Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with George R.R. Martin regarding his apparent underutilization of magic within Westeros (link):
Magic should never be the solution to the problem. My credo as a writer has always been Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” That transcends genre. That’s what good fiction, good drama is about: human beings in trouble. You have to make a decision, you have to do something, your life is in danger or your honor is in danger, or you’re facing some crisis of the heart. To make a satisfying story, the protagonist has to solve the problem, or fail to solve the problem – but has to grapple with the problem in some kind of rational way, and the reader has to see that. And if the hero does win in the end, he has to feel that that victory is earned.
The danger with magic is that the victory could be unearned. Suddenly you’re in the last chapter and you wind up with a deus ex machina. The hero suddenly remembers that if he can just get some of this particular magical plant, then he can brew a potion and solve his problem. And that’s a cheat. That feels very unsatisfying. It cheapens the work.
Holy crapsticks he’s right. It’s something I suppose I always knew in my soul, but could never explain to my brain. There are many stories I’ve read – highly regarded stories – that left me dissatisfied, without ever being able to say why. If I look back, I imagine many will have fallen into this trap, in genre and out. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, we love our magic, or our force, or our uber-tech super weapon. We get excited about the shimmer and sparks, but we fall in love with the people.
Magic isn’t the answer…it might, in fact, be the problem. Words to write by.