Long ago I read Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” and he brought up the problem of magic. That concept left an impression on me and as I read more fantasy (and even science fiction) I began to watch for creative solutions to the problem.
Problem – an author must find a way to limit magic (or science) in their realm, or the concept quickly gets out of control. There has to be a way to keep magic from being commonplace and some sort of a price or consequence to wielding magical power. In D&D this is limited by dice rolls and a limited availability of spells. When writing fantasy, there has to be some other limit imposed by the author. I’ve listed a couple of very creative examples below, plus my own issues with the problem of magic in my fictional world.
Fred Saberhagen’s “Swords” books – these Swords were god-forged with immense powers. Other more mundane magics were available in this world, but the focus is on these swords. Almost always, using the magic of a particular Sword meant the wielder faced a penalty. The Sword “Farslayer” for example, would kill any desired target at any distance, but the wielder lost the word in the process. “Sightblinder” caused one’s appearance to change, but the wielder had no control over that appearance. Instead, the viewer would see the wielder as a much loved or feared person, and the appearance would change quickly. The wielder of “Shieldbreaker” could be overwhelmed by unarmed adversaries, whom the Sword could not damage. These limitations allow the story to be a great deal more interesting and keeps the characters in tighter boundaries when using the Swords.
By the way, if you haven’t read these books in a long time (I last read them in the early 90’s), give them a look soon. It’s really a very good series.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Series – this system of magic is really original and one of my favorites. The magic user ingests various metals, which then impart a particular power to them. Access to and scarcity of these metals help to control their use. In addition, only certain people are born with these abilities. Sanderson has created a tiered set of these users who have the power to metabolize the metals. The series is big, still growing and takes place in several different time settings. It’s really unique and very well done.
JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series – Gandalf does very little “classic magic” in these books. It’s almost as if Tolkien attempts to avoid the problem of magic. Certainly there are allusions to it all over the place in the four primary books (and supporting works), but few instances or explanations of actual use. Does Gandalf cast fireballs at the wolves in The Hobbit? No, he lights pine cones with his staff and hurls those. Does he shield himself from the Lord of the Nazgul’s attack? No, he suffers the attack and his staff is destroyed. He destroys Saruman’s staff at Orthanc but there is no explanation of how or why, other than he has returned to replace the former White Wizard. And of course these books are very successful, so generations of readers have forgiven Tolkien for not providing a solid explanation or traditional magic attacks. On the surface Tolkien has avoided the problem.
This is a situation I’m struggling with in my own fictional world. I have made a significant degree of progress writing the first books of two different trilogies. Both trilogies take place in the same world, though at different times. The world is recovering from a catastrophic meteor strike where most of the population is dead. It’s a classic high fantasy setting with active magic and I’m working on designing the system by which that’s governed and how magic is made available to the users. It’s been a fun challenge and I’ve picked up a lot of ideas from my recent readings.
I’d be curious to hear what magic system you’re using in your stories to control the problem of magic. So, abra-cadabra, make those comments appear below!