On the Limits of Magic or If Everyone’s Special, then No One’s Special

I’ve been reading a lot lately (well, even more than usual) and being forcibly reminded of things that annoy me. There are many of these things for, as a friend of mine has observed I’m a woman of many and irrational hatreds, but I don’t think this one is completely irrational.

I’m sick of magic that has no limits, no boundaries. I’m tired of reading stories where magic provides all the answers to sticky problems. If magic can solve everything, then why bother to write a book about it? A narrative is about desire and needs and obstacles and struggle – that’s what gets you interested in the first place and keeps you interested up to page 612.

But if all the obstacles your character faces can be solved by some newly discovered magical power every single time there’s a problem (“Suddenly, she discovered she was born with the ability to turn the ravening dragon into a jam and cream donut”[i]), then what’s the point? It’s a cop-out. A character should fight for solutions. Solutions should cost. Magic needs rules; it needs boundaries. Set them out at the beginning of your novel, then work within those bounds – this makes your story convincing and adds the element of tension. Readers of spec-fic are already inclined to suspend their disbelief … but if you keep pulling out an enchantment or other form of stray sorcery to fix things, then that suspension will be suspended pretty quickly.

And another thing (she says stamping her foot on the soapbox): the use of magic should not be free. If you’re using magic, you’re pulling power from somewhere. You should pay for it – there needs to be a quid pro quo on power. There’s not a generous magic fairy out there, dishing out fairy dust to the universe for everyone to use it. Magic can be a blessing but it’s also a curse. Its use is a mortgage on something in a character’s life – the payback can be youth, happiness, life, beauty, blood, the life of your firstborn (BTW: if I ever offer you the latter, don’t take me up on it – there are already about seventy-two people who think they’re getting it). My point is that there has to be a price – if there’s not a value on something then what’s it worth?

And! If all of your characters have powers, you better make damned sure you can differentiate between them – adding a different coloured cape is not an option, I’m sorry. Mixing magical and non-magical characters adds texture to your narrative – reading about people overcoming their natural limitations by sheer force of will is far more engaging for a reader than “Lo, he waved his wand and it was all okay and the whole cast went home to have lemonade and scones.” I have nothing against lemonade and scones – I just want to see my characters work hard to get them.

Even when characters win, they must have lost something in order to gain their objective. That’s what makes it compelling.


[i] My next post will be a rant about the word suddenly and why there should be a limit for its use in every writer’s career, and precisely what the penalties need to be for exceeding that limit.

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15 Responses to On the Limits of Magic or If Everyone’s Special, then No One’s Special

  1. lisahannett says:

    Friends don’t let friends use coloured capes… 😉

  2. angelaslatter says:

    Or wear speedos.

  3. Kirstyn McD says:

    Well said, that woman there!

  4. angelaslatter says:

    Soon I shall have my manifesto of punishment for ‘suddenly’ over-use … then the world will be mine! *Hope I didn’t say that out loud just now*

  5. Lynne Green says:

    No limits = No fun.

  6. Liz Adkins says:

    Well thank goodness I didn’t do *that* in ‘Fingerling’… =:0

  7. Kristan says:

    Nice rant. I love it. And it’s helpful to me to remember in my new novel endeavor… 😉

  8. angelaslatter says:

    Yeah, I’m sticking it above my desk so I remember too! 🙂

  9. Flinthart says:

    Oooh. Magick Thermodynamics. Lovely!

    Agreed with every word, mind you. And I’ve got a feeling I’m going to agree with you about ‘suddenly’, too… the word makes me want to take out an axe and get hostile.

  10. Guadalupe Garcia McCall says:

    Wow! I totally agree… in fact the nobody’s special concept is the reason I stopped watching a certain popular tv show where everyone from the cheerleader girl next door to her cat started having special powers…it got boring…

  11. angelaslatter says:


  12. BinaryCortex says:

    I could not agree more.