Yesterday, while I
assembled a side table attempted to assemble a side table with terrible instructions and ill-fitting hardware, I was watching some Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. I found myself cringing through hands-down the worst fantasy movie I’ve ever seen, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom* (episode 10, by the way.) “Deep hurting! DEEP HURTING!!”
I’ve been reading about creating magic systems lately — it’s the part of Olivyn that needs the most planning — and one crucial element to work out is the cost of doing magic. Everything comes at a cost (or, TANSTAAFL, for my fellow Heinlein fans), and that includes magical/special powers. If it didn’t, why would it be special? And why wouldn’t everyone use it, all the time?
Instead, you see magic where it taxes the user physically. (A lot of magic seems to.) Perhaps there’s blood-letting involved, or the user has to drain life energy of someone, willing or unwilling. (Hart’s Hope comes to mind.) Usually there’s a social/cultural stigma towards magic-users. It might involve valuable objects, or rare materials. It may mark or maim the user’s body over time. It may tie them to a location (Uprooted), or bind them to a kingdom. They may be confronted with laws governing use, user, or both. It may damage them spiritually. (Harry Dresden.) The point is, magic costs you something. Or, at least, it should.
Besides the multitude of other bad things about Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, I was struck by how the magic cost both protagonist and antagonist NOTHING. Zero. Zip. In a key moment, the evil-usurper-wizard**, having repeatedly threatened his prisoner (evil?-queen-wizard) by execution, and later, with a knife, turns around to discover her freed, and zap! Vanishes her. If he could do that the whole time, why then and not an hour earlier in the film? And if he can do that at any time, why do we care? There’s no dramatic tension. And the climactic battle between young-boy-king-wizard and evil-usurper-wizard becomes meaningless. Why doesn’t evil-usurper-wizard vanish the kid? Wouldn’t you, y’know, lead with that?
Anyway. I’m flogging a poorly-written movie possibly more than it deserves. (Maybe not. It really was quite bad.)
Point is, the reader/viewer has to care about what’s happening. A story solely made up of omnipotent characters would get boring pretty quick, as would an impossibly one-sided conflict. If the antagonist can nuke the protagonist on page one, why wouldn’t he? And why would we root for the other guy if he doesn’t stand a chance? The way to make them care is to balance the power (be that magical, mental, weapons, whatever) with costs and consequences.
* Most fantasy movies — not all, but MOST — made in the 1980s are deliriously bad. This one raised the bar for “terrible”… yet, somehow, someone thought it did well enough to merit a sequel, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (episode 11). Yes. You read that right. They made a SEQUEL of this terrible, terrible movie. Far as I could tell, the sequel is about a teenage wizard discovering girls for the first time. Oh, and magic. I guess. Kind of.
** No, I don’t remember any of the names. This movie is barely watchable with riffing, as background noise while doing something else.