Maundering on Magic
The tired hasn’t worn off any. The weekend was almost entirely without rest. The Wee Horde took the snowy lands by storm. They’ll likely not find any of the bodies until the spring thaw, which just means I’m teaching them well. Fiction didn’t happen, at all, really, sorta (more in a sec), between minding creatures, unfamiliar environs, socializing (darnit), and all the people that are outside my immediate circle. I did get ambushed by a gaming module, which got written down on my handbrain. It’s a fun thing, and the littles should enjoy it, once they understand a few of the rules. We’ll, ah, be playing a rules light version. But there wasn’t writing-writing. And that continues to eat at me. If I can’t relax, at least I can work. Except when I can’t.
The point is to sell books. That’s the thing to remember. That’s why we’re here, and why we keep nattering on about all this stuff. We’re working our collective tuchus off (we like big books, and we cannot, etc) to expose our, ah, creative efforts to potential readers. And … okay, there was a discussion that came up in an online watercooler group of which I’m a part. It all started with a meme, and a then a buddy called out Brandon Sanderson for his laws of magic.
Shenanigans ensued, divers alarums, and there was a chunk of good discussion in there. Basically, my friend objected to magic having laws, at all, and on an historical basis. His argument was that historically, magic is other. It’s ineffable, and those who wield it are, if creatures of unknowable power, then at least representatives of the gods. Wizards and sorceresses are rarely outright heroes, historically. They are advisers, mentors, and often adversaries or outright villains, but heroes? Not usually.
Now, heroes often use things that are magical, or tread the paths of the other. But understand how it works and manipulate it first-hand? Nah. Somewhere, that changed, and while I think it has to do with the Enlightenment in general, and the scientism of the 20th C. specifically, that’s a subject for another post. For our purposes today, it’s enough to know that American readers expect magic to be knowable.
Which is where Sanderson’s Laws come in. I … kind of agree with Brandon. He’s put a lot of thought into his laws, and they hold. As far as they go. The first one says “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well a reader understands the magic.” Which is almost true. He’s making an assumption, though. Which is that your magical solutions need to be emotionally satisfying for the reader. And, really, that only applies to a specific type of reader. One who wants to know the rules, and wants his (usually a him) protagonists to understand how those solutions work. Which arguably turns the fantasy into science fiction with different physical laws.
Keep what I said earlier in mind: we’re in this gig to sell books and make money. And that requires satisfying our readers. You can write perfectly satisfying stories in which your readers don’t understand how the magic works. You can. It doesn’t have to be about how they manipulate the energies of your world. It must be about how much your characters struggle in overcoming the challenges you put in their way.
And therein lies the danger of magic as a narrative device, and why I tend to agree with Brandon Sanderson and his laws. Magic makes things easier (kinda-sorta: that’s yet another post, and I may have written on the costs involved), if only because it gives your characters another set of tools. And easier is just less satisfying, emotionally. Which is why magic always has a cost. Even if that cost is just that your antagonists can easily counter it with other magic.
Does magic have to have a system? It’s certainly easier to write if it does. It becomes downright difficult to keep track of when it’s a soft system, where the rules are more like loose guidelines. See Harry Potter, where magic does what’s needed to get Harry out of a bind.
Honestly, the guiding principle is to write stories people will want to read. I like stories with magic, sometimes even magic that radically shapes societies. Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s little magics, the kinds that help smooth the way to more interesting events. Regardless, you, as the author, need to know how the magic works. And also, even when you break those rules, especially when you break those rules, you have to remember to make the story satisfying to the reader. Because then they’ll give you money. Which is the point.