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Should Magic have a price?

Azul-din

Troubadour
Magic in a story comes in two basic forms: either it is integral to the story from the get go, or it has to be discovered. Where Magic has to be discovered sometimes it has to be paid for and sometimes not. An example you all probably know is Elric's sword Stormbringer- magic, but at a price. Then there is the legend of Faust. I could cite two versions, the one by Goethe, and 'Doctor Faustus ' by Philip Marlow. Both have as a device that Faust sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and magical powers. Goethe's version is a multi-levelled work of literary fantasy while Marlow's is a simple retelling of the myth, with the best ending of the two, in my opinion. You could also cite Odin, who sacrificed an eye for wisdom and had himself pierced with a spear and hung himself on a tree for nine days and nights to learn the magic of the Runes.

Tolkien hated analogy, and the price paid by the Ringbearer was more or less implicit in the search for ultimate power, ne?

So which makes a better story, IYHO? Paid for or not?
 

CupofJoe

Myth Weaver
Magic should always have a price. Otherwise it just is something else in your world.
[It didn't go anywhere but] I had a story of a Battle mage on retirement performing good and worthy deeds with his magic to try and clear his ledger of the pain and death he'd caused.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
IMHO, it's not about if one way of doing it is better. It's about what's better for the story you want to tell.

Both can be used to tell a good story. It's like any tool. Wielded with skill, it can work wonders.
 
I think it’s worth looking at the origins of the concept of ‘magic’ to answer this question. From my own understanding the concept of magic comes from a variety of sources including mythology and religion as a way to foster healing, divination, protection and to understand the world around us. And your example of Odin is a good doorway I think to understanding why magic must have a price. My surface level knowledge of Norse mythology tells me that that particular story was about sacrifice. He sacrificed something in order to gain something greater, and I think that is fairly true to life. In any mythology or religion those sorts of stories often have a moral lesson in them. When have you sacrificed something in order to hopefully gain something greater? Most things worth doing have a price.

You could explore a magic system that doesn’t include a sacrifice or a price for sure. Now ask what that would look like? What form would it take?
 
Can’t tell if you’re talking to me or the OP - but…I only watched a couple of HP films, and I read the first book when in came out, but that was a long time ago…I don’t know, it’s a pretty soft magic system, but Hermione, Ronny boy and old Harry all seem to have paid quite a heavy physical and emotional toll by going through all that stuff they go through.
 

Queshire

Auror
Price can come in many forms. The time spent learning the precise movements and words to a spell is a price. Needing to have a certain stick like object on you at all times to use your magic is a price. I mean, just imagine losing your wand as easily as you lose your phone. The expectations that come with being known as a wizard and getting enmeshed with wizarding society due to the learning process is a price.

Even then though, for most magic users in Harry Potter a big use of magic is to replicate modern day conveniences in an admittedly fantastical manner. It's basically the equivalent to having access to electricity or clean running water for them.

Now, in a post apocalyptic setting or in the wake of some disaster it might be that you'd have some characters go through a lot of effort or pay a cost in order to secure access to electricity or water, but in an urban fantasy setting in the middle of a city then access to electricity or water is a given. Unless someone goes to the effort of messing with it then the cost is the actual cost of paying the utility bill and nothing more.

Similarly, in a setting where magic is a given in everyday life there isn't a need for an onerous cost to the magic.
 

Insolent Lad

Maester
In my primary mythos, I have a very hard magic system (pretty close to SF) and the only price for those with the inborn ability is that it is physically and mentally demanding, and can lead those without proper preparation to madness (the glimpsing of the infinite other worlds can do that, y'know?).

However, I've been dabbling with a project where magic follows (more or less) Newtonian laws of physics. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—the mage needs to know the repercussions of every spell and how to keep that from rebounding on them. That's the 'price' there; it's built in and must be considered and dealt with.
 
in Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, the protagonist Évike becomes a human sacrifice for her village, but they send her because she was born without magical powers. The Woodsman doesn’t know this and it’s all a ruse, but Évike so badly wants to have magical powers that she hacks off one of her fingers in angry attempt to please the God of the underworld, who in return for her sacrifice gives her powers. I liked that the writer chose to explore that element of a character taking back some power for themselves in a situation like that, when there has been a lack of control over their life, to take it into their own hands took a certain amount of both courage and pain.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
Thank you for all your replies! The situation here is that my MC comes from a world where travel to the human world is achieved by means of a portal, provided by a diminutive race called the 'Lares' (two syllables if it matters) The words and gestures necessary to summon them are known to most inhabitants. The question my MC has to solve is, 'why do the Lares do it? What do they get out of it? What the MC will discover is that not everyone who goes through a portal emerges at the other side. The human world is a dangerous place but she discovers that it is only males who sometimes do not make the journey. What comes to light is that the Lares for generations have been culling a small proportion to use in something like gladiatorial contests in the Lares' world. They themselves are not a warlike race, just wealthy and bored.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
I think it’s worth looking at the origins of the concept of ‘magic’ to answer this question. From my own understanding the concept of magic comes from a variety of sources including mythology and religion as a way to foster healing, divination, protection and to understand the world around us. And your example of Odin is a good doorway I think to understanding why magic must have a price. My surface level knowledge of Norse mythology tells me that that particular story was about sacrifice. He sacrificed something in order to gain something greater, and I think that is fairly true to life. In any mythology or religion those sorts of stories often have a moral lesson in them. When have you sacrificed something in order to hopefully gain something greater? Most things worth doing have a price.

You could explore a magic system that doesn’t include a sacrifice or a price for sure. Now ask what that would look like? What form would it take?
I would agree that the cost of magic could be implicit or explicit. In 'The Subtle Knife', part three of the 'His Dark Materials' the true cost of wielding the knife to create openings between worlds only appears at the very end. That is why I find the Faust legend so useful in this regard.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
Price can come in many forms. The time spent learning the precise movements and words to a spell is a price. Needing to have a certain stick like object on you at all times to use your magic is a price. I mean, just imagine losing your wand as easily as you lose your phone. The expectations that come with being known as a wizard and getting enmeshed with wizarding society due to the learning process is a price.

Even then though, for most magic users in Harry Potter a big use of magic is to replicate modern day conveniences in an admittedly fantastical manner. It's basically the equivalent to having access to electricity or clean running water for them.

Now, in a post apocalyptic setting or in the wake of some disaster it might be that you'd have some characters go through a lot of effort or pay a cost in order to secure access to electricity or water, but in an urban fantasy setting in the middle of a city then access to electricity or water is a given. Unless someone goes to the effort of messing with it then the cost is the actual cost of paying the utility bill and nothing more.

Similarly, in a setting where magic is a given in everyday life there isn't a need for an onerous cost to the magic.
Then of course there is the 'Power of the Dark Side' in the Star Wars' Mythos. This is a very old concept, going back to 'The Left Hand Path' of Eliphas Levi or perhaps even further. The idea is that one can gain power from following the left hand path but there is always a price to pay at the end. Like the price for immortality in the 'Dracula' legends.
 

Queshire

Auror
Then of course there is the 'Power of the Dark Side' in the Star Wars' Mythos. This is a very old concept, going back to 'The Left Hand Path' of Eliphas Levi or perhaps even further. The idea is that one can gain power from following the left hand path but there is always a price to pay at the end. Like the price for immortality in the 'Dracula' legends.

I'm not sure how that follows off of my post. =/
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
If the question is which makes for a better story, then I think Magic should have a cost.

Everything has a cost, whether we know it not. So why would magic be different?

The cost is subjective though, and can range from giving up limbs, to just every day things, like friendships and personal character. Maybe something along the lines of absolute power corrupts absolutely...

Magic that does not have a cost would seem to me to be in the realm of children's type magic. Which is fine, if that is the story we want.

Magic with a cost add a bit more depth to the tale, and is another vehicle to raise the stakes if needed.


Thank you for all your replies! The situation here is that my MC comes from a world where travel to the human world is achieved by means of a portal, provided by a diminutive race called the 'Lares' (two syllables if it matters) The words and gestures necessary to summon them are known to most inhabitants. The question my MC has to solve is, 'why do the Lares do it? What do they get out of it? What the MC will discover is that not everyone who goes through a portal emerges at the other side. The human world is a dangerous place but she discovers that it is only males who sometimes do not make the journey. What comes to light is that the Lares for generations have been culling a small proportion to use in something like gladiatorial contests in the Lares' world. They themselves are not a warlike race, just wealthy and bored.
What does the opening question have to do with this? Are you thinking the MC is not paying a cost? or the Lares?
 
It very much depends on what you mean with Price. If you make the definition of price so broad that it includes everything you could possibly have to do to do the magic, then yes, magic will have a price, but then the word becomes useless. But I get the impression that's not what you mean here. It's more about the character having to suffer or give up something in order to gain the power.

Then no, magic does not need to have a price.

Like Queshire mentions Harry Potter Magic doesn't have a Price. You only need a want and to know the right words + movement and you're good to go. You could accidentally pick up a wand from the street and mumble the right words and flick the want and cast a spell. Yes, to get better you need to learn stuff, but that's not a Price. There's nothing wrong with that.

Mistborn magic also doesn't have a Price. You need the raw materials to be able to do the magic. And some training is nice (though not necessary). But there is no big Price attached to it. It's just magic.

It very much depends on the story you want to tell. Lord of the Rings is, in part, about the corruption of power. Which is why the ring carries a Price. However, Gandalf's magic doesn't have a price attached to it. Neither does Aragorn's or Galadriel's. The story doesn't require it. It's just part of the world and its innate magic.

Now, you probably want to have some for of limitation on your magic. That can be a price you have to pay. Or getting exhausted. Or running out of raw materials. Or whatever. Without a limitation on your magic your character can do pretty much anything, which means there isn't much of a story to tell.
 
I think it’s worth noting that even though there are examples of literal transactional kinds of magic - you must give something in order to gain the magic - that therefore has a literal price, I don’t think the concept of price / cost / sacrifice becomes worthless in meaning once when you’re dealing with types of magic that don’t have that literal transaction. The example of Odin making the sacrifice of losing his eye is both literal and conceptual. I think it makes for more powerful storytelling when you explore the metaphorical as much as the literal.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
If the question is which makes for a better story, then I think Magic should have a cost.

Everything has a cost, whether we know it not. So why would magic be different?

The cost is subjective though, and can range from giving up limbs, to just every day things, like friendships and personal character. Maybe something along the lines of absolute power corrupts absolutely...

Magic that does not have a cost would seem to me to be in the realm of children's type magic. Which is fine, if that is the story we want.

Magic with a cost add a bit more depth to the tale, and is another vehicle to raise the stakes if needed.



What does the opening question have to do with this? Are you thinking the MC is not paying a cost? or the Lares?
Remember the Rabbits in 'Watership Down'? They got a secure and safe environment which to a prey animal might seem magical- Then there was the 'Wire' that removed one of their number whenever the humans got hungry. And they seemed to regard the Wire as the necessary cost of their security? Something along those lines was what I was exploring.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
"Should?" No. "Can?" Absolutely. In our urban fantasy series the cost of magic is dependent on what sort of magician we're dealing with. It's pretty straightforward and most magicians don't pay too much for the power they use as long as they don't overdo.

In the next trilogy we're developing, though, magic does have a cost, and that cost is paid in flesh and blood. The greater the magic being attempted, the greater the cost.

So, it's really a matter of personal preference on the author's part and what makes sense in your metaphysics and your world building.
 

Dankolisic

Minstrel
Magic has a price either way. Unless it is something nearly infinite like in Harry Potter.

If magic exists, someone has to wield it. Someone better, and someone worse. So giving their time and the probability that using magic would be deemed religious/heretic/solitude someone must spend time to use it. That is the cost; time. If it is free for everyone then it's ultimate chaos :D

If it is something that you can find scattered or mined, something like crystals or stones, or maybe some folks can generate pure magic, then why not. If it is in the story and the lore, could be fun to play with that.

My opinion, if I would include magic, I would go with the second one. First one feels exhausted by games and books and the other is not that much used except for a couple of games and books.
 
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