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.
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.