feels he or she has just as much right to the magic as the protagonists. If it’s all one sided there is no story. Daman Finn, my warlock, needs to be at least as powerful as Blair, his nemesis.

Magic should bring about or conjure up as many problems as it solves. There are several ways to accomplish this. The idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely and what happens when the seductiveness surrounding the use of magic creates it’s own undertow. Its use can mean the loss of something, so that the user has to carefully weigh the benefits against the pitfalls. Perhaps the user engages in the use of magic without knowing or appreciating the risks or the consequences.

I love stories involving witches who are healers. If the healer ends up transferring some of the pain or symptoms to themselves, I’m even more engrossed in the story. Likewise stories where the magic drains the magic worker’s physical and/or mental energy. What if every time a spell was cast, a year of life was forfeit? A piece of memory was lost? A piece of history was changed? An existence or life form extinguished?

For my Brotherhood of the Arrow series I’m drawn to the idea of casting spells and using magic for the greater good and at the same time creating an opportunity for evil in the form of a physic window or connection. My spin on every action having an equal and opposite reaction. Ah, the possibilities …

Do magical stories appeal to you as a reader? Are you fond of witches and wizards? Does magic factor into your world building? How about paranormal characters with great physical powers? How do you balance out those powers?


Silver James said...

Interesting topic, Karyn. I once helped moderate an on-line role-playing game involving magic, shape-shifters and vampires. One of the things the moderators insisted upon was a "balance" in the characters. A player could have more than one character but for every alpha character, they had to play a beta character. And for every strength, there had to be a weakness. This kept the characters three-dimensional and more believable and less Mary-Sue-ish. Nobody likes a Mary Sue perfect character.

I think this is a "rule" we should all translate into every character and situation, even beyond magical ones. Heroes and heroines need flaws to be interesting and to overcome.

Vince said...

Hi Karyn:

I enjoyed reading your comments. As a teenager I grew up on science fiction. I’d like to offer some of my observations.

Magic stories are never about the magic.

They are about conflict with the magic giving individuals the power to play a game from which they would otherwise be excluded.

Magic makes for allegory and poetry.

Magic need not be balanced as long as the holder has a weakness. This weakness could well be independent of his powers. Hero A has X-ray vision but Villain B can become invisible. Unique ways to play different powers off against each other can be quite interesting in their own right. The usual requirement is that powers be limited. But even this need not be the case.

Consider the hero who wins all powers and becomes king of the world. The story just begins at this point and our hero must now rule and make decisions where any decision creates justice for one side but injustice for the other side. How, with all his powers, can the good hero do the right thing when the right thing also spawns so much evil? There is a powerful story here to tell: the limits to unlimited power.

An even more interesting story might be one in which the hero has no special powers at all but by very clever thinking defeats the evil magicians by turning their own powers against themselves. I remember a Star Trek episode Spock did just this.

I always ask, “How good is this story without the magic?” That should show you how good the story really is.

Just a few ideas.


Karyn Good said...

Hey Silver. Your on-line role playing game sounds like a good exercise in creating a 'balance' of power between players equipped with distinct advantages and how to offset them.

Thanks for sharing today.

Karyn Good said...

Hi , Vince. Your idea of the hero having no special powers brings to mind the warriors in my story who are perhaps a little stronger, a little faster, and more agile but they're definitely human and function within those limitations and must use their intellect and their training to out smart a evildoer far more powerful then themselves.

Also your question How good is this story without the magic? That one's got me thinking about the state of my story.

Thanks for sharing your ideas!

Ban said...

Hey Karyn - wow, you took that and ran with it !!! And you're right, this is NOT a rule that applies only to fantasy or sci/fi (I put paranormal in with those BTW) ! Any ability or 'power' can be substituted for magic and like Silver said - too many of them, with no weaknesses, make for one awesomely bad Mary-Sue ! AHHH - watch out ! Here she comes !!!

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Ban. I did run with it because I couldn't shake the thought loose. It was kind of a lightbulb moment for me. I learned a lot because of that one statement! Thanks!

Janet said...

Excellent post, Karyn. I am in awe of anyone who can create a world with magic and powers and make it both believable and exciting. And really, who would read a story where the magic was all powerful with no consequences?

I agree with Silver - all characters should have an "Achilles Heel". Each one of our heroes and heroines should have that one thing that could lead to disaster, or at least the fear of his/her goal not being reached because of that weakness.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I don't write science fiction or fantasy, but I totally agree with this Rule of the Price of Magic. A perfect, all powerful character is very boring. Silver and Ban are also right about this rule extending to other characters. A contemporary heroine who is beautiful, kind, smart, etc. makes me want to smack her. How can a very flawed, ordinary person like me relate to her? She's got to have some flaws or faults. Perhaps she's got a quick temper and speaks before she thinks.

Often a hero/heroine's greatest strength can be their greatest weakness, as you said. In a contemporary story, a hero who protects and closely watches over the people he loves may be smothering those he loves with his overprotectiveness.

Thanks for the great post Karyn.

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Janet. Yes, there are some masterful storytellers out there aren't there. Where would the world be without J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit?

Karyn Good said...

Thanks, Jana. Glad you enjoyed the post. I sure learned a lot reaching how fantasy and science fiction approach the use of magic.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I've been a bit slack with my blogs lately, but I'm glad I popped by today. This is such a great topic. As Ban says, this isn't strictly a sf/f issue, which is something I always try to stress with my blog. These rules apply to anything, the same as stories set in a regular city block still require world-building.

I feel magic needs to be treated the same as any character (and villains are characters too, of course). It can't just be handy and perfect and marvelous. It needs flaws, conditions, perhaps even an unreasonable temperament. As I think I rambled to you on the beta blog, one approach I find works well is to look at the worst-case-scenario and if your character can be trapped, or if they'll always succeed. There should be some cases where magic can fail, although those vulnerabilities won't always be the same. Sometimes it'll be a straightforward 'price paid' style of transaction, or other times it might play into character and emotion.

And then of course, once the boundaries are in place, they can't be broken (I blogged a rant on breaking magic a while ago on my blog, not sure if you saw that one). I've gotten fed up a few times when characters had a convenient moment of discovering a spell substitute at the last second, or heaven opening up and shining golden light onto a "Use this to kill the monster" weapon/spell. Once things are in place, they gotta stay. It's all a question of being reasonable and 'realistic'. Magic requires an inherent suspension of disbelief (perhaps so does a romance's HEA?), so everything else has to hold together and feel like it exists in its own world, even if it doesn't exist in ours, or we question everything and throw the whole lot out as bogus.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow, I never thought about it but you're right...or should that be Ban is right. :)

I have to admit I thought it would be nice to write one but I never had any solid ideas come through to tempt me.

Speaking of temptation, though, your post and the comments here reminded me of one of the best workshops I attended at the conference:
Sin + Virture = Bestseller put on by the agent, Natasha Kern. She said every character has faults (sins) and virtues. To make a character the reader can empathize with you must put temptations in their paths. You can't have an exciting book if you don't push your characters to the limit. Then they must chose. The hero will be tempted but he will overcome and be stronger for it and his character arc will grow.

In the same way, heroes who use magic must decide when and when and how much they will use and will they control it or let it control them.

Excellent post, Karyn.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Hayley, sorry I'm late but life happened last night and I didn't get back here.

I love the idea of treating magic as a character and a tempermental one at that. Because - oh, maybe it's about magic existing as it's own entity in the universe and it's really about how the characters use or disabuse it, instead of them owning it insides themselves. Hum, must stop babbling and think some more.

I may have missed the breaking magic blog so will go and read it immediately. I don't want to be tempted to write the 'convenient' scene or use, as you say, some unreasonable or unrealistic 'trapdoor' out of trouble.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I'm still mulling some of them over to file away.

Karyn Good said...

Hi, Anita. I know, I'd hadn't thought of it that way either.

I need to get to a conference, they sound like wonderful places to learn things and get information! Natasha Kern's workshop sounds like it was very interesting and inspiring.

And yes, good point. Heroes who use magic must decide when and when and how much they will use and will they control it or let it control them. I like that!

Ban said...

Ban takes no real credit here - I was only passing on information I myself learned !

Ban said...

OH and I second Hayley's comments - in my main WiP I definitely consider magic a seperate entity - if you're up for some blog hopping I posted on it myself ... entry #21 :D