Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Magic

A bit ago I wrote about the responsibilities of the fantasy writer to his readers: the unwritten contract between us and them. On one of the places I posted that article, I got a comment along the lines of the contract I had talked about was pretty generic and could stand in for almost any type of fiction.

So I'm back, with a series of issues specific to the fantasy writer. Now, none of this is written in stone. A great writer, or even a really good with the right attitude can get away with violating these "rules." But please, bear in mind, if you're going to break them, A: You will annoy a fairly large segment of your reading audience. B: Don't just stumble into it. Do it on purpose, knowing you're going to do it, and do it with style. Readers will be much more likely to forgive a breach of any of these if it doesn't look like sloppy writing.

That said, let's talk magic. 

Think about this for a minute: why is there magic in your story? Put succinctly: the point of magic in your story is not to cover up sloppy writing. It is not your get-out-of-plot-holes-free ticket. It's there to add mystery, wow factor, to push your characters out of their comfort zones, add to the tension of the tale, and even up the power balance (more on power balance in a later post) between your protagonist and antagonist. It is there to color your world, and provide bounds to your reality.

And this is why it annoys people when you muck with that system. It's like reading a historical romance where the main character is constantly texting. You cheapen and violate the strength of the reality you've created when you mess with your magic. So, for the most part, don't do it.

This leads us to the number one, hard and fast, do-not-screw-with-this-if-you-want-happy-fantasy-readers rule: To Thine Own Magic Be True. Seriously. Tattoo this on the backs of both of your hands so that it's staring up at you while you write. Want to annoy your readers? Set up a multi-book series where you suddenly decide that the magical laws you spent so long creating no longer hold true.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to all rules, so there are ways you can muck with your magical system and have it work: Take your characters to a new world. All the rules can go out the window then. If the point of your story is to find some sort of universe altering magic, then the readers are unlikely to be annoyed if, when your characters find it, the magic changes.  Or, any variation on the theme of your main character is Super-Duper Special, The One Whose Coming is Foretold, and part of what makes him super-duper special is that upon fully coming into his power, all the rules get tossed out, works as well. (Though there does seem to be Super-Duper Special Character Fatigue among certain segments of the fantasy reading world.)

Finally, there's Balogium. This is a special sort of magic, and though allowable, it's generally frowned upon. But, for the most part, you can get away with one a book, though readers would prefer closer to one a series. Balogium is a symptom of insufficient plot wrangling. It's a piece of magic that, if used logically, and to it's full extent, would blow your plot and magical system to hell and gone. It's the Time Turner in Harry Potter. Because of insufficient plot wrangling, your plot won't work without the Balogium, so you've got this magical thing in there to save your plot. There's a sort of unspoken agreement concerning Balgonium: you, the author will use it sparingly, and destroy it as soon as possible after it's use, so that it doesn't mess with the rest of your plot, and the reader will pretend not to notice your plot got away from you.

Those exceptions aside, if you can't summon food out of the ether in chapter five and suddenly you can in chapter forty-five, you will have annoyed readers. And, if you keep your plot in line, you won't find yourself in a situation where you have to use your magic as a rescue.

Rule number two: Be very, very careful with powerful magic. Very powerful magic is a really easy way to wreck a perfectly functional magical system and or plot. (And it almost always sets off the Baloginum sensors on high alert.) The most famous example of a bit of fantasy magic that the creators didn't properly think through, and that blew the power balance out of the water was the Teleporter in Star Trek. (I come down on the Star Trek is fantasy, not science fiction side of the debate.)  The Teleporter is a nifty idea, and it looks really cool, and it does solve a real problem for the Trek verse, but it's so powerful that the Star Trek writers ended up having to make it malfunction or make whatever away mission the crew was on Teleporter-proof in just about every third episode, otherwise the solution to the problem is: Beam Me Up.

If your magic is so powerful that it's potentially the answer to any problem your characters run into, tone it down. Your story needs tension, and if you let the characters get too powerful, or create an easy answer to whatever problems they have, you'll have bored readers.

If you are happily writing away and are thinking of adding in a really cool +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying, think about it long and hard. You're probably better off without it. Because if you leave it in there, the likelihood is you're going to have to muck with your magical system or plot to compensate. In fact, there's only one reason a +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying (or any other ridiculously powerful magical artifact) should ever show up in a book, and that's as the object of a High Quest.

Now, the object of a High Quest can break any magical rule you've got and solve any problems your characters might have because it's there for an entirely different reason than the rest of your magical system. The Quest Object is about evening up the power balance for the final confrontation. Which I'll write about in more detail in the next installment: The Power Balance.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Contract, Plot, Power Balance


  1. Great post, Keryl. Every fantasy writer wants to let their characters dabble in the magical arts, but it's easy to let it get out of hand. This was one of the elements I had to work on when preparing my own novel last year.

  2. Thanks. I know creating a solid magical system can be one of the hardest elements of really great world building, but it's so worth the effort!