A Magic World: Fantasy and the Use of Magic

It would appear that my little post from last night started a bit of friendly sparring, at least between myself and my mentor, so I thought I might pick up on where he left off. This post started out as a comment to Dr. Robinson’s recent blog post, Why I don’t believe in magic. I then decided that what I had to say was a bit too long for “just a comment,” so here it is.

In his blog post, Dr. Robinson explained that one of the reasons why he doesn’t like magic in stories (aka fantasy in general) is that it’s too easy. He writes:

“My biggest argument I have against fantasy is that it makes things too easy, and in a sense, that’s what makes writing it hard. If you are looking for a way to breathe underwater, poof, use magic and you can. If your character is about to be thrown into a volcano and needs to escape, hey, there’s always magic to help. And if the character is brutally killed and lying in pieces on the ground, a little magic can bring him back together. Too easy. Too hard.”

I can definitely see where he’s coming from. There is a reason that moving from writing fantasy as a general rule to writing historical fiction for my honors project was hard for me. I’m still intimidated by the thought of writing historical fiction (and I haven’t really even attempted to take a stab at science fiction) because writing fantasy is so much easier. You don’t need to explain everything because some things just are. But I think he may be mistaken in one way.

Despite being easier, good fantasy follows rules. If I create a mage character in one of my stories, for instance, I need to decide how that mage’s magic operates. In my book “Prism World,” the Phantoms have the ability to use magic. Why? Well, they just do. There’s really no logical explanation for it. But there are rules, too. Not just anyone can use magic; only those with the blood of a Phantom can. But what about a story that seemingly lets anyone use magic? A good example, I think, would be the anime Fairy Tail. The story centers around a world much like our own but which operates more on magic than on science. Wizards’ shops can be found in practically any town (in the very first episode, the main character laments that the town she is in only has one wizard shop in it). The car runs not on gas but on the wizard’s mental energy. The wizards themselves can do pretty much anything: summon the zodiac, breathe and/or eat fire/lightning/metal, create weapons and creatures by summoning ice, change sizes, even freeze time. It is a world ruled by magic. But there are still limits. The main character, Lucy, could never breathe fire like her friend, Natsu, because he is the adopted son of a dragon and the dragon has given him magic that makes him, essentially, a dragon in human form. And despite their powers, they always have some sort of weakness. The magic defies logic but still follows rules.

The problem with what I personally like to call “dime-a-dozen” fantasy, your cheap, run-of-the-mill fantasy, is that there are no rules or boundaries. Or, if the story seems to define a certain rule at the beginning, the author breaks it because he or she has written the character into a corner that, aside from a little deus ex machina, would end up in the destruction of that character. So, no. If a writer is smart, he or she will refrain from doing ridiculous things like bringing a dead character back to life. (Unless, of course, there is a very specific reason that follows the rules of the world that has been created). I can think of a great many examples where this has happened. The one that comes most readily to my mind is in the book The Sword and the Flame by Stephen Lawhead. (If you don’t like spoilers, you might steer clear of the rest of this paragraph). The Sword and the Flame is the third book in a trilogy, a trilogy I very much liked. In the first book, the main character, Quentin, befriends a young man who I believe is named Toli. Toli acts as Quentin’s most loyal companion throughout the trilogy. However, he is killed at the end of the third book because of Quentin. I picked up a few things about that world while reading up until that point. There is an instance in which the spirit of a dead companion comes back to guide Quentin, but other than that, dead is dead in this world. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about necromancy). Despite these seemingly pre-set rules, however, Toli is revived…a whole whopping paragraph or two later. Breaking the rules was bad enough. Doing it moments after the initial death was even worse.

It’s an easy trap to fall into as a fantasy writer. After all, I am the only one making up the rules. Why not add that little fluke to save my character from the mess I’ve written him into? I think the worst case of this that I have seen in my own writing was in a book I’m still working on. I created a character that was supposed to die. But by the time I got to the death scene, I had become too attached. So I created a magical (or, in this case, divine) deus ex machina that saved him and promptly made him a leading character in the story. Logically and, based upon the rules I had previously set out for my world, this character should have died. But at what point does magic become too much magic?

It’s a hard answer, really, and I suppose that deus ex machina, particularly in fantasy, isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As such, I can definitely see where my mentor (and the newest member of our writing club) is coming from. I think that one of the biggest challenges we face with our project is finding a balancing point. Magic isn’t the only thing that can defy logic. There are plenty of examples in nature where this is also the case. Granted, the water-breathing thing is strictly a magic thing…for now. I’ve already been playing with some possible “science-y” explanations, but I’ll save that for another time. Essentially, what it all comes down to is the rules you set. If you set the rule that a certain group of people can breathe and speak underwater, you have to find where the boundaries are. Are they the only ones that can do it? Is it a skill that is taught or is it inherited? There are definitely questions that I need to ponder in order to create a story that is done well enough that the reader can, at least, utilize some measure of suspension of disbelief. But in the end, as a fantasy writer, I have to disconnect myself, in part, from the scientific world. After all, as I said in last night’s post, science fiction and fantasy really are two different things.

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2 thoughts on “A Magic World: Fantasy and the Use of Magic

  1. Well said, and I find myself needing to go back and write caveats for my own writing as well. At least we agree that there needs to be boundaries.

  2. I agree. Very well said. It was interesting to read both posts and as someone who prefers fantasy as not only a writer, but a reader as well the argument for science fiction made sense. I also agree there should be rules and that if there is a rule set in your story it should not be broken. If you write your character into a corner then you either need to maybe rewrite or kill off the character. Breaking the rules you have set in your own story I would say is something that actually annoys me. 🙂

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