Magical Theory and Practice: Part 3

This being the third part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy. 

Here is the last question I usually ask when creating a magical system.  (I couldn’t think of any more that didn’t involve interlinking the previous questions or involving aspects of the others.)  Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here.  You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries.  The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF MAGIC?     

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the magical equation, and the one that can make it the most unique.  A lot of people have a very dim view of what magic is, assuming that it’s a dues ex machine that just sweeps in and makes all the boo-boos better.  If it’s a poorly written fantasy, then they’d be right.  But we don’t want to write bad fantasy, do we?  So, you need to put some thought into what the price of magic is.

Nothing is free.  Ever.  There is always a catch, a price, particularly when power in involved.  In the words of Alphonse Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist:  “Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first Law of Equivalent Exchange.”

Magic is energy and energy has to come from somewhere and something must replace the energy that is lost or used up by an act of magic.  A lot of magic systems use a loss of energy from the wizard himself.  After a wizard casts a spell, he or she feels tired and must rest before another spell can be cast.  The bigger or more complex the spell, the more tired the wizard feels.  In extreme cases, the spell being cast could use up all of the wizard’s energy at once, killing them.  Another popular form of energy is blood.  The idea of sacrifice is a very old one and blood is seen as the life-energy for most living creatures.  The shedding and letting of blood is very powerful, so some magic systems gain their power from the energy released by death.  Some systems base this on the wizard having to give up this blood while others allow it to be taken from other individuals.  Youth and virginity seem to hold and release more power in sacrificial magic.

Conversely, others harness the energy created by life in the form of sex.  Sex magic is as old as blood and sacrificial magic, and many more modern magic and secret societies still practice various forms of sex magic.  Death and fertility are two of the oldest forces on the planet and can hold a great deal of energy.  I generally don’t see sex or fertility magic used outside of paranormal romances such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake or Meredith Gentry series, but it can be done.  It’s a lot harder to harness and control, but if you design the rites properly then you could have an interesting magic system on your hands.

Here are some examples of the prices of various magical systems:

  • The Magister Trilogy by C.S. Friedman:  magic is paid for by one’s life-force.  Each time a mage uses a spell, it takes away some of their life.  Mages have found a way to transfer this price to another person who becomes unwittingly linked to the mage and their life-force fuels the mage’s spells.  But what happens when a mage meets the person they are leeching life from…?
  • The Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman:  wizards pay for spells with both energy and memory.  Once a spell is used, they forget the incantation that called forth the magic, so they must be constantly studying their spell books, recommitting the words and knowledge to memory over and over again.
  • The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory:  wizards who use High Magick only seem to suffer from exhaustion, but those who use Wild Magick must pay a special kind of price.  Whatever spell they use the Wild Magick for, the Wild Magick “tells” them of a deed or task they must complete in a sort of mystical karma.  Minor spells only require minor tasks, but large spells have larger, more long-lasting prices…including possibly your life, but there is no way of knowing beforehand what the price for your spell will be.

Remember that everything needs to make sense within the rules of your fantasy world.  The laws of magic are like the laws of physics:  once made, they cannot be broken.  If you do, your readers will lose faith in your world and your ability as a storyteller.  The key to good fiction is the suspension of disbelief, and this is even more important in a fantasy novel.  Ask yourself as many questions as you can, try to fill all of the holes, and make sure that things work.  Do your research, be consistent, and have fun!

Good luck in your tale-spinning!

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2 responses to “Magical Theory and Practice: Part 3

  1. I've been trying to remember what the price for magic is in the Harry Potter universe, but I can't seem to remember. Obviously Voldemort's more powerful and nature-violating spells came with obvious prices, but what of other spells? In Harry Potter, magic is more of a learned skill then something mystical. I don't really recall any specific price. Were there any? And if not, than this is a very good example of how to create a system where a price is not necessarily needed. Great read, though. Some authors can get very creative with thier magic prices.

  2. In Harry Potter, I think the only price was energy. Energy came from the witch or wizard to full the spells, but you had to learn how to use it in a school setting. A lot of magical systems rely on the wizard giving up energy that is naturally replenished by their bodies. It's the simplest kind of "price" and lets you get away with a lot. but you are right; it is more of a learned skill. Although I'm sure that having wands made of magic wood with cores made of things that are naturally magical took some of the burden of the magic generation off of the wizard.

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