Are magical objects cheating?

by Gail Z. Martin

Imagine that you live in a world where magic is commonly known to be a force of nature.  People and other creatures have the ability to work magic, large and small.  Some natural places concentrate (or repel) magic.  In such a world, is it really such a stretch to believe that natural and created objects could possess their own magic?

I’ve heard some people claim that giving a character a magical object like a ensorcelled sword, a spelled amulet or a rabbit’s foot that really is lucky is cheating.  Funny, but no one ever says the same when a character in an action movie pulls out an AK47.  To my eye, enabling an action movie hero to fight off an entire good army with one automatic weapon and limitless rounds of ammo strikes me as highly improbably, if not downright magical, and yet no one cries foul.

I write about worlds where magic is operative, so obviously I have a dog in this hunt, as they say.  And as with magic itself, I believe it’s important to have rules to keep magical objects and supernatural powers from becoming a “god in a box” type of power to  cheat and take the easy way out.  So here are my “rules” (actually, they’re more like guidelines) for magical object fairness.

#1  Warn the reader ahead of time what the object’s power is.  You can be oblique as to its full power, but the reader needs to know the magical object has limits and isn’t a whatever-the-character-wishes-it-to-be all-purpose magical Swiss Army knife.  Unless it is, in which case, rule #2 applies.

#2  If you’ve got the magical equivalent of a Swiss Army knife (a single object that can do a bijillion things), then there has to be a cost to use it, and the cooler the task the object does, the higher the price for the user.  In fact, the cost should be high enough to give any rational person pause about the danger of relying too much on the object.

#3  Give the hero reasons inherent to his/her character that makes them reluctant to use the magical object except in an emergency.  It can be pride, fear of magic, suspicion as to the object’s true nature, etc., but the hero/heroine should want to be self-reliant until all else fails.

#4  Even when circumstances leave the hero no choice except to pay the price and use the magical object, the hero should still be doing everything he/she can to save the day.  No fair sitting back and lounging while the magical object saves the day, even if you’ve just sacrificed your soul in order to get the object’s assistance.

If you think about magical objects with the same skepticism you have about “helpful” freeware programs for your computer, you start to get the picture.  Sure, the program is “free”, but does it upload malware, a virus, a trojan or some other hidden nasty that will crash the power grid, transfer every last penny out of your bank account or fry your system?  There’s no such thing as a “free” lunch, a free program or a free magical object.  Caveat emptor.

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