The Price of Magic

Everything in life has a cost. It’s a law so universally understood that we feel it in our bones. Yet when we deal with fiction, some writers forget to consider the high price of magic.

The renowned author Nancy Kress noted that a defining moment in her career came when a fellow writer pointed out to her that she needed to consider the economic systems in her stories—whether they were fantasy tales or science fiction. In other words, she needed to consider the cost of her magic. With her very next novella, Beggars in Spain, she delved deeply into the realms of economics, politics, and questions of equality—and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her work.

There are magic systems where magic doesn’t carry much of a price. For example, in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the fairy godmothers cast spells on a whim and anything is possible. But when anything is possible, then nothing in the story can really matter. The audience feels that at some deep level, and so there is little tension.

Now, the movie Sleeping Beauty works in part because it is a light-hearted fantasy, a comedy with no tragic overtones, appropriate for young children.

But for a story to be truly powerful, there must be a cost to the magic. For example, in the book Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins carries a cursed ring to the Cracks of Doom to destroy it. He manages to get the job done, but he does it by putting a curse on Gollum, telling the wretched creature that if he ever tries to steal the ring again, he shall be thrust into the Crack of Doom. Later, Gollum does exactly that, biting off Frodo’s finger and then dancing in triumph—until he slips into the Crack of Doom.

Thus, Frodo used the ring to cast his curse, and eventually loses the very thing that he fought to protect—his beloved Shire. That is the price that he paid to use magic.

Similarly, if you study the tale of King Arthur, you will find that Arthur uses the magical sword Excalibur in an attempt to bring peace to Britain. But that sword too is accursed—created by the Fey—and despite his best efforts, Arthur’s attempts yield him nothing. Arthur’s story was devised as a cautionary tale against using fairy magic or consorting with other-worldly creatures.

In my book Million Dollar Outlines I talk about the idea that there are a only a few possible outcomes to a story that are highly satisfying. I’ve found that when judging stories for Writers of the Future, my panel of judges will almost always give the award to the story that wrings the most tears from the reader. They usually pick the story where a protagonist wins what he wants, but must pay a high price to do so.

This rule is pretty universal. The price doesn’t need to be excruciating, but it does need to be there.

In fact, here is a secret to writing good fantasy: the price of magic must be bound up into the very source of the magic.

Of course, this doesn’t apply just to fantasy. It also applies to science fiction, for example. Any powerful technology generally comes with a price—the more powerful the technology, the higher the price.

The same is true with any other system of power. If you want to delve into politics, there is a price to be paid. If you want to join a gang, consider the cost.

Even if you just want to write, there are certain costs. Fortunately, the benefits for that one generally outweigh the costs.


July 30-Aug 2, Dave will be at GenCon in Indianopolis! Sign up to take his GenCon exclusive class (given in three interchangeable parts), How to Make a Living as a Writer by registering for the event here.

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