We’ve talked before about the Law of Conservation of Magic: the idea that nothing comes from nothing and therefore everything must come from something. That is to say, well-written magic should come with some sort of cost. From the Equivalent Exchange of Fullmetal Alchemist to the consequences of fairy bargains everywhere, this concept is ubiquitous in magic-related fiction.
But what if the exchange is always terrible? How can you justify using magic if you have to pay an awful price for it? The answer to that question can make or break the writing of a story.
The new Thor is a perfect example of this. We spent the first eight-issue run wondering what woman had taken up the Odinson’s mantle, and at long last the final issue revealed that it was Jane Foster—a character who we’d written off as a possibility early in the series because she’s currently battling cancer and undergoing a brutal course of chemo. In the new series we learn that being Thor is literally killing her; every time she transforms, the magic of the transformation purifies her body of anything dangerous or poisonous—like chemo—but it has no effect on the organic threat of the cancer, because it can’t differentiate between benign and malignant versions of her own cells. However, she has to keep getting the chemo to keep her cover up. So she’s getting a regular dose of toxins solely for the sake of subterfuge at this point, because she almost never spends enough time without transforming for the chemo to have any effect on her cancer.
While this is terrible and sad for Jane, from a storytelling point of view, it’s fantastic. The stakes have never been higher; Jane’s divvying up her lifespan for the sake of the greater good and she doesn’t seem to be concerned about it right now; rather than searching for a way out or revealing her secret identity by asking for help, she’s gone a little off the rails, actually. In the latest issue of Avengers, she bolts off into battle before the rest of the team can even mobilize, and then lays a big ol’ post-battle YOLO smooch on Sam Wilson. The realities of how her transformation works open up a huge bag of worms for her character’s motivation, at the core of which is “why?” Why is she still being Thor if it’s so bad for her? Has she given up hope of getting better, so she just wants to do good while she can? Is she using the Thor transformations as a sort of nobly-intended suicide, allowing her cancer to progress by negating the treatment, or is it as simple as she likes being in a body that isn’t self-destructing all the time?
Unfortunately, writers don’t always make such interesting choices when setting up stakes for their magic. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I reviewed for a Throwback Thursdays a few weeks ago, takes a more sinister approach to the concept of paying a price for magic, but I think it falls short because of it. In this series, wizard magic, unlike any other type of magic, constantly drains the area around it of magic. Wizards are not inherently magical, unlike dragons or firewitches; they’re just bog-standard humans who use staffs that absorb the ambient magic out of the natural world and harness it for their spells.
Because this price isn’t unpleasant to the user himself—and I say himself because we never meet a wizard who’s anything but male—wizards continue to use their magic with impunity. The reason this falls short to me from a writing standpoint is that it means that any character who is a wizard is morally ambiguous at best. There’s no nuance to their characters; they’re all interchangeably selfish, having chosen a career path that is dependent on appropriation, and their motivation as a group throughout the entire series is “steal more magic for ourselves with no regard for the effect doing so has on other members of society”. Unlike Thor, who’s making a tremendous, drastic sacrifice every time she transforms, these dudes are just mooching and never paying the price for their power. (Unless, of course, you count being constantly thwarted by the protagonists.) It still says a lot about their characters that they would continue to keep using their staffs and being wizards when they see the effects doing so has on their surroundings—it just doesn’t say anything particularly complimentary.
In the end, I think there’s clearly a right and a wrong way to use this sort of “expensive” magic in a story. When it’s done with nuance, it can raise the stakes of the story and make the characters’ choices really complicated and interesting. When it’s included without a full understanding of its consequences, however, it can end up falling flat, and that hurts the characterization of the story as well. If a story based around using costly magic proceeds without fully investigating the ramifications of doing so, readers may end up not caring about the sacrifices the characters are making.