In most fantasy tales, magic plays an integral part. Magic can be wondrous or frightening. Characters use magic to defend the right and to ravage the countryside. Often, magic becomes one of the characters in the story. In Road of Leaves, the shifting Road seems to develop its own personality and has an integral role at the tale’s climax. In Lord of the Rings, the rings, especially the One, have something of a will of their own.
Many of us love fantasy stories, because a good tale will transport us into a new, wondrous, and dangerous land. Stories about magic feed our imagination and remind of us of our childhood dreams. But, it should be costly for someone to acquire any magical powers.
What must you SACRIFICE to gain magic?
It would be boring if magic was easy to learn and unlimited in its power. I agree with Author David Farland on this: magic must cost the person something. In his Runelords books, magic is acquired by “borrowing” the powers from dozens or hundreds of other people. The lords sometimes took the powers of others with force, but they dared not kill them- the person needed to survive or the lord would lose that newly-gained enhancement.
In my CIRIAN WAR SAGA novels, the characters have to submit to supernatural forces to gain power. The heroes are empowered by their prayer devotion to El, while the villains find magical powers through demon possession and human sacrifice. Neither way to power is cheap or easy.
In my WAYS OF CAMELOT (WoC) novels, the characters must study for decades to learn how to recognize and use magical elements. They sacrifice their youth, many of them never getting the chance to marry or have a family.
In the WoC novels, elements are rendered from magical plants, insects, and animals. It takes skill and time to be a magician, but more importantly it requires crushing magical things into powders. Something or someone dies to release the power needed to craft an enchantment. Then the darker truth comes out: some magicians are killing magical people to get their properties too.
What LIMITS magic?
If magic has no limits, then a magician becomes a god-like. How can anyone oppose him? I found some super hero tales boring for just that reason. The “hero” wasn’t anyone I could relate to because he had no flaws or restrictions on his power.
In a good fantasy, the magic has parameters. Either there are some things that magic cannot do or the magician is limited. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo struggles with his sword, trying to master its magic. He also contends with the ring, which often is working against him. If either had provided him unlimited powers without conditions, then the story would have failed.
In the WAYS OF CAMELOT novels, I purposely don’t use the terms “spell” or “casting” because the magic is something that is crafted, using a combination of magical elements, mundane elements, and usually some spit that attunes the enchantment to the magician. It takes time, although some enchantments can be prepared in advance. In this world, you can’t just shout out a phrase or think a thought. There is work involved in creating magic. Real, physical labor.
In the Cirian War Saga novels, the powers of El are gained through a life of devotion. It requires the discipline of prayer, hence the Attuls are known as Prayer Warriors. Should they falter in their faith, then El’s power will weaken in their life.
For the villains, they need a steady supply of victims to sacrifice to create their blood magic. They also need the cooperation of the demon within.
What are the ETHICS of magic?
Another aspect of magic is the ethics involved. Is magic good, bad, or amoral? In most fantasy stories, magic is used by both sides. So what makes magic either good or evil? Magic’s goodness or evilness can be determined by the practitioner, by how it is used, or by its inherent nature.
For my WoC novels, the issue of ethics became more pressing because the stories are set in King Arthur’s times and include Christian characters. For a Christian, there are Biblical injunctions against the practice of witchcraft and sorcery, which is why I differentiate between those “dark arts” and the natural magic in the Ways of Camelot novels. I also have the magicians craft enchantments, much like a smith or carpenter or weaver. It is work that one learns to master like any other profession; you just happen to be working with magical elements.
So what is the COST of magic?
Magic, because it overrules natural law, is a dangerous thing. So magic should also be hard to learn and difficult to practice. The answer differs by the story, but there should be a significant cost of some type. Magic is powerful, so it should never be an easy or simple thing to do.