Tropes…love ’em or hate ’em, some seem to be here to stay. Whether they should or not is actually up to the individual reader. I think the main problem with tropes is that an author reads a story, they’re so drawn into the world of those characters, and they love those characters so much, they decide they want to write a story like that. Okay, that’s great. Imitation is often referred to as the highest form of flattery. However, there’s a problem. When someone decides to write a story like that, they often have a tendency to rewrite THAT particular story. Oh, not in the manner of plagiarism—though that’s happened—but they’ve taken the bare bones of the inspiring story and just dressed it up in different clothing. There’s not a whole lot out there that hasn’t been done before, and most stories have commonalities as their core. Because of this, you have a tendency to see certain tropes that pop up quite often in specific genres. Some of those tropes have such a universal theme you’ll find them in other genres as well. The secret is, if you do decide to go with a tried and true trope that a lot of readers still love, then you need to find a way to put a new spin on it. To teach an old dog new tricks.
M is for…
Magic Without Boundaries or Consequences
While this is primarily found in pure fantasy novels, you’ll come across it in other genres where the story has fantasy elements. You’ve probably come across it in one novel or another, and you might even be able to name that novel right off the top of your head. Simply put, Magic Without Boundaries or Consequences occurs when the magic-wielders can use obscene amounts of magic without ever getting tired or suffering any ill side effects. It also occurs when you see magic-wielders who are supremely powerful and have a spell that will take care of anything and everything.
There are a couple of reasons this is problematic. First, if the magic-wielders are so powerful, why is there even a struggle in the manuscript? If the good guys have such a powerful magician/witch/wizard/sorcerer, why can’t they just destroy or capture the bad guy before he gets out of hand? How is there even any conflict? If it’s the bad guy who is so powerful, again, how is there a conflict? Why doesn’t he just take over the world? Why don’t either of these characters basically take on a god-like persona?
The exception to this would be when you’re dealing with characters who are gods of some sort. Their lack of involvement is usually explained with the age-old reason that they don’t involve themselves in the affairs of mortals, unless it directly impacts the gods. Fair enough. In those cases, the gods may become involved, but what they can or can’t do is usually limited, and there are reasons for that. For example, one book series I know of has gods who become involved in the affairs of mortals because it has direct bearing on the gods. Another god of their pantheon is the one causing all the trouble. However, the other gods are reluctant to get involved at first, because they have their own very specific laws about how they must deal with each other. Much to the annoyance of the humans involved. Due to circumstances like this, the display of a god’s all-powerful magic either isn’t seen at all, or it’s saved for something very specific.
Back to our normal magic-wielders. You’ve seen them. They’re the ones who continually blast through devastatingly powerful spells, and they just keep right on doing it. They don’t need any time to rest and recharge, because they don’t get tired or pass out, or suffer any other ill effects. Now, this can depend on the magic of your world, so you have to have a pretty concrete idea of how it works, and you should communicate that to your readers without boring them with it. Does the magic come from within the mage? Does the mage have the capability of drawing the power directly from the world? Does the magic depend entirely on spell components? Knowing how the magic in your world works is important, because if you know how it works, you can set limits on the magic and create consequences that are believable. For example, most magic is portrayed as coming from power within the mage. Since this type of magic is essentially energy, a mage’s magical ability should be limited by their physical energy. They should get tired and need rest after using a lot of spells, or even after one or two very powerful spells. They should black out or suffer another major side effect after overexertion, after attempting a powerful spell when they haven’t had enough time to recharge, or after attempting a spell that is too advanced for them.
Though they’re from movies, I can think of two good examples where consequences for using magic were employed. The first is from The Covenant. In this movie, there are four young men who are warlocks and are referred to as The Sons of Ipswich. They’re descended from four of five magical families. While they have some power earlier, they don’t come into their true power until they turn eighteen. The drawback? Using their power is addictive, and their power is tied to their life force. The more they use it, they more they WANT to use it. When they use their power, it takes away from their life force. At one point in the movie, we finally see the main character’s father. Even though the man hasn’t really even hit middle-age chronologically, physically, he looks like he’s in his eighties…and time hasn’t been kind. Not only is the magic seductive, making the user addicted if they aren’t careful, it ages the user dramatically.
The other is from Mirror, Mirror. While it isn’t quite as complicated or involved as The Covenant, it does use the premise that magic ages the user.
What about if your characters are able to simply draw the energy from their world? Should there be any consequences for that? This one’s a little trickier, because I can see both sides of the coin in this situation. First, you could say that because the character is merely a conduit, it shouldn’t require any energy from them, so they shouldn't suffer any kind of drain. I can see that argument, but I can also see why some people would say it would take the user’s energy to tame the wild energy of the world and to use it to achieve the effect they want. Honestly, I can see this particular situation going either way. If an author chooses to use this in their world, I think they should still flesh out how the magic works and find a way to explain either situation believably.
What if your characters only use magic that comes from spell components? With this one, in my personal opinion, the mage is still going to use energy to achieve the desired result. Now, you may set your world up so all the mage has to do is learn the words to the spell, follow the directions, and use the proper components to explain why there isn’t any physical drain. Of course, in a world like this, you’d have to plan the magic very carefully. Unless you could find a plausible explanation, there wouldn’t be a lot of elemental manipulation, or at least not in the form of a character being able to conjure fireballs out of thin air, or being able to shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips. Elemental magic would require careful considerations as to how you could make it work. And what would be special about mages? In a world like this, anyone could be a mage. If you don’t want to create a society where everyone’s a mage, in a world like this, you’d have to be able to explain why everyone can’t be a mage. Maybe only people from certain families are allowed to be mages. Maybe there are schools that children are sent to, and unless you completed training through those schools, it was illegal for you to even own magical implements. Perhaps the laws are so strict that a person who is untrained and found to merely be in possession of a magical implement is imprisoned for an extremely long time, or even put to death. If the children attend schools to learn how to be mages, how does that work? Do parents apply the moment their child is born and hope they get in? Do all children attend a basic magic school, and then the school determines who they want to continue on into the more advanced studies, with those who were rejected being forced to agree to never practice magic? Are all of those rejected children put to death? Are they forever watched to make certain they don’t try to use what little magical knowledge they have? Or is there some kind of memory wipe (whether technological or magical) that makes them forget what they learned?
While there are some tropes that I actually enjoy, I have to agree this one can be annoying. If you choose to have characters who use magic, keep these things in mind. A lot of people enjoy stories with magic in them, but they also get exasperated with this trope. They want magic they can believe in, and since most magic-wielders in stories are humans, it’s hard to swallow a mage who has an unending supply of spells, who has a spell for EVERYTHING, and who has an unending supply of energy. None of us have an unending supply of energy, and it stands to reason that magic does require the use of energy. There needs to be some kind of consequence for using magic. At the very least, the mage needs to be tired after using it. And it can’t be the answer to everything. If it’s used as such, it’s basically a built-in deus ex machina. And really, who wants that?