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The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding

18 Oct

(and many other First Laws Principles of Good Fantasy)

One thing I mentioned in my previous post but did not expand upon was my “Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.” That is:  “A character’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the character understands said magic.”  (I’m looking at you, Eragon!)  Basically, the more you know, the more you fuck up. 

 

It’s the corollary to Atsiko’s First Law of Magic. Which reads: “An author’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Because I am egotistical like that… and meta.  Basically, this Law says that the more a reader understands your magic system, the less you can get away with the less useful it will be in solving conflicts(, because you will be working within more limits).  Instead, you will have to rely on your characters’ actual heroic traits.*  In a paradoxical turn of events, my law and Mr. Sanderson’s are equally and simultaneously true.  I think mine is more useful from a plotting standpoint, while Mr. Sanderson’s is more useful from a construction standpoint.  Keep his in mind when you make your magic, and keep mine in mind when you use it.

 

What makes Atsiko’s Law relevant in fantasy is the Sliding Scale of Magic vs. Science.  (Some of you may have guessed already that I’ve spent too much time on TV Tropes lately.  I blame it on NaNoWriMo.)  Basically, the more you explain a magic system, the more of a pain in the ass it is to actually do something “magical” with it, or do anything at all, really.  (Science is not omnipotent.)  For authors who want their reader to experience a sense of wonder in their stories, this is a rather undesirable trait. 

 

It can also lead to “necessary” info-dumping–and plot holes.  The plot holes arise when an author wants to do something freakin’ awesome previously forbidden.  But here’s a little secret.  Readers will forgive anything as long as it fucks something up later.  They love that.  Let’s call it delayed consequences gratification.  Just don’t wait too long, or the book will already have hit the wall.**

 

Which leads us to our next writerly trick: the invisible rule.

 

That’s right.  Hidden rules.  Because hidden rules rule.  One of the best ways to create a mysterious and yet satisfying plot-buster magic system is to have rules and not tell anybody.  Seems counterintuitive, right?  If we don’t know the rules, how will they know you have them?  Doesn’t matter.  See, in the real world, we learn the rules by observing and formulation hypothesis.  We then apply these as laws until something disproves them.  You can do this in fantasy, too.  Of course, it’s much harder.  You have to avoid really big flashy stuff until the necessary rules have been introduced–but still meet the criteria for Retroactive Consistency we established in the last post.  For skilled plotters only.  But see Atsiko’s First Law.

 

Now we can address the two major ways in which you can create the illusion of balance through construction, without hemming yourself in with restrictive rules.  This is where you keep in mind Sanderson’s First Law and what you want your magic to do.  Here are your two main tools:

 

1. The Principle of Limited Application—the magic is not applicable to any situation, and can only meet a few, clearly-defined needs.  Robin Hobb’s magic in Soldier Son has limited applicability.  It cannot throw fireballs, or summon lightning, and while it appears quite flexible, it almost always approaches conflict indirectly.  No stand-offs here.  The “Great Ones” must find other ways to achieve their goals.  Allows for a greater sense of mystery.

 

2. The Principle of Limited Effect—the magic can apply to a broad range of situations, but there is a limit to how much power can be thrown at the problem.  Lackey’s magic system in Velgarth has limited effectiveness.  Some mages are more powerful than others, and even though you can do pretty much anything with it, if your lightning doesn’t pierce the opponents shields, you aren’t going to damage him.  Allows for a greater sense of tension.

 

Now, many authors use a combination of mysterious and scientific magic in their stories.  The more mysterious the magic is, the more the Principle of Limited Application is used to keep magic in check.  The magic is a step on the road to solving the conflict, but it requires the character to use other skills and assets to ultimately solve the problem.  Scientific systems can get away with a broader application, but they tend to rely more on the Principle of Limited Effect.  Yes, the character can throw a fireball, but you’re not going to obliterate the foe in one go.  Both of these Principles deal with solving the conflict, but the means to the end are quite different, and a reader can be happy or unhappy with both types of magic.

 

But there’s another writerly trick that allows you to have mystery and avoid deus ex machina.  The goal here is to create the illusion of logical progression, by adding an extra assumption just before the fact; ie, trick the reader into believing you foreshadowed this all along.  Word-games work great, as Tolkien proved.  “I am no man.”  (Any tropers out there have probably figured out I fall somewhere on the right of this, in regards to my view of “clever” fantasy authors.)

 

 

 

*Atsiko’s First Law of Protagonists:  “Magic does not make you a hero!  Or, magic does not make you Speshul, Snowflake–good character does.”

 

**Atsiko’s First Law of Delayed Gratification:  “The less gratification is delayed, the more gratifying it is.”

 

 

Next post:  On More Principles Tricks of Good Fantasy, or How Authors Screw Up The Third Principle of Good Magic

 
2 Comments

Posted by on October 18, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding

  1. ralfast

    October 19, 2009 at 7:53 PM

    Great stuff! One thing though:

    YOU CAN NOT SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON TVTROPES!

    That is all. Carry on…..
    :)

     

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