This presentation was originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.
This is the first part of a five part series. Here are handy links to the rest of the series:
- Pt 2 – Hard Magic vs Soft Magic.
- Pt 3 – Sanderson’s Laws of Magic
- Pt 4 – Literary Magic Systems
- Pt 5 – Create Your Own Magic System
On to our discussion!
“The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”
-John Campbell, Analog Editor
I’m sure many of my fellow fantasy writers have heard this sentiment expressed by other writers, both fantasy and other genres alike. It’s maddening, but I am guilty of at one time stating the same idea – that one of the biggest perks of writing fantasy is the ability to make up new amazing things.
This does not mean we get to break the rules, kids. In many ways, fantasy and science fiction are very similar. A new and unexplored world is introduced. In this world is a problem that must be solved. However, the power in a fantasy, just like in science fiction, lies in the struggle to solve that conflict, not in what cool magic we can come up in the moment.
Put simply – A fantasy world has a problem that usually revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, fantasy takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.
It’s the same with science fiction. In fact, take that previous paragraph and replace “fantasy” with “science fiction” and the result still works. Check it out:
A science fiction world has a problem that revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, science fiction takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.
So, why spend time building a good magic system? Why can’t we just wing it, like so many people believe fantasy writers do?
Here are three reasons why building a good magic system is important –
Magic is the key distinction between ordinary fiction and fantasy.
For purposes of our discussion today, let’s define magic as anything that can’t exist in the world as we know it. This includes people and items with special powers, mythical creatures, and human-like races.
Why would we want to do that?
The presence of these magical elements creates a degree of separation from real world drama, making fantasy an escape. It allows readers to dream of the impossible and gives them a sense of wonder and adventure. The more concrete world the author can create, the more realistic this illusion can be.
Magic allows readers to explore the amazing, unbelievable, and terrible through the eyes of a hero in the making.
Fantasy stories often have much greater stakes than real life. Our heroes are fighting dragons and facing demons. Their villians can destroy worlds. They do this while also facing personal challenges, like feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Embarking on these quests requires enormous courage. When we see our hero succeed, we feel a sense of victory. It gives us strength knowing that there are people out there, even fictional ones, who are brave enough to take on dragons.
Magic builds greater compassion and understanding through metaphorical storytelling.
Real people have real problems that cause real pain. A character facing the same problem in a book is almost too uncomfortable to read because it dredges up painful emotions. However, if we are to place this character in a magical world and give them a similar problem cloaked in imaginative elements, there is enough difference that the story can be enjoyed and learned from.
Harry Potter wasn’t about kids going to school to learn magic, it was about friendship and overcoming obstacles.
Lord of the Rings wasn’t about the ring, it was about a brave little hobbit Frodo stepping outside his comfort zone and being brave in the face of adversity.
Loving this discussion? Keep reading! In the next part of the series we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of hard and soft magic systems.
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