The How and Why of Magic
By Gail Z. Martin
Magic without rules is a mess.
Without rules, costs, and constraints, magic becomes a giant cheat, a way to get a character out of any and all trouble, the ultimate deus ex machina. But within a framework of laws, physical and psychic (and sometimes spiritual) penalties and a character’s own moral compass, magic becomes not just a weapon and a cool feature, but also a way to test the limits and mettle of a character.
One danger of having a magical system that doesn’t have rules is that characters becomes god-like, and characters that can’t die or face bad consequences are boring. Worse, you get the Superman syndrome where you’ve got to invent a silly weakness like a green glowing alien stone that happens to be in amazingly large supply and available to every bad guy in order to gin up some tension.
Another danger lies in the problem of using magic like a gun that never runs out of bullets. If the mage pays no physical price for the working, then why not use magic for everything, all the time? The mage becomes invincible, and then the author is left creating unbelievable work-arounds for why, in just this one case, magic doesn’t work, or coming up with equally unbelievable bigger and bigger enemies.
Power of any kind has built-in constraints. Cars with big engines go fast, but they’ve got to combat extra weight. Bodybuilders have massive muscles, but often at the expense of flexibility and range of motion. Weapons usually have a trade-off between force and range. Not only do these constraints reflect the real world, and so their inclusion in a magical system adds realism, but they also require characters to be creative. If you can only blast something with fire once, before your power is used up, what else can you do? The creativity necessary to get around constraints makes the story more interesting, and it also provides insights into the character.
Rules might be made to be broken, but breaking them has a price. Rules of magic are artificial constraints placed upon magic users by society or by elders in the magical community. Usually, these rules are in place to keep novices and less seasoned mages from making dangerously bad mistakes and imperilling themselves and others. Sometimes, the rules are a way to maintain the status quo and keep upstarts from gaining a foothold by becoming too powerful. Rules might be religions, cultural, specific to a particular type of magic, or dictated by an authority figure. There may be situations in which certain people may break rules without bearing the full consequence. Or any transgression might bring an immediate death penalty.
In my Chronicles of the Necromancer series, Tris Drayke must learn how to use his magic as a Summoner without being corrupted by the vast power his gift makes possible. He learns that the limitations on summoning, such as the prohibition of forcing a spirit back into a corpse or compelling a spirit to return against its will, guard his own soul and are in place to keep him from becoming the kind of monster he is currently fighting. In both the Chronicles series and in my Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, magic carries a physical price. Mages tire quickly and require time to recharge, and those who push too far die. Rules are also in place in my world for how to protect oneself when working magic, as in requiring the setting of wards and using amulets and other protective gear. These constraints are internal, with the penalties for breaking the rules self-evident by the working of the universe.
An excellent example of a magical system with an externally-enforced rules is the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher. In this case, a council of powerful wizards make the rules and enforce them relentlessly. From a plot perspective, this keeps a wizard like Dresden from just waltzing in, waving his hand, having all the bad guys fall down dead and walking back out again. If Dresden didn’t have the Laws of Magic constraining him, he wouldn’t have to struggle to beat the bad guys, and the stories wouldn’t be as interesting. The same is true in the Harry Potter series, where Azkaban prison and the Aurors provide external control.
A well-designed magical system makes for better stories, better character development and a more richly-imagined world. It’s worth remembering that if it’s true with mortal, non-magical rulers that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, such a warning is doubly true when magic is operative.
About the Author:
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel, from Solaris Books. Gail is also the author of Vendetta: ADeadly Curiosities Novel and Trifles and Folly 1: A Deadly Curiosities Collection, the latest in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC; Shadow and Flame is the fourth book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga; The Shadowed Path (The first Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures collection), as well as Iron and Blood a Steampunk series, and Spells, Salt, & Steel, both co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
For more, check out her WEBSITE.