It’s tempting to make your mage a siege-engine of shock and awe, but it can also break your world.
I’ve come across this a lot. An author has spent hundreds of pages building a coherent world that feels lived-in and real. This is nothing to sniff at; creating a sense of verisimilitude in a place inhabited by goblins, elves and demons ain’t easy. But good writers do it all the time. It’s a strange and impressive alchemy that makes the fantastic believable and the outlandish relatable.
But then, the good guys get attacked. Some terrible foe emerges, ripping up the earth, raising devils, pummeling the lines of soldiery with blocks of ice, thunderbolts and gouts of molten lead. And the mage sighs, grits his teeth in concentration and WHAM!
When the smoke clears, all the bad guys are dead, and the mage is… well, he’s a bit tired and grouchy. ‘Cor, wiping out that demonic horde really burned through my Vitamin C,’ he groans. ‘I better have a rest.’ So he goes to bed, has a sleep, and then the next day he’s ready to lay down the law again.
The trouble with this is not that the mage is powerful. Magic is supposed to be powerful, it’s supposed to be a gamechanger. But it isn’t supposed to be a gamebreaker. It isn’t supposed to be so powerful that it snaps the carefully-rendered world in two and makes it harder for you to believe in it.
So what’s my problem here?
For me, it all comes down to one question – and this is a question I think all of us fantasy authors should ask ourselves when we’re building a world. And that question is:
Q.1 “Why isn’t everyone in the world a mage?”
Think about it. If mages are so powerful that they can smash entire armies and the only blowback is a bit of exhaustion, why bother learning to fire a bow? Why bother to learn swordplay? Why bother to climb into a suit of armour? Instead of learning how to kill a man with a hand-axe you might as well spend your time in the library, and learn how to kill ten thousand with a flick of your wrist and an arcane word.
(The Hobbit: BOTFA broke for me when Galadriel slapped down Sauron with a Level 10 Restraining Order… in a world where that can happen, would Sauron even bother – or indeed dare – to try and take over the world? No, he’d be in a bunker, soiling himself in fear every time someone knocked at the door, thinking it was Cate Blanchett.)
If the only cost of powerful magic is a headache or a bit of tiredness, then this makes it no more taxing than regular combat, and a heck of a lot more impactful on the battlefield. So why isn’t everyone a mage?
In my opinion, if you want to have awesome OP magic in your books (and I luuurve awesome OP magic), there needs to be a good reason why people choose NOT to learn the magic arts. In Healer’s Ruin, the various Slingers (from ‘spell-slingers’, a derogatory term for wizardly folk) are dicing with madness every time they use their powers. Because they have to immerse themselves in a seductive other world of energy in order to haul magic into the real world, there’s always a chance they’ll get stuck there… and that’s the end of them. And sometimes, they lose themselves piecemeal… a kind of dementia of the soul.
As a consequence, most people in the world of Healer’s Ruin prefer to stick with cold steel and the certainty that they won’t go mad. Even the Ten Plains King lets other people do the spell-slinging for him. It’s a nifty way of this author having his cake, and eating it too. I can have OP magic that burns the page as you’re reading it, but there’s a cost to that magic. Sure, it’s a nice get-out clause when the shit hits the fan on the field, but there’s always drama.
And this is the golden rule of fantasy fiction, right?
Whatever happens, if you’ve lost the drama, you’ve lost the reader. And there’s no magic spell that can pull them back.
So remember the risk and reward mechanic. It keeps people playing table-top games, and it keeps people playing poker. And if you make it an integral part of your magic system, it may just keep people reading your book!