Believe it or not, you and I, gentle reader, have an agreement.
Oh, you may not remember making this contract with me, but believe me, you did. Not only that, but you’ve probably made this same contract with dozens if not hundreds of other writers, directors, producers, and actors in your time. And no matter how many times you have, it always went a little something like ours. In case the details are a little fuzzy, I’ll lay it out for you:
The moment you clicked the link that brought you to this page (or in the case of our test audiences here at Paradox-Omni Entertainment, the moment Billy Two-Ton and Joey ‘Thumbtacks’ ambushed them in an alley, resulting in them waking up with their eyelids mechanically pried open in front of a screen), I told you, by way of words like ‘superhero’, ‘story’ and ‘fiction’ that my intention was to lie to you for five pages every Monday and Wednesday with variable length lies on Fridays. I was just going to back a dump truck full of bullshit up to you and unload at will.
And you said okay to this because that’s pretty much what fiction is run through a filter that spits things out in horrifically simplified form. The caveat is that all this bullshit be entertaining bullshit, and in general, that it make sense in its own context.
I say ‘in general’ because some literary fiction can get away with… not. At all. I’m not an English major though, so I can’t explain why that is. Something to do with tone and theme taking precedent or something. Whatever it is, it makes literary fiction inherently superior to genre fiction to people who bother to care about that kind of distinction and makes them feel really good about themselves. Shine on, guys.
But if any sort of accurate description of my work brought you in, you’re here for a story that makes sense at least in its own internal logic. It’s why we’re okay with lightsabers even though their concept is clearly insane, and how we can accept a man whose eyes can produce enough energy to punch through a mountain in seconds just because some of his chromosomes are screwy.
We call this anti-reality field, this basic building block of fiction/reader relationship ‘suspension of disbelief’, and just like the Invisible Boy’s powers from Mystery Men, it only works when you’re not looking.
Luckily, that rule is pretty lax. We all know that gamma radiation is deadly, but if we just decide that we’ll let that one go by just this once, we’re rewarded with SMASHing and can generally agree that it’s worth it except in that one Ang Lee movie. Audiences, especially sci-fi and fantasy audiences are good at letting things slide at least until it’s time to make affectionate jokes about it on the internet. The trouble comes when a writer inadvertently hangs a sign on these things that make them impossible to ignore.
And one of the worse ways of doing this is breaking completely arbitrary rules that you yourself codified earlier in the work. While this can happen in a lot of places, the most glaringly, painfully obvious ones come when you’re dealing with the rules of magic.
To be clear: ‘Magic’ here is a catch all for anything in a story that expressly and actively does something that isn’t currently possible in reality. This can be magic, but it can also be super science, mutant powers, psionics, or divine fiat. If a cartoon caveman would just call it ‘magic’ instead of being a big nerd about the taxonomy of the thing, it’s ‘magic’ here. Because I’m too lazy to type more than that.
There are a lot of ways this can be implemented and they each have their strengths and weaknesses.
In his Dresden Files series, Jim Butcher uses a very vaguely defined magic system. We know that magic words are gibberish that the caster assigned to spells, we know that it still has to follow things like thermodynamics (fire spells draw heat out of their surroundings), and we know the inherent power of magic circles and thresholds. The full on mechanics of how you learn a spell or make a magic item are hidden (but we get to watch potions being made).
On the other side of the coin, Brandon Sanderson is a magic system creating machine. Every world he creates has at least two (whether the reader notices them or not), and are so detailed that casting methods and the differences between two systems form plots and subplots in his books.
By the end of his Mistborn trilogy, we know not only what all of the Allomancy powers the characters encounter do, but their origins, strengths, weaknesses, how they affect society, and neat tricks a Mistborn (someone who can use all of them) can pull off. There are even handy charts in the back of the book for easy reference.
These represent not only great stories (seriously go read them), but the two ‘kingdoms’ of magic systems: detailed and vague.
Vague systems excel in the fact that they’re infinitely expandable and easily so as well. All of the heavy lifting happens off screen with no other explanation, so it’s trivial to add new spells or abilities. There’s a lot of freedom there and the lack of painstaking detail leaves room for more character focus and world building.
Where they fall short is in the fact that nothing is codified. The writer has nothing to hang other parts of the story off of and absolutely nothing concrete to refer back to later. This makes it very, very easy to screw up your rules and the good will of your readers along with it.
Meanwhile, detailed systems live off of structure and laying everything out for the world to see. They make it easy to tell at a glance what can and can’t happen, and when well executed, help flesh out the world. Good detailed systems can be held up and examined as part of the plot and the various ways to game or make special use of the system can be explored.
The problem comes from the fact that now that you’ve shown your audience how everything works, they can spot when you forget something or make a change purely for the sake of the narrative super easily. The strengths of the system becomes its weakness; the more you bring it to the forefront, the more chances you’ll have of getting a detail wrong and noticed.
Why is this type of rule so important that it’s the first one I talk about?
Because there are few rules that a writer can lay down that they’ll also be calling constant attention to throughout the course of a given story. Looking back to the last article, you would never know about the deliberate rules laid out for the Roadrunner cartoons without being told. You might notice that there’s something different between them and, say, Tom and Jerry, but you wouldn’t know for sure.
But even in a vague magic system like the Force in Star Wars necessarily reveals portions of the system that the fans can piece together from the films and extended universe. You know the drill: a power that surrounds the universe, binds us together, allows us to act with superhuman reflexes, command weak minds and throw expensive looking machinery at our sons during sword fights. Some of that’s explained directly, some of it is just implied, like how you can have force lightning, but not force acid balls.
As long as Lucas, or the army of writers who put together the extended universe stuck to the themes and limitations laid down from the first films, everything’s hakuna. It’s when things like swarms of tiny parasites being described as the source of force sensitivity that fans got leery; not because it’s any less weird than anything else in the franchise, but because it doesn’t fit into what’s already known and understood. It breaks the contract.
Comics are especially susceptible to magic system failure, especially shared universes where a spellcaster can show up as a one shot character in one title, then be brought back in another title by a different writer who may or may not have done a lot of research about how that character’s magic worked. This comes off as a lot more noticeable than whether or not Cyclops’ eyebeams produce heat or not because a spellcaster generally doesn’t just point and shoot their magic; they have to invoke it in some way.
And now it’s time to come clean: I’ve made my share of mistakes in this arena. Going back to Rise of Morganna, I was trying to go for vague and, well, failed. If you go back and read it, you’ll see a lot of things about spells being lost if they were put into items and also a lot of talk about the different kinds of spellcasters.
I, as I’m wont to do, was writing by the seat of my pants and didn’t have a clear plan. At the time, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to do with that in the future, so when the time came to deal with it, I had to do a lot of behind the scenes housekeeping to have a usable magic system in the ‘present’.
The current implication here is that most of those magic systems died out from a lack of being passed down and only a few (Eastern style talisman based magic, circle based ritual magic and the inherent magic Lisa inherited from Morganna’s possession) survived into the present.
Rune Breaker (the first book of which is on sale now), on the other hand, is a detailed system where the magic is a big part of the plot.
Aaand on that little bit of self serving, we’ll leave off for this week.
Next week, we’ll talk about rules as they apply to characterization.