Hocus-Pocus and Bippity-Boppity-Boo

Too Many Cooks ~ copywrite K. L. Schwengel

As a reader, one of the things that turns me off is gratuitous magic with little structure and no consequences.  (The same holds true of sci fi with science that just doesn’t ring true.)

As a writer, my magic system is regulated, not frivolous, and has a cost.  Several of my readers have commented on, and thanked me for, making magic something other than what I’ll describe below.

And what I describe is why fantasy sometimes gets a bad rap  —  magic that is free for the taking, and can get the characters out of any situation at any moment, or is used for mundane, daily chores like lighting fires, dressing, or preparing food.  (Yes, one of my characters does use her magic to light a fire, but only out of necessity, not as the norm.)   If the characters get into a prickly situation, a wave of the wand later, they’re on to their next adventure.

That’s a bit of a lazy approach, if you ask me.  But, if the writing is good, the characters sympathetic, and the plot engaging – well, more power to you.  Maybe then it just doesn’t matter.

I, however, think it does matter.  Hopefully my readers will as well.

For an example of easy magic, let’s look at the esteemed fantasy healer.  Here’s a familiar  scenario:  The main character takes an injury, there’s no time in the plot for him to heal in a natural manner, so call in the healer and botta-boom, botta-bing he’s on to the next scene, none the worse for wear.

Awesome.  *yawn*

C’mon, people!  If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be much risk involved in facing off the bad guy or slaying the dragon, would there?  Just haul along a healer, and get yourself pumped up with some Fix-a-Flat, and you’re good as new.  Where’s the tension in that?  And tension is one thing that keeps your reader doing the thing which we writers desire most.  It keeps them turning the page, keeps them coming back to our books and reading.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say healing takes a toll on both the healer and the patient.  Why would it, you ask?  Simple.  The healer must expend energy, must take some of the patient’s pain into themselves, must exert themselves to try (notice, I said ‘try’) and heal their patient.  And why should this also drain the recipient?  Because it’s not the natural way for a body to mend itself, that’s why.  Because the body has still suffered an injury, lost blood, been shocked and traumatized.  Unless your healer also does a bit of time travel to the point before the injury (and wouldn’t that be an interesting concept to explore…), all that bodily abuse still exists, and still has an effect.  There have to be ramifications.

Which is, of course, just my humble opinion.

I like to think of magic like exercise.  Did a bunch of you just say, “Ugh.”  I know I did.  Why?  Besides the fact exercise is important, and most of us don’t get as much as we should, I’m going to bet your response was due to the fact that exercise is hard and demands a price.  That’s how magic should be.  Think of someone with a lot of magic as a prime athlete.  For them, the small spells equal ten push-ups.  Piece of cake, they don’t even break a sweat doing it.  A larger spell might equal 100 push-ups; harder, still doable, but it’s going to take some work, and when they’re done, they may need to rest for a while before doing more.  A really big spell might equal a bunch of push-ups, some squats, and – well, add in some other physical exertions.  Holy crap!  Our athlete can do it, because they’ve trained and prepared, but it takes a lot of effort and they’ll need to rest when they’re finished.  Obviously a lesser magic wielder would have problems with even the 10 push-ups.  (That would be me, if anyone’s wondering.)

The bottom line?  Just because it’s magic doesn’t mean it should be an easy out.  If your story is all about easy, I doubt it’s very interesting.  Give your magic some boundaries, some rules and consequences.  Then see what happens!

Next up:  Here, there be monsters.

Write on!


  1. Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing to worry about when there is a healer around, who doesn’t risk anything by being a healer.

    I have been trying to read more fantasy lately because it is a genre I turned my nose up when I was a lot younger. But that’s because the stuff I read was as you describe–without consequence. I never worried about the hero because I knew the healer was right around the corner. It was boring.

    I am reading Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks, and I’m not very far along in it. It was suggested to me by a fellow writer/blogger. Are you familiar with it? So far, it seems like the characters who heal don’t risk much in the way of being healers, but perhaps that will change later.

    I like how you associate magic to exercise. Magic should definitely not be something used in mundane ways, or frivolously without fear or consequence.

    And for those of us who write mainstream fiction, a hero’s strengths should be akin to exercise as well. There has to be a consequence for the hero when he is able to face trouble. Maybe he’s smart or an athlete or wealthy–whatever helps him through a conflict must hinder him as well.

    Great post!

    • Hi Kathryn, no, I can’t say I’ve read any of Brent Weeks’ books. I’ll take a look at them, though. I admit, I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction, some, not a lot. But I’m going to bet if I grab one where there’s no consequence for my hero, and I can tell right from the start he’s going to come out smelling like a rose, I guess I’m not interested. Characters need to be vulnerable, they need to have their weakness that could potentially undo them. To make the story even better, they should run into that weakness head on and the reader should wonder, going into it, are they going to make it to the other side? Heck, even Super Man has kryptonite! 🙂

  2. Great post, Kathi – to a certain extent I agree with everything you said, but I think it also falls into the category of “world building” and consistency. If in the chosen world described, magic is just the way of things get done (I’m thinking Merlin in Disney’s Sword and the Stone — the dancing dishes, etc.) then the writer just needs to try harder to plot a realistic challenge that the magic can’t fix.

    I’m not arguing with your point, it’s just my insecurities rising here because I’m nervous what you’ll think of how I write my magic 😉

    • Ah, but Krista, Disney’s fantasy is of a different sort altogether. I guess I expect (dare I say it?) less of it because it’s target is generally children. For epic/high fantasy, I want to see magic that costs and makes sense. Not to say it *can’t* be used for the mundane daily chores, but then there better be something pretty interesting or pretty compelling behind it, the characters, or the plot. You’re correct, though, it all ties into world building and what the rules of your world are.

  3. I’m trading Kristen Britain’s Green River series which has simply stunning magical content. I aspire to be like her, I’m also struggling to design and maintain my own magic theme so this post was great in it’s succintness!

  4. Magic shouldn’t be easy, or cheap. Unless, of course, that’s the whole point of a story. Maybe it’s cheap *and* easy — for everybody — right up until it stops working altogether. At that point, you suddenly have a story. It’d be the fantasy world version of Armageddon.

    Might be kinda fun to try….

  5. I absolutely agree. I’m not writing fantasy, but in my sci-fi book with time travel, there’s nothing easy about it. People don’t get “do overs” by going back in time. Not everyone understands the limits or implications. There are rules and consequences.

    What I’m hoping to say is that your point about magic and consequences can be extended to other genres and the importance of keeping any story’s world logical AND interesting. No easy way out. No unexpected character coming in to save the day.

    • I think it definitely crosses genres and can apply to many situations. I love time travel but it’s so paradoxical ~ the tiniest little change ‘back then’ could affect the now, but then how did the now get to be what it is if you’ve gone back and changed it?? Makes my brain hurt. LOL

  6. Yes! As a reader I far prefer magic with consequences, way more grit to a story that way!

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