Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fantasy - Magic is for Free, Right?

In yesterday's post, we got into some discussion on the differences between science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy is "easier to write" because you don't have to worry about the laws of physics, right?


First of all, fiction is fiction, and it's never easy. It takes a lot of work. You have to concern yourself with character, plot, setting, events, milieu, and ideas, just for starters. Weaving all that together in whatever ratio works best for your story takes some skill.

Aside form that, the last sentence in the first paragraph is just plain wrong. The way magic works in the fantasy universe takes the place of our physics, chemistry, and even perhaps biology. Unlimited magic powers with no cost doesn't hold the reader's attention. Okay, it works in Spongebob, but that's slapstick, not fantasy.

In the benchmark work, Lord of the Rings, the magic wielding characters had limitations. The abilities seemed enormous compared to, say, the Hobbits, but they were limited nevertheless. Gandalf the Gray was unable to best Sauramon theWhite until he, too, became a white wizard.

Even that most evil of characters, Sauron, had limitations. He used much of his power in casting the rings of power, the One Ring holding the vast majority of it. Sauron left himself without even enough to take physical form.

The use of the One Ring itself came at a cost. On the surface, it turns the wearer invisible. Dig deeper and we learn it extends the wearer's life, yet takes that wearer on a path to becoming an agent of evil, wasting away for all eternity. It cannot be destroyed except in the fires of the volcano Mount Doom, where it was forged.

We never learn what Sauron could do with the ring. It must have held tremendous power that Sauron could summon, but we never find out what. All we know is that everyone wants it and it must be kept from Sauron at all costs.

Limitations on what a magic using character can do is not a restriction for the author, it is an opportunity. Readers love to see the underdog come out on top despite all the handicaps. Or, the magic user must pay some kind of price for the use of magic. Orson Scott Card covers this in great detail on his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

There is another camp in Fantasy. I've discussed this in the past in this post from May 1, 2008.
I call it pseudo fantasy. One up-and-coming fantasy writer who based a series of novels on pseudo fantasy is James Maxey. In pseudo fantasy, the "magic" is really technology, generally lost technology rediscovered by a small group of self-interested people (or dragons in Maxey's case). It looks like magic, it smells like magic, and it automatically comes with the same restrictions and costs as our own sufficiently advanced technology.

1 comment:

^JR^ said...

Yes!!! A thought provoking discussion. I love it.

I didn't intend to name physics as the as the be all, end all of binding rules in fiction and I should have been more clear about that.

FACT may have been a better term to use.

I think something to point out is the discussion has been centered on the BEST fantasy has to offer, and it deserves all of the accolades it receives.

But what I was trying to say is that fantasy's explosion has opened the door to writers who create stories that don't have boundries that would make these stories worth reading and the masses don't care because its "fantasy"

If a fantasy writer chooses to set boundries and consequencies that don't really add up to anything more than "because I said so", they can get away with it. It'll make for a bad story, but it will sell ( at least a little bit ), because its "fantasy" and everybody reads "fantasy" so it must good. That's all I'm trying to say about rules and boundries.

Because fantasy is the cash cow of the moment, editors will crank out these sub-par creations to cash in. If a story shows some saleable promise, its more likely to published to fill the trendy market.

I'm believe SF writers are a lot less likely to get away with that. But if the market ever shifts, and SF enjoys new commercial glory, the same thing will almost surely happen to SF writing.