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Because Magic: Stakes, Conflict, and the Price of Using Magic
Good morning, Pub Crawlers! Today I’d like to mainly focus on stakes in magic. Making up a world is hard work! You’re creating geography, cultural aesthetics, clothing, sometimes even language. You’re often using magic in some form or another. But I want to start by talking a little bit more in depth about a common problem I see in queries and manuscripts, and that’s the Because Magic issue.
“Because Magic” translates to “I don’t have a good reason for this thing happening, I just think it’s cool/funny/emotionally resonant”. “Because Magic” is lazy. If you’re wondering what I mean, I’ll break it down like this: if I ask why a certain conflict occurs, and your answer is “Because Magic”, or “I don’t know, I just like it,” or, “No reason”, there’s a problem. There are no stakes. An agent or an editor is going to ask you, “Why Because Magic?” They’re going to ask you, “where does magic come from? What are its rules? Why does this world need magic? Could you get rid of magic and still have the same story, the same world?”
Magic needs rules, and it needs a drawback. A price for using it, a limit to its power. This is what keeps magic in storytelling interesting. This is where the stakes come from. If magic is just this mystical thing that never runs out and can do anything at all, then a story with magic is pointless. The bad guys always lose, and conflict never means anything. Because Magic.
Some might not agree, but for me, the more cons/the higher the price to using magic, the better, because this means, you guessed it, higher stakes. The price doesn't have to be a physical price for using magic. It can be a social price as well – if using magic is akin to a death sentence because using magic is illegal, that’s just as high a price as magic that takes a bit of your soul each time you use it. This makes for a much more interesting story when your character actually does have to use magic, and a much stronger pitch when you decide to query. I’m someone who reads a hundred queries a day – give me a magic system that does something new, or scary, and creates huge stakes for your characters.
As I’ve harped on before, a query is only as interesting as the conflict and the stakes you present. Magic with a high price or lots of cons tend to have those things built in. For example, a book I read recently that had a very interesting magic system with very interesting pros and cons and a huge price was THE IMPOSTER QUEEN by Sarah Fine. The magic is elemental and hereditary for common wielders who only wield one element. The Queen is imbued with magic when she takes the throne, and can use every element. But there are several cons to using it. Magic is not socially acceptable for anyone but the Queen to use. And using too much of a person’s magic can drain them completely dry of their life force, but not using magic can completely overwhelm their body with magic. And the Queen, who has magic in spades, always seems to die young because the magic consumes.
And once Sarah Fine set up the magic like this, already fairly dire socially and physically, she added an additional, more sinister component (which I won’t spoil here – go read the book!), that makes this magic even scarier. Using magic in this world is not all puppies and rainbows – there are real consequences, both physical and social, to using or not using magic. But what’s most interesting is that she’s created a world where one cannot refrain from using their magic for fear of physical repercussions – but using it could cost them everything.
I think it’s easy to see why I’d pick this book up from a query. Just from examining the magic system alone, you can see what the stakes might be, and where the conflict might arise. It’s easy to see that I’m going to be emotionally invested in the characters, because they have personal stakes tied to using or not using magic.
I hope this was useful, and if so, I’ll probably harp on story world again at some point in the future! So, if you have questions or ideas on world building and story world you’d like me to explore in future posts, let me know below!