The Consequences of Magic

Magic is always more interesting when it has serious consequences. In Alison Goodman’s EON: DRAGONEYE REBORN, magic is performed by aid of supernatural dragons–but unity with these dragons drains a character’s life-force and brings on an early death. In Jonathan Stroud’s BARTIMAEUS trilogy, magic is done by way of enslaved demons–but one misstep means you’re demon food. The magic system in each of these books has built-in conflict.
When a character’s ability to perform magic relies on talent and learning alone, the magic becomes a little less believable. For example, in the HARRY POTTER series, characters need only learn to pronounce incantations and wave their wands in certain patterns and–magic! This leaves some holes in the story, like why does Dumbledore wear glasses if he’s such a powerful wizard? Couldn’t he perform some charm to get 20/20 vision?

A more interesting variation of the talent requirement is magic that’s just really, really hard to do, such as in Kathleen Duey’s SKIN HUNGER, in which case a character suffers much while trying to learn how to perform supernatural feats.

What do you think–should magic in stories have serious consequences, or is it enough to have an interesting system in place?

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse could use a magic wand. Or a dragon.

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10 responses to “The Consequences of Magic

  1. Oh, it’s GOT to have consequences. It’s GOT to have angst and work and sweat and blisters and possibly bloodshed associated with it, or ordinary mortals could pull it off. And where’s the fun in reading about ordinary mortals, if you’re after SFF?

    Plus, there’s physics. What goes up, must come down. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You can never get something for nothing — there’s always a price, however small. A deduction from the universe’s ATM is always the price for the transaction. A really creative author comes up with new ways to make that transaction a thought-provoking process. I very much agree that there are holes in the Potter books because there seemed no price to pay for magic, and no limits to using it but skill. You’d think all of the Bad Guys would have been much more skilled and constantly studying, and Hogwarth’s would not have been the sole magic school…

  2. I’m going to play Devil’s advocate. While I agree the best stories involve price-to-pay magic (I love Duey and Stroud, btw), I wonder then why Harry Potter was so extraordinarily popular–both with kids, who might not be sophisticated readers, and with adults. Is it because people really want magic to be possible to ordinary blokes? Really want to believe you don’t have to be special or sell your soul or bleed buckets to get to do magic? I don’t know, it just occured to me that in terms of numbers of books sold, HP is dang magical.
    Meanwhile, I’m trying to make the consequences more daunting in my own WIP, knowing I need to make my MC pay a higher price.

  3. I think this issue also boils down to whether you want your stories to have anything to do with real life, or if you want them to be pure escapism that in fact offers hope that the “prices” in life might not HAVE to exist… that you, too, could be special without any real work or effort or pain, just born that way and waiting for it to be discovered. The HP magic is in the latter category.

    (The inherent contradiction in this, of course, is that there is plenty of conflict and pain in even the “easy magic” types of stories, but readers seem to prefer situational conflict (as in, that part wouldn’t happen to me, or that bad guy wouldn’t be in my life) to fundamental law-of-the-universe conflict (which reminds us of the kinds in our own universe that we’d like to deny/ignore/escape.)

    Beyond that, my problem with magic stories in general, but particularly easy magic, is that I think it’s difficult to create them without the kinds of plot holes you mentioned. I have problems with some of Tamora Pierce’s books for this reason… it’s like, “wait. If the MC can do THAT, why on earth couldn’t she just to THIS instead or in addition to solve the whole problem?” At minimum the “rules” of what can and can’t be done have to be excruciatingly clear — and JUSTIFIED — and I don’t think all of hers are.

  4. I do think the holes are funny, like Dumbledore’s glasses. Hmmm…maybe they were special “magic” glasses that helped him see another dimension.
    Anyway, I agree consequences are good, but I think this can get carried away. Like Joni and Tricia said, sometimes kids just want to believe in the fun of magic and not have it be too hard. In HP, it took work to learn the spells and everyone was good at different things. So it wasn’t just easy.
    I get a bit weary of the “magic wears you out” thing. But maybe it’s just me. I’m not saying it can’t be done well, but creative approaches to limitations are nice. Like Duey and Larbalestier.

  5. I like the way Diana Wynne Jones does it. The consequences are less about it being horribly painful to do, and more about the actual consequences of your actions. In many of her books, the characters misusing or not understanding their magic leads to problems they have to solve.

  6. I’m all for consequences. One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb (roughly quoted) “when you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other end too.” So whether this comes in the form of dealing with the effects of their actions or learning to work within the magic system itself, I firmly believe there needs to be consequences.

    Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has one of the most fantastic magic systems I’ve encountered. It deals with burning metals in the body, each metal attuned to a specific ability. It never explains how they are burned (thus leaving it still in the fantastic) but they conform to the laws of physics. For example, one lets you hurl metal away from you, but you cannot curve in the air to “swing around” and the law “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” totally applies. :) Great conversation!

  7. The magic in HP isn’t magic at all, it’s technology. And to some degree children recognize it for what it is and find it familiar and comforting. When I teach Harry, I always juxtapose it to that other great wizard-school book, Earthsea. There the kids see a magic that is high, fine, difficult, and above al meaningful.

  8. BrandiJ

    Its got to have a system to it that makes sense. I love Eon:Dragoneye Reborn because it had a system that worked realisticly,and so did Harry Potter,which wasn’t made clear in the movies.

    Speaking of which,if you want good magic that works just right,read Skulduggery Pleasant.It’s great, and the magic works just the way it should work.

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