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The Cost of Magic

I have another writing tip that I picked up from StarFest this year.  It is something that I had never given much thought to when planning and writing my own stories.

Timothy Zahn, during his panel 101 Ideas, said that magic, whatever you may call it in your story, should always have a cost.

The All-Powerful Wizard

I have always thought it would be awesome to make an all-powerful character. However, a Jedi who is powerful enough to always defeat the opponent with ease may be fun to watch at first, but eventually it would get boring.

If Gandalf the White stepped in with his god-like power to change the world and smite down every goblin, and then instantly transported Frodo and the ring to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, you would think Gandalf was an awesome character, but the story would be rather lame.

If Harry Dresden was able to walk into every situation, yell “Fuego,” and destroy the vampires or demons he was after, then he never would have developed most of the friends he relied on in the stories.  He never would have met Toot-Toot, needed Mouse, or gotten into a situation to find out who Thomas really was.  It was a powerful wizard, with limits, that made him grow beyond who he was, that made him meet new friends, and that made you want him to take desperate chances to rescue the damsel in distress.

Magic With a Cost

To prevent a character from getting too powerful with any magical or supernatural abilities, it is necessary to make the magic cost something, anything, to limit its use.  This limit can come in any form you can imagine, and can be used to enhance the story.

During the panel, several people came up with some interesting ways to limit magic.

Magic could be something that has to be prepared ahead of time, each spell carried like a potion and only used once.  It could take time to ready a spell, or cost a lot of stamina and drain the user quickly. Magic could affect the caster in some permanent way, decreasing life span, or permanently altering the personality or mentality of the caster.  Maybe magic is fueled by stealing the life energy of those nearest the caster, so someone always has to be near the caster for him to cast the spell, and if the spell is too strong it permanently harms or even kills the person fueling the spell.

It does not really matter what the cost is for the magic, all that matters is that there is a cost, and that it somehow limits the users to prevent them from becoming all-powerful and boring.


What rules do you use with your magical forces to prevent the characters from being all-powerful?  Do you agree with doing this or not?

Published inStory Development

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