Last post (which was posted far too long ago) I rambled on about “frames of reference” and POV and how fantasy writers need to get with the program and come up with some useful jargon, and… Well, you read the post, right? Right?
Remember how I divided things into relative and absolute frames of reference? The absolute frame is a simple concept; relative frames are not. So today, I’m going to delve into just what I mean about multiple frames of reference and how they are useful.
But first, I want to make an important distinction: A “perspective” is a narrative device, a frame of reference is a world-building one. A perspective in fiction is how a character relates to the story. A frame of reference is how they relate to the world in which the story takes place. There’s a difference.
(As far as I am concerned, a “point of view (POV)” is a structural device and refers to either first, second, or third person past, present or future. A perspective is strictly which character (or the narrator) we are following at any given time. Other writers may have different ideas. That’s okay—whatever works for them. In posts here, we will be using my definitions.)
Now, what makes relative frames of reference complicated is that each character has one—just like each person in the real world has their own ideas and opinions. It’s not hard to get lost among all of these frames, and a common critique of bad characterization is that all the characters “felt/sounded the same”. This is a very common criticism in regards to dialogue. And there I am drifting off-topic. Back to magic.
There are two main ways that the relative frames of reference can affect a character in regards to magic:
- Their reaction to it- Are they amazed, indifferent, or possibly contemptuous. They could also be prejudiced or hostile or fawning or respectful. The greater the difference in their knowledge of magic—whether theoretical, ethical, or emotional—the more likely their reaction is to be strong or intense. If there’s less difference, they’ll have less of a response. Pretty basic, right? It’s actually more complicated than that, and in my next post, (which is already written this time, so no long wait), I’ll discuss character reaction to magic, and why many people have mistaken impressions as to what is and is not a realistic response.
- What they can do with it- Are they good, gifted, hopeless, or helpless? I know, this is fantasy. There’s a lot of emotional symbolism involved in the narrative representation of magic. But from a purely theoretical standpoint, knowledge is power. No matter how strong you are (if this is aa consideration at all), you can’t win if you can’t do anything. I’d like to leave the issue of “power vs. part of me” that often springs up here out of the discussion. For now, “magic” isn’t “as natural as breathing (in the literal sense)”, but rather “something learned and perfected through study and training”… even if there are natural “gifts” involved. The point here is that the more you know, the more you can do. And knowing means learning, and learning means studying. Hogwarts here we come! (Okay, not so much.)
You may have noticed from reading the above that knowledge is a very important part of the frame of reference. The more you know, the more you can innovate. (You can innovate knowing nothing as well, but you’re more likely to fry your brain—or at least fry something).
So, knowledge is power. Right there you’ve discovered a way to make your fantasy magic system different from around 99% of the magic systems out there. A great deal of fantasy (most bad, but some good) focuses on gaining “power” in the physical sense. Increasing the characters’ “strength”. It’s what a lot of fantasy writers and readers refer to as “RPG” fantasy. And that paradigm makes sense for an RPG, where learning new spells, and fighting, and acquiring new and better gear, and grinding… er, “increasing your stats” (yeah, whatever) is all part of the fun. But the fun in fantasy is the story, the conflict. Eighteen swordfights in a row would be boring.
Now, magical conflict relies on a power differential. But by the principle above, it’s perfectly acceptable to convert this to a knowledge differential. You can’t hurl fireballs and call lightning if you don’t know the spell. Lackey’s Herald Mage trilogy makes good use of this concept when one character is defeated (okay, killed) by a “mage-storm” which wears away at his magical shield. But in a later book, we learn such an attack can be rendered ineffective if you leave the shield “un-grounded” and thus free to spin right along with the attack in question.
So, that explains how you can use the second effect of frames of reference. The first is a bit tougher, and requires more subtlety and finesse. I think it might be best to leave until the next post.