Power is a ubiquitous theme in fantasy. Over and over, we see questions about who has power, how they got it, and whether they wield it wisely.
The Quest for Political Power
One of the most common elements in a fantasy plot is a struggle over who should rule the kingdom. That quest for political power is often backed up by military might, i.e. physical power. So there are lots of exciting battles, ranging from single combat to large scale warfare.
But political and military power are not the only kinds of power at play. In fantasy, magic often serves as a second source of power, once that can be used to curb the physical might of a ruler.
Where Does Magic Come From?
As with political power, it’s often a good idea to ask who has magic and how they got it. What is the source of the magic? Why do some people have it and others don’t?
Sometimes the answer is that the ability to use magic is inborn. It’s inherited from parents, the way the power of a king usually is. The Harry Potter series offers an example of that. Like hereditary rule, you can’t look too closely at the fairness of the situation. Rather this kind of story usually revolves around using the inherited power in a just way. So Harry Potter is a better person than Voldemort. I feel silly even writing that sentence but you know what I mean.
Sometimes magic is earned through devotion to a god. Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series offers an example of this. Eugenides prays and offers sacrifices. If he’s done it right, the god might respond by helping him.
Sometimes characters pay for magic in other ways. In Kristin Cahore’s Graceling series, characters who are graced can carry out some action in a particularly skillful or strong way. The action can be trivial (icing a cake) or life changing (surviving). But in at least some parts of the world, graced characters are expected to serve the king whether they want to or not. So being graced isn’t always a blessing.
But no matter how characters get their magic, an author does well to somehow limit its use.
Limiting Magic’s Power
One of the reasons Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite is that if he weren’t, he’d never be in any real danger and that restricts the kind of plot the writer can use.
The general rule is that magic should cause at least as many problems as it solves. It could mean the character has to hide what they’re doing. Or using the magic exhausts them. Or to use it, the character has to do hard things.
Magic that’s unlimited is like unlimited political power—not a good thing for the character and not a good thing for the plot.
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A pickpocket girl and a smuggler’s son stumble on treason and can stop it only by betraying their families.