Magic, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on how to create effective magic in your stories. You can also read parts one and two if you missed them.

This post will address the last two issues I raised about how to make magic work:
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

So let’s get right down to business.

5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)

Stories thrive on suspense. Without it, your story will have a slow pace, and people won’t be interested in reading it.

In order for there to be suspense, there needs to be some kind of unresolved issue or conflict. There needs to be obstacles in the characters’ paths. There needs to be challenges.

The problem is, magic, superpowers, and other supernatural abilities can sometimes bypass a lot of those challenges. If you have a story with supernatural elements, you need to know how to create appropriate challenges.

A simple example of this trope is the issue that can arise in some Dungeons and Dragons based stories, such as The Order of the Stick. If you’ve ever played a high-level D&D game, you know that wizards in such games usually have easy access to things like teleportation spells. Spells like this can make some obstacles far too easy to overcome. If the characters in the story can snap their fingers and be on the other side of the continent, they can immediately bypass any obstacles such as weather, bandits on the road, or getting lost in the wilderness. Some authors address this issue by simply not allowing the characters in their stories to teleport (something that Rich Burlew, the author of The Order of the Stick, did to keep his characters more limited).

Fans of many works often complain, however, if such obvious types of magic don’t exist or aren’t used. For example, a common complaint about The Lord of the Rings is that Gandalf should have been able to simply teleport straight to Mount Doom, or, alternatively, that he should have summoned the giant eagles and had them fly the party straight to the volcano.

Doing something like that would remove any conflict and end the story. This leads to a problem: many fans will complain that the only reason such a power was removed from the story was to prevent the easy solution from happening. The common explanation is “if he had done that, there wouldn’t have been any movies, so therefore he didn’t do it.” This is a flimsy explanation, and should never actually be used by the author.

In order to keep the suspense in a story, you shouldn’t simply remove or block certain types of magic, especially if they are important in other scenes. It doesn’t make any sense to give a character a teleportation power and then make it so that they can’t use it. You shouldn’t introduce some sort of disability to a character (such as temporarily removing their powers) just to stop them from using their powers to solve a problem. Doing so can be seen as cliche and overdone. Movies and shows like Heroes, Spiderman 2, and the anime The Slayers have all had scenarios where a character temporarily loses their powers and they have to regain them. It’s been done, and it should be avoided unless it serves a more central purpose to the story (such as happening for a reason other than “because the character was growing too powerful”).

So if your character DOES have a magical power that is so strong they can solve any problem, how do you create conflict?

Let’s consider the Superman Dilemma.

Superman is probably the ultimate example of a character so powerful that he can solve any problem. He’s super strong, fast, invulnerable to most attacks, and has a wide array of powers that outclasses most other superheroes. In most scenarios, there are only two ways to give Superman a challenge: either break out some kryptonite, or put Superman up against an even more powerful villain.

Using kryptonite against Superman gets overdone after awhile, since it becomes cliche to think that every lowly thug can find this ultra-rare rock and use it against Supes. Breaking out a more powerful villain every time can often lead to an arms race that results in power levels growing too strong (See below, “6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)”). However, there is a third option that is much more effective.

The best example of how to create suspense with a powerful character like Superman is the ending of the first Superman movie starring the late Christopher Reeves. I’m not talking about the part where Lex Luthor breaks out some kryptonite; that scene is over fast, and it isn’t nearly as suspenseful as what follows. Instead, I’m talking about the wide-scale catastrophe that results from Lex’s nuclear missiles.

First, Superman has to deal with the fact that there are two missiles to stop, and he isn’t able to stop them both in time. He manages to hurl one into space, but the other one strikes in Los Angeles. Once the missile strikes, an earthquake starts, and then there are dangers all over the place. Superman is racing around, repairing the damage to the San Andreas Fault, trying to stop a train from being thrown off the tracks, rescuing kids on a school bus that is about to fall off a bridge, stopping the water from a broken dam from destroying the city, and stopping a nuclear power plant from going into meltdown. Meanwhile, Lois Lane gets buried under tons of rocks and debris, and she dies.

The suspense here is never about Superman himself being in danger. It’s about Superman failing. Even with all of his powers, he can’t save everyone. This creates conflict and suspense. The audience is never afraid that Superman is going to die. In fact, most people would laugh at the very IDEA that Superman could die . . . his NAME is in the movie title, after all!

There are other stories that face similar issues, even when there is no magic. In the TV series 24, fans often complain that Jack Bauer can’t die, because he is the main character. However, there are plenty of other suspenseful things that can happen to a character, aside from death. In 24, Jack loses his wife, his job, and his freedom. He suffers deep psychological traumas. He fails, on multiple occasions, to save his friends, and has to see many people he cares about die. His failures, not the chance of death, are what create the suspense.

If you have powerful magic in your story, you can still create suspense by putting your characters up against challenges that they can’t overcome, even with their powers. If they are facing a city-wide disaster, even the most powerful magic might not be fast enough or strong enough to save everyone at once. If your character is immune to harm, they can still suffer emotional trauma and loss if their friends or loved ones are killed. If they can teleport straight to the volcano, there can still be a mad wizard raising an army of orcs who won’t be stopped once the ring is destroyed. There are many ways to add suspense.

By remembering that suspense comes from the chance that the character will fail in their goals, rather than from the chance that they will die, you open the door to many other types of drama. Your hero could have the power to save the world, but still fail to win the heart of their love interest. They might be able to stop an army of vampires from taking over, but still fail to save a family member from a mundane disease. No matter how powerful your character’s magic is, there are still ways to create suspense.

There’s also another way to make your story suspenseful even when your characters have powerful magic. The magic itself can be an obstacle. In my novel, “Manifestation,” one of the main characters develops a magical power that is dangerous and uncontrolled. The magic itself causes problems wherever she goes. By creating a magical ability that can’t be controlled, the magic creates the suspense, rather than resolving it.

Obstacles come in many forms, and you should choose obstacles that your character’s magic won’t help with. This is a more effective way to add suspense than simply increasing the scale of the obstacles. Which brings us to:

6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

How strong should your character’s magic be? I briefly touched on this point in part 4, “How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic.” You can have one character strong enough to lift a car, and another character strong enough to lift a mountain. You can have one character who can run 100 miles per hour, or another who can run 1000 miles per hour. How high you set the power level will have a few different impacts on your story.

First of all, in order to avoid “The Superman Dilemma,” as described above, it can be better to keep your characters’ power levels in check. A less powerful character is easier to challenge, and they have to work harder in order to achieve their victories. If you make your character too strong, you might find yourself stuck in a corner when you can’t figure out good ways to challenge that character.

Another reason to keep your characters’ power levels low is to give them room to grow. If you create a character with massive powers from the beginning, they won’t be able to grow stronger over time. If you consider Superman, he usually faces this issue. In most Superman retellings, Supes has his full array of powers pretty much from the beginning. However, if you watch the TV series Smallville, you’ll see that they started Clark off with only a limited number of powers. He gains new powers at the rate of about one per season of the show. This way, he’s able to constantly grow more powerful, without ever reaching a point where things get out of control.

You can also add more drama and conflict in later stories if you start things off small. If you are writing a fantasy series, you’ll need to escalate the level of conflict in each story in order to keep your readers on edge. By starting off in the first book with low-level powers, you can show the characters growing more powerful throughout the entire story. A good example of this is the Wheel of Time series. There are 14 books in the series, and the main characters were discovering and unlocking new powers all the way up through the final battle. If the characters had been at their full power levels from the first book, they wouldn’t have had the room to keep growing.

By keeping the characters’ power levels limited, you’ll also keep yourself from having to introduce insanely powerful villains to counter them. If you keep introducing more and more powerful villains, eventually you’ll reach the point where you can’t outdo yourself anymore. For example, after Buffy the Vampire slayer defeated a goddess at the end of season 5, many fans complained about the wimpy villains that were introduced in the next season.

I addressed this issue in my novel by having the characters manifest their powers for the first time during the story (you didn’t think I chose the name “Manifestation” out of a hat, did you?). They spend most of the first book without much understanding of how their powers work. I’m planning on a minimum of three books in this series, and that leaves me plenty of room for the characters to grow more powerful as time passes.

That’s all I have to say about Magic for now. However, you should also consider checking out this interesting post by my friend, Mari Wells. In it, she discusses various types of magic, and she takes on a different perspective than the one I offer here. I definitely recommend giving it a read.

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