Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 2 of 5: There's No Free Lunch

∆E = 0

The law of conservation of energy.  It’s the first law of thermodynamics, one of the most important physical laws of the universe.   And just because there’s magic involved doesn’t mean we have to break it.

In a nutshell, the first law means that you have to end up with the same amount of energy you started out with—no more, no less.  If you burn a tank of gas, for example, the chemical energy in the liquid fuel is converted to kinetic energy (the motion of your car) and heat.  The energy contained in your sandwich might get turned into you running a marathon.  (Or, in my case, just sitting on the couch, but for longer.)

I’m not going to argue for total scientific realism in fantasy fiction (where’s the fun in that?), but I do think we can stick to the spirit of the law.  Supernatural powers ought to come at a price.  For example, in the first book of Stacia Kane’s Downside series, the price of summoning and controlling a particularly powerful ghost is a human soul.  Doesn’t get much creepier than that.  Even in the teen drama The Vampire Diaries, vampires who don’t drink human blood are weaker than their murderous counterparts. 

The price doesn’t have to be a human sacrifice: it can be something as simple as time.  In Harry Potter, just because the kids have magical abilities doesn’t mean they can snap their fingers and get whatever they want.  It takes years of study and practice before they can accomplish spells.  And there are limits.  Wizards can’t create food they don’t already have.

Supernatural powers get a little boring if they come too easily.  It's one reason I'm not a big fan of day-walking vampires.  When the bloodsuckers are confined to the dark and can't enter your home without invitation, it makes their creepiness more visceral, and their gift of immortality more limited. A paranormal gift feels more precious when it comes at a cost, whether it’s a character’s personal energy, the time it takes them to study and perfect their art, or some sort of sacrifice.  The alternative is too God-like to be interesting.

What's your favorite price for supernatural power?  

(P.S.  You can check out Part One of this series here.)


  1. This is very true, and something I'm grappling a bit with in my WIP. Having "power at no price" is kind of the point of my WIP, but it does make for low stakes. I'm bending the rules a bit in the 2nd draft, having slight degrees of power where before I was strictly against that.

  2. Hmm, but your MC is a genie, right? Can the whole "master" thing provide the price? Besides, genies might be exceptions, the way gods are.

  3. And I've written about gods and genies so far. What does that say about me? (Answer: I'm a megalomaniac.)

    Yeah, at its most basic, it is an exception. However, the actual working-out of the story needs some kind of level of power. Some kind of difficulty. Some "greater power" to work towards. ... eh, it's hard to explain.

  4. :)

    "Some kind of difficulty." I totally get it.

  5. This is such an important (and fascinating) point of conflict in fantasy. Although I do think there should be more lunch in fantasy (foodie. Apologies).

    I love Jacqueline Carey's take on this -- if you've read her Kushiel novels, the price for any dabbling with gods is emotional and complex. Imriel weds a woman that he doesn't love in order to "be good," and goes as far as binding himself with a charm of foreign magic. He is punished by karma of the very worst kind. Psychological costs are like the third dimension of sacrifice, I think; you've got the material cost and the effort to organize it all, and there's the cross to bear.

    My MCs in Requiette both pay huge prices for powers; some they are tricked into and some, they make bad decisions. The seductive nature of these powers -- particularly on the vulnerable -- makes for a very twisted story.

    Joss Whedon handles this fabulously, but I imagine that's almost self explanatory.

  6. Joss Whedon does handle this fabulously, especially, as you put it, the psychological cost. I like your idea of sacrifice having three dimensions--It's never occurred to me in quite that way, but I think you're absolutely right. I wonder if different dimensions dominate in different sorts of books. It makes sense to me that the Kushiel novels are heavy on the psychological side; I'm trying to think of a series that focuses more on the physical/material cost. Maybe Ann Aguirre's Blue Diablo, in which the heroine can track the fates of objects if she handles them, but comes away with serious burns.

    Also, I completely agree about there needing to be more lunches in fantasy. Food is sensual. It deserves attention.

  7. I started watching an anime that dealt with physical costs. Darker Than Black. In it, every person had a specific trade they had to make for the magic. From wikipedia:

    "Contractors are thus named because of an involuntary compulsion to "pay the price" each time their power is used, which can range from eating particular foods and completing meaningless tasks, to self-harm and having their bodies change in peculiar ways."

    It was a pretty great pilot, but I stopped watching for a reason I can't remember.

    Okay, question. If the physical is the first dimension and psychological is the third dimension, what is the second dimension?

  8. I like the name "Contractors"--clever. And the idea of the price being an involuntary compulsion is interesting...

    I think of the second dimension as the intellectual one: the training or education you have to go through to become proficient at something. Maybe the Harry Potter series is a good example of this. Hermoine is a talented witch because she's powerful, but also because she works her butt off learning spells & practicing.