Malkuthe brings to the table almost nine years of worldbuilding experience. Today, he will talk about magic, its price, and the role that it plays in worldbuilding. Right now, he doesn’t have much in the way of articles on the blog, but soon enough you’ll be able to see more of his work HERE.
Magic is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous staples of fantasy literature, permeating the genre all the way from the loftiest of epic fantasies, to the grungiest of modern fantasy. It comes in many forms, from spectacular as the One Power in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, to esoteric in J. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Magic, in its most basic essence, is the ability to bend reality itself to shape the world around oneself in accordance to one’s will. However, as CTV’s Once Upon a Time is wont to say: magic always comes with a price.
Whatever the form of magic is, there is a price that a practitioner of it must pay, be it time and effort spent gathering the ingredients necessary to piece together a formidable potion, energy burned to cast a spell, or all manner of different things, like blood and human sacrifices for great feats of necromancy. These are just a few examples of what a writer can do to spice magic up in their world. These are also a few magical clichés that at this point, might seem tired and old all on their own.
Before a writer even attempts to spice up a magic system with a price—before even trying to create a magic system to begin with—one of the most important questions to ask is: ‘what narrative purpose does magic serve in this world?’ Typically, you would want to avoid answering that question with any of the following: ‘plot hole patch,’ ‘artificial conflict enhancer,’ and/or ‘Deus ex Machina.’
The truth is that magic in a narrative has so much potential that it goes to waste when it’s used as a throwaway part of a world. In my opinion, any magic system, regardless of exposure in the story, must be vibrant, robust, and have depth. When including magic in a story, I strive to make it meaningful, using it to add to the drama, tension, and action, instead of using it every once in a while to make the narrative progress faster.
When making a magic system, it is important to set out with a purpose in mind, because a magic system’s narrative purpose defines what sort of magic system it can be. One wouldn’t use a magic system that requires the painstaking drawing of intricate sigils that need to be extremely accurate for a story with lots of action. A magic system with faster tempo, where mages can create and hurl fireballs in a fraction of a second, is better suited for an action-filled narrative as opposed to a tense one, except in the case of a mages’ duel.
When a writer has firmly established a magic system’s purpose in their mind, and have a framework for the system in place, it is time for them to decide what sort of price they want to have their magic casters pay for magic. One of the more popular systems in fantasy, owing a lot to the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons, is Vancian Casting, where spells are discreet one time use packages that must be prepared beforehand, and of which a caster has a limited inventory. The price for this type of magic is fairly tame as it only requires time and effort.
Another popular system in fantasy is Mana Casting, where Mana is simply raw magical energy that is stored either within a caster’s body or within an artifact. Again, the caster has a limited inventory that is slowly replenished over time. This type of casting is especially popular in fantasy Role-Playing Games, but can easily be worked into a novel. The price for this type of magic is again relatively tame.
In the world of Eragon, magic draws from the strength of the caster, sapping their energy and their very own life-force to power the spell. This type of magic can leave a caster out of breath or even catatonic if not performed properly. Vitality is the price that must be paid for this type of magic.
If we examine the three above examples, we can see that Vancian Casting, with its requirement of preparation and limited inventory of spells, should be used to enhance narrative tension because the caster must be quite discerning of what spells are best suited for their next conflict, and of when is the best time to sling a spell. Mana Casting, on the other hand, lends itself well to quick bursts of action on the battlefield and has inherent drama for when the caster runs out of mana to use. The type of magic used in Eragon enhances the latter part of mana casting, as the caster could end up dying if they use up all of their life-force for a spell.
The price that a person must pay for their magic certainly affects what kind of narrative that magic is suited for, as demonstrated by the above examples. However, these are not the only kinds of prices. Practically anything can be used as a price for magic. Imagine a mage losing years off of their life every time they perform magic. Imagine a world where magic saps the life of the people you hold dear. Imagine a world where every use of magic drains emotions little by little until the caster practically becomes an unfeeling machine. The possibilities are endless, as long as one remembers that the price of magic should always help achieve magic’s narrative purpose.
We’ve talked about the physical price of magic, but that’s the readily apparent topic of discussion when tackling the price of magic. However, there’s one often-overlooked aspect of magic: the social aspect.
Magic, being the world-influencing power that it is, has a huge impact on society and its stratification. The qualities of magic could either propel its users to the top of the social hierarchy or shunt them all the way down to the bottom of the heap.
The social impact of magic in general, as well as the way that society as a whole views those who have magic, is an important consideration to make when involving magic in a story. Are mages feared or are they revered? This is a vital question to ask, and its answers could have far-reaching consequences in a fully-realized world.
Regardless of their status, mages will always stand out in a non-magical society. Whether it is because of awe or revulsion is irrelevant. A person who is practically worshiped can no more be one of the people than a person who is shunned. In this regard, meaningful human companionship might well be the least price that a caster has to pay in exchange for their power. A caster would always have to be wary of where they go, because at best, they could end up in a city that adores magic, and at worst, they could end up enslaved or executed if they wander too close to people who abhor magic.
Consider, too, the possible psychological effects of having magic on a person. An honorable mage might, at some point in their life, realize that they have the burden of an amazing and miraculous power, capable of leveling cities and making mountains crumble. That responsibility is a heavy cross to bear and they might turn to isolation in order to prevent their vast abilities being used for less-than-savory things.
While the physical price of magic is important for the plot-centric writer, the psychological and social effect of having it is equally vital for the character-centric writer. This is an aspect of magic that should not be overlooked by any worldbuilder. Magic should never just be woo tacked on to a story to make things easier for the protagonist. It should be rich, deep, and meaningful to the world. Thinking about the price that Magic exacts from its users is a step toward achieving that goal.