Friday, September 17, 2010

Is it worth it? A choice between sucky and suckier.

Writers are always told we need to make sure there is a ‘cost’ for anything our characters achieve or get – especially in fantasy. Magic, most of all, needs to cost the user something. I ‘knew’ this, but didn’t really understand it fully until yesterday.

As most of you know, I sprained my back last week. It was feeling better in the early part of this week, but I woke up with agonizing pain on Wednesday and yesterday – probably due to twisting during the night. Riding in my truck is the worst part – it hurts no matter how good I’m feeling before hand. Standing up from sitting down is also pretty bad. And bending forward from the waist. And moving my right leg forward.

(Stay with me, I promise this is going somewhere)

So I was driving to work Thursday morning – feeling the worst I had since the initial injury. I suddenly realized that I was cold – uncomfortably so. I really don’t enjoy being cold. At all. My A/C was cranked all the way up from driving home the day before in the afternoon heat.

Here’s the dilemma: I can’t reach my A/C controls in my truck without bending forward at the waist. Instantly, I was at war with myself. I wanted to turn the air down… but I knew it would hurt. Was it worth it? Should I endure 15 more minutes of cold air OR a second of shooting pain? One or the other; I couldn’t have it both ways. I had to make a choice.

Ideally, this is what our characters should be going through every time they gain something or use magic. They have to make a choice; and it can’t be a choice between good and “sucky.” It has to be a choice between “sucky” and “suckier.” Either way, they have to pay a price and, often, which choice they make can define them better than any description you could write.

In the world of Miranda’s Fire (title possibly changing soon), using their normal magic doesn’t cost the Mages much besides Manna (I don’t call it that, but for lack of a better term…) – but that’s because it’s their world; it’s just how things are. Much like walking doesn’t normally cost us much besides the usual energy our body has to expend – and we have a limited, though renewable, supply - just like the Mages.

However, some particular types of magic have a huge potential cost. To stretch the metaphor, you could compare this to cliff climbing without a harness; they tire out much more quickly and they might lose something more precious than renewable energy. Miranda has to make this choice over and over again. Does she use the magic and lose herself, or deny it and lose her mother?

What about you? Are your characters forced to make hard choices?


  1. Choice is the crux of any story, I think. The simple reason is because, at the heart of it, choice is really where a story blooms from. A character can choose not to go on an adventure, then you're left with 250 pages of farm, herding, and brewing stew (given we're in a typical fantasy novel).

    For this reason, I think that magic should play a deeper role in a story than just a point of contention. To extend the metaphor you gave, to deepen the plot, perhaps you had some lifting to do later on, and reaching for that AC would bring just a bit closer to being unable to do that lifting later. Now, imagine if you didn't get those boxes to where they needed to be, you'd be fired from this imagined job. The effects then cascade to build a story based on choice.

    In my opinion, this makes a magic system rich within the story. While some inhabitants of your world my just use magic as a tool in your world, it always add a bit more intrigue, in my opinion, when the system is brought to mean something more than the mundane by the actions of the characters.

  2. [...] my post went up yesterday, I’ve had a lot of people tweet at me, email me and facebook me asking one [...]