Magic Systems: The Rules About the Rules
One of the central hallmarks of any fantasy series is how the author sets up the magic system. This includes a lot of things, obviously. You need to know how common magic is, how easy is it to access, how powerful it is, who has it, how is it used, and so on. All of those topics there are probably blog posts waiting to happen, but today I want to focus on one thing: how magic is supposed to work.
The common misconception about fantasy (and scifi, for that matter, which occasionally strays into the use of ‘magic,’ as well, though in different guises) is that you can “do whatever you want.” You want flying dragon balloons that spit orangutans? Done! You want it to rain fire every Tuesday afternoon? Go for it! You want people to have nipples on their back while being able to spit acid from their nostrils? That’s a-ok! The thing is, though, that there’s more to it that simply that.
Of course you can do any of those things, but you can’t just do them for the hell of it and expect it to work. You need to build the underlying rationale for these things so that we, the audience, accept them as plausible or at least believable. This goes for any aspect of a fantasy setting, but it applies to the magic system in particular. It is especially true when the magic system plays a crucial part in the lives of the characters. So, for instance, Jim Butcher’s magic system for the Dresden Files (which is probably the best one I know of, by the way) is painstakingly laid out because his main character (and only POV character) is an actual wizard. George RR Martin, on the other hand, has magic only existing on the fringes of his world and only barely hinted at, so at present it is rather vague and mysterious (which suits his setting just fine). That said, I am fairly certain GRRM has a pretty solid grasp of how sorcery works in his world – his world-building is deep and robust in every direction – so even in his case, what I’m about to say probably holds true.
In order for magic to make sense and work in your fantasy setting, it needs rules. Magic that can do anything at any time is problematic for a number of plot and conflict reasons, not the least of them being the constant and obvious temptation to allow your characters to escape any danger with the wave of a wand. That’s too easy and too easy is boring. It becomes “why don’t the eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mordor” over and over again.
Good rules are clear enough to lay out the potential and guidelines of the powers available to those gifted with them. They should be set up to be exciting and also potentially dangerous. A good magic system, like a good superpower, is something that your readers might actively think would be fun and cool and interesting. Everybody wants to have the Force; everybody would love to have access to the Bene Gesserit’s Voice. Furthermore, a good magic system needs to be understandable enough to allow that kind of fantasizing to take place. We love the fact that Harry Potter can wave his wand and say “Accio Broom!” and his broom will shoot out from wherever it is and arrive in his hand. We love it in part because the power seems fun and interesting, but also because it seems understandable and logical: “If I, too, were a wizard and I, too, had a magic wand then I, too, would be able to reach my coffee without having to get up.”
There is, however, a balance to be struck. A system can be too vague, obviously, and this is problematic in the sense that the magic system soon becomes ignored or unimportant. Naturally, if this is your intention (e.g. Tolkien), then that’s all well and good. Nobody, though, goes walking around trying to imitate the magic of the Elves. It isn’t super clear that they have magic or, if they do, how it works. Like, in the movies did Arwen summon those white-water horses? What the hell did Elrond do to heal Frodo? If Gandalf can make flaming projectiles out of pine cones, why doesn’t he keep a bunch of pine cones in his backpack? No, magic, in the case of Tolkien anyway (and those like him), isn’t so much a system as it is a basic dramatic effect. It lacks detail and, therefore, while it gains mystery, it also loses a sense of concrete fascination for the audience. If that’s your intention, as I said, this is fine (there’s a lot of good low-magic fantasy out there), but if your intent is to create a world where the practice of magic is central to the plot somehow, you’re going to need detail.
Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically), magic systems can become too detailed and too concrete. You need rules, yes, but the rules (in my opinion) should remain sufficiently complex to prevent the audience from completely grasping them. Magic, in other words, shouldn’t seem easy. A system, even an interesting system, laid out with too much specificity starts to feel less like an eldritch code by which to manipulate the universe and more like a series of button-patterns to hit in a video game.
For my own part, in Alandar I’ve created a complex system laid out as the complex interactions of five naturally occurring energies of creation. They interact in a kind of pseudoscientific fashion and can (and have) been harnessed to create all manner of complex “technologies” based upon them. The system I hope is deep and interesting, and being a mage in this world should seem cool. In end, though, it should seem like the kind of thing you’d need to study years to master and the depths of which have yet to be fathomed by the reader and by the characters alike.
The Mythology of Exceptionalism
Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.
Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.
Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.
He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.
Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology
isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.
Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.
The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.
That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?
Money and Make-Believe
I’m currently reading Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and the ups and downs of Kvothe’s meager finances has gotten me thinking about the presence (or absence) of financial concerns in scifi/fantasy stories. More often than not, it is left out – characters are poor, but we don’t spend a lot of time counting the contents of their purses, or they’re rich, but we don’t spend a lot of time considering the state of their investments or where, precisely, they keep all that money, anyway. Readers of scifi/fantasy aren’t really in it for the in-depth analysis of microeconomics in some made up non-realm, anyway – they want adventure. So, sure, there might be a treasure at the end of the quest and there might be some social or societal pressures making this or that object more valuable, but how much time do we really want to spend counting coins and handling living expenses?
Maybe, though, we’re missing something.
Now, Rothfuss goes into exhaustive detail involving how much money Kvothe has and what he spends it on. His work serves as a pretty good example of what is both good and bad about involving money in a fantasy story on an intimate level. On the one hand, money (or the lack thereof) is a fantastic motivator for characters to do things – often desperate things – and the prospect of Kvothe being kicked out of the University for failure to pay tuition creates some real tension in the story. This makes for good storytelling. Furthermore, the details of expenses makes the world more immersive, more real – also a bonus for our fantasy world.
But then there are the drawbacks: it gets old, all this money grubbing. As I am now in the second book of Kvothe having no money and facing the same tuition problems, I’m getting less interested in them. From a meta-plot standpoint, Kvothe has weaseled his way out of poverty enough times now for me to be less invested in his continued struggles. I figure he’ll find a way or, if he doesn’t, I’m growing less invested in the constant updates on the contents of Kvothe’s purse. So he gets an extra talent here and an extra bob there – so? I’m not really keeping a logbook, so I gather it would suffice for Rothfuss to simply have Kvothe say “I didn’t have enough money for x and still be able to eat, so I didn’t buy it” or “I earned a little cash from playing corners that night, but was still far short of tuition.” The numbers are getting stripped of their meaning; they’re boring. Additionally, the ‘does Kvothe have enough money’ conflict has faded from a primary concern to a secondary one. He’s poor – we get it.
One of the best examples of taking bean-counting too far in literature is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which Flanders gives us an exhaustively detailed account of exactly how much money she has and when, what she spends it on, how much it costs, and the profits she expects from the exchanges. It’s as dry as reading expense reports, except with a madam involved. Of course, Defoe was trying to pass off his novel as non-fiction, ostensibly, and the details served as a sort of con-job for the reader – why would somebody making up a story spend so much time quibbling over shillings?
I think, on the whole, I prefer how JK Rowling handled it best. Despite the wildly improbable economic model of the wizarding world (another post for another time), the fact that Ron was poor and Harry wasn’t played as important character traits without us having to spend time worrying about where, exactly, the money was coming from and/or going. Then again, Rothfuss and Defoe are telling different kinds of stories, I guess – stories that hold realism up as a guidepost, and play it accordingly. One has to ask, though, are we reading fantasy for utter realism? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?
Now, I’m not here to bash Rothfuss, precisely (I’m enjoying the books very much so far), but I’m worried we’re about to take a turn from ‘high adventure and melodrama’ into ‘Upton Sinclair would be proud of this book’, which I really don’t want to happen. I’ve read The Jungle and Sister Carrie and Moll Flanders already; I don’t need to do it again, particularly not in a fanciful world.