The cost of magic

A circle of crystals with a quartz in the center
Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

I read an article a while back aimed primarily at fantasy writers starting to learn the craft, about how magic must have a price OR ELSE! With “or else” basically meaning “your story sucks and you have made bad choices,” I guess.

Almost every time I read an article like this, the examples of “prices” are things like “magic drains your life force” or “it makes you lose your mind” or “it requires blood sacrifice” and I find it interesting that this is where notions of “price” tend to go. I think “price” is typically used to mean downside or drawback, which are certainly definitions of the word. While penalties or negative consequences are kinds of prices, they’re not the only kinds.

They’re not even strictly necessary! I’ve chatted with people from cultures that see magic in everyday life, and they almost uniformly found the concept of magical price jarring, as it’s described above. Magic just is! You do an egg cleanse ritual, and it gets rid of negative energy. Boom. Done. Why would it have a downside? What penalty? Did you try to curse someone? Is a ghost angry at you? Let me get you a prayer candle…

Price can be a good source of drama and angst. It can be one of the story’s conflict engines. I think, though, the way I keep seeing it discussed, price primarily functions as a limitation, a reason why magic isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems and may in fact cause its own. Price is typically an attempt to control magic use in stories so there’s no deus ex machina running rampant all over the place like a kaiju, breaking the suspension bridge of disbelief and stomping plot holes in the roads and otherwise destroying internal consistency.

But you can establish limitations that don’t default to some grim or grisly sacrifice, or enormous risk to those involved and possibly innocent bystanders. The “rules” for magic in a given fictional world can be rigid or flexible, clearly explicated or deliberately obfuscated, and you can still keep readers from asking the dreaded question: why didn’t they just…?

One alternate way to think of price is cost. Literally. Sometimes the price of magic is straight up money or access to materials. You can’t do magic if you can’t get the components. Simple comparison: plenty of people live in food deserts. Why can’t magic’s price be, “Oh no, the bodega downstairs is out of snake blood, and I can’t pay $10 for their dried frog skin anyway, guess this spell isn’t happening until my next paycheck or my cousin can drive me to Aldi”? Not a downside, but certainly a limitation.

Depending on the nature of magic in your story, you could also explore the ways in which people with limited money or access have to deal with substitutions as a matter of course. Maybe freshly harvested licorice root is ideal for a spell, but store-bought will work–with less potent results. Maybe a high-quality emerald will hold an enchantment best, but a cheaper peridot will get the job done–with occasional glitches. Maybe someone attempts a swap of thyme with something else in the mint family for a potion, hoping it’s close enough–and the effects are wildly different.

What if the expense of magic is similar to taking out a college loan, with equivalent social pressures? Maybe a debt collector isn’t going to literally eat your soul like a conjured demon might, but it’s close enough. (Or maybe there’s a cool soul-eating debt collector story waiting to be written…) If you think about it, magic loans might incentivize risky behavior if difficult-to-harvest reagents are more expensive. And imagine the secondary market for that stuff, like the used textbook market but backwards? “If I can get a claw scraping off that sleeping dragon, that takes care of two months of payments!”

There are, of course, many other ways to build limits into your magic systems. But don’t feel like you need to engage in literary contortion in an attempt to comply with a rule that isn’t actually set in stone. Ultimately, you should go with what works best for your story’s world and characters and plot and theme. Be thoughtful, be intentional, and keep a bottle of peroxide on hand if you do end up engaging in blood sacrifices. Don’t want to end up with stains on your good ritual robes.

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