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Category Archives: Ideas

How the Four Aspects of Character Define the Story: Part 1… and a Half

Last time I brought up the four main aspects of character in fiction.  Hopefully everyone who read that post now has a good understanding of what these aspects are and how they relate to each other.  In the next set of posts, I want to go into more detail on how these various aspects of character interact with the story.  I’m going to be illustrating these interactions with examples from published fiction, and maybe that will give you a better idea of what I’m saying.  I know I can be a bit opaque at times. ;)

The easiest aspect to address is “skills, abilities and attributes(SAAT)”.  We’ll stick to that for this post, since the discussion is going to be much more involved.  In fact, if the title suggested to you that this will take more than one post, I may be getting better with titles.

First, I’m going to tack on a fourth part of this category, the “T” in the above acronym.  It may seem like hair-splitting now, but when we eventually discuss Mary Sue/Marty Stu characters and cast balance, it’s going to come in handy.  Trust me.

T stands for… “talent”. ***pauses for the groans to pass***  Whatever you may think about talent in real life—whether you follow the 10,000-hour-genius school of thought, or the natural gifts philosophy—the fact is that it plays a large role in fiction, whether that’s your heroine’s staggering gift for pissing off her friends, or her incredibly advanced flute-playing.  Or whatever.

Next, for the rest of these posts, I’m going to use the word “trait” to refer generally to any part of any aspect of character.  “Personality trait”, “physical trait”, “motivational trait”—and I can’t really think of a reasonably graceful term for SAAT traits.  Feel free to suggest one in comments.  I’d appreciate it.  Also keep in mind here that there’s a very similar continuum as far as intellectual traits go, with intelligence standing in for natural talent, knowledge for skill,  and so on.

Now, back on-track:  Not only will this aspect affect how readers perceive and sympathize with your character, it has a lot to do with your plot, or it should.  Unless you’ve tacked on a bunch of extra awesomesauce traits to make your character cooler, the way they meet the obstacles in their path is going to rely almost entirely on what they can do.  (That is, for the external conflicts.  Internal conflicts are a whole other story.  In fact, you might say that every book has two stories, one following the plot, and the other following the characters.  But that’s a topic for another post.)  If your character is a demolitions expert, they’ll be seeing safe-cracking from an entirely different perspective than if they were a computer programmer/hacker/console cowboy.  We’ll be starting with a no-skill situation, and picking the next thread up later. 

No matter how many latent talents your character may have, they’re not going to get much done without a repertoire of skills.  They might be the strongest mage in the world, but if they know jack about casting spells, some poor conjurer panhandling in the park could out-magic them.  This situation is most often found with younger characters (but not always), and it comes equipped with a whole host of tropes and conventions to help writers get around it.

Trope 1: The Call et al: If you’ve ever read any epic fantasy, you’ll know what most of these tropes are.  They’re laid out in excruciating detail on TV Tropes, or in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Face.  These all relate to how even though the MC is a completely worthless good-for-nothing, (s)he will still somehow manage to save the world.  We migh generalize and call this “Fate”.

Trope 2: School!  I know everybody’s familiar with this one.  Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Earthsea, Velgarth,  a bajillion anime and manga.  This is where the talented, the not-so-talented, and the absolutely abysmal gather to learn their craft.  Older students tend to go to a high-class university or get more practical training.  I’m just happy Eragon opted to skip this trope.  Stories that follow this trope generally contain a great deal more slice-of-life action that Fate and Mentor stories.  While learning the skills needed to resolve the conflict is still important, it’s not usually the driving force behind the characters’ actions.  For Harry, going to Hogwarts has little to do with defeating Voldermort in the beginning, for example.

Trope 3: Master/apprentice:  Unfortunately, Eragon opted not to skip this trope.  Any fantasy writer is going to be only too familiar with this one, though it applies in many other genres as well.  Martial arts, competitive board games, you name it.  It may not be as common in genres that require the character to start off with a comprehensive skill set—such as mystery, thriller, or romance.  Same for school, actually.  A good recent example is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which features and adult version of this trope—something that’s sadly uncommon.  Although younger protagonists are generally less self-directed than good ole John.  We can call this the Mentor story.  You can often find him hanging out with Fate, but almost never school.

Trope 4:  Natural Talent: except it’s usually not “natural” talent, because that requires nurturing and focus.  What we’re talking about here is “my character can do this because(s)he’s a) awesome, b) made of cardboard, c) the child of a lazy writer, d) the prophesied messiah/hero/destroyer, e) the MC, duh!, f) in need of these powers too fast to do things right but plot is king, g) all of the above.  This is not always lazy writing, and the other two tropes can be just as bad.  But I always see a sign in my head when reading about these characters: “Here there be Mary Sues!”  Again with the Eragon, shouting a word in a language he’s never learned to solve a plot problem, even though it’s established he has to learn almost every other word in this language by himself later in the story.  In The Wheel of Time, Mat is especially prone to this syndrome, thanks to his transparently named Old Blood, which lets him do things that would normally require him to be significantly older than he is.  This trope is friend with everybody, though I can’t say much for their taste in this case.  It’s very convenient for passing time and getting around tedious things like practice and hard work that many writers and readers like to avoid.  Movies can often trade NT in for a montage.

Trope 5: The Pre-Promote: I’m adapting this term from rpg/strategy games, where it’s common to have one or two very strong characters at the beginning of a game or in certain storyline situations so new players can be coddled for a while.  In fiction, these are often people who could probably do this job better than the protag but are constrained by the writer’s love for their phosphorescing authorial insert.  Our examples here come again courtesy of Robert Jordan.  Moiraine uses the One Power to do most of the heavy lifting at the beginning, except on a few occasions where Rand exhibits a bout of Natural TalentTM, usually used to make him seem less of a wet dishrag than he really is at that point.  Physical combat is handled by Lan or occasionally Thom Merrilin, while Lan trains Rand in the easy and unskilled art of spitting men on three feet of steel. ;)  The Pre-Promote is friends with everybody.  They may take the role of Mentors in Fate stories, or teachers in School Stories.  They may or may not have Natural TalentTM, but they are quickly surpassed by the MC, and often die in very gruesome manners.

There are many other tropes associated with no-skill stories, but those are the major ones.  We may or may not address others at some point in the future.

A no skill situation means we won’t be seeing the true obstacle until late in the story.  For inexplicable reasons, the antagonists will not do the smart and expedient thing by going straight for the throat.  They’ll stall and be distracted until the protagonist is up to the challenge of facing them.  That’s because characters in these circumstances need time to learn how to get things done.  Whether early obstacles are overcome with help from soon-to-be-killed Pre-Promotes, or through sheer luck, it’s usually not due to direct action on the part of the protagonist(s). 

A character with no skills can function well in a very limited number of story structures, and no overdose of tropes is going to make that number any larger.  So if you decide to use such a character, make sure you’re coloring within the lines.  Now, there’s never just one way to write.  This is only what my own experience has been.  So feel free to chime in with dissenting thoughts and opinions, and to call me things you couldn’t say in front of an eighty-year-old sailor, if you like.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2010 in How To, Ideas, Writing

 

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Atsiko’s Plot Recipe for Stories

There are three ingredients you should have when writing a story: An idea, a plot, and a story question. You can come up with these in any order, but from a structural perspective, they usually go like this: idea leads to story question leads to plot.

When I start working on a story, sometimes I have a plot, sometimes I have an idea, and sometimes I have a story question. And sometimes I have a combination thereof.

An idea is a “what-if?” I generally look at it as defining the setting of the story. A story-question is what most people think of as an “idea”. Every idea can allow many story questions. A plot is a “then this happens”. Every story question allows for many plots.

You can start off with any of these, but you need to figure out all three somewhere within the writing process. Let’s look at an example.

Here’s a hypothetical idea: “What if a nation in a world equivalent to near-future Earth is in danger of being economically marginalized by a super-national economic/political unit similar to the UE, and it attempts to restructure its school system to produce valuable skills and professionals to help it compete?”

Now you need your story question. Let’s say: “How would this affect the students within such a system?”

A basic plot might be: “Smart students in a prestigious school do ‘bad’ things.”

This is from a story I am actually working on. I picked it because it demonstrates the loose order in which you need to come up with each element. I came up with the plot first. Then I came up with the story question. I wanted to know how current educational practices in various countries might affect the way children developed and behaved as students. How would the pressure to achieve affect various types of people, and what would they do to lessen that pressure?

I came up with the what-if last. Since I was looking at current systems of education, I needed a setting that could incorporate them. Since I was looking at the extremes of these systems, I needed slightly more overt pressure on the country to adhere to these trends.

But it’s completely possible to come up with the what-if idea first. A lot o sci-fi works on this model. A lot of epic fantasy or romance starts with a plot. A lot of serial UF and mystery begins with a story question.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to begin with something in the plot continuum.  What we’re looking at here is mostly the plot angle of attack.  You could also start with a character, or a scene, or a setting, or whatever.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Ideas, Writing

 

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Things I Wish SF(F) Had More Of

So, after thinking about my last post on education, I’ve come to some conclusions. I’ve been reading less and less science fiction lately, and I haven’t been able to figure out why. But now I think I know. It’s because I’ve been seeing a lot of the same things recently. Here’s a list of recent sub-genres I’ve become disillusioned with lately, and some ideas I think could infuse them with new life:

1. Space Opera–Don’t get me wrong, I love this sub-genre, but we’ve been harping on post-humanism and alien combat quite a lot lately. How about we try something new? Like some new thoughts on STL travel, or Near-Earth Space exploration.

2. Near-future SF–Love this genre as well. (Futurismic, here’s to you!)  But we’ve been seeing a lot of the same thing, lately.  Nano-tech, cyberpunk, bio-punk.  I’d love to see some more stories on information technology pre-singularity.  VR’s been a common theme, but very few books out there seem to be addressing Augmented Reality(AR), which–for those who don’t know–is the mapping of virtual information, such as audio and video, onto the real world.  The more well-known application here is the good old “heads-up display”, or HUD, in use in targeting systems and mapping.  Stories about AR that come to mind:  Dennou Coil, Rainbows End, Eden of the East.  There’s a lot of potential in this technology, and a lot of conflict that it could create.  Virtual ads in fields, or modern digital graffiti are two.  And think of the networking and social media applications.

3.  Science fantasy:  There’s been a rise in this genre lately, which I have greatly enjoyed.  Some examples are anime’s Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou, which postulates a modern form of magic created with digital information instead of personal energy and ancient symbolism.  A great deal of steam-punk also falls into this category, although it’s generally not as modern as the normal idea of the genre.  Of course, I’m somewhat misrepresenting this term to describe a combination of scientific and fantastical elements.  I’m not really refering to just planetary romance or dying earth scenarios, as much as contemporary or near-future fantasy outside of the UF genre.  We might also include some space opera works in the category.  Anime provides the example of Heroic Age, while C.S. Friedman has given us the Coldfire Trilogy.

4.  Let’s also throw in alternate universe science fiction here.  Earth-like worlds with different cultural and geographical settings that nevertheless approximate our present level of technology.  I’m hard-pressed to come up with an example of this grouping that doesn’t involve alternate dimensions or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I’m not talking multiverses or dimension-hoppers here.  I’m thinking of entirely independent worlds.  Which makes me want to read this sort  of story even more.  Perhaps Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch could be an example book, although that veers closer to Science Fantasy/New Weird than I’m trying to go.

5.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Chimney-punk.  This isn’t a recognized genre yet, but I’m hard at work behind the scenes, spreading awareness(lol) and writing material.  New Weird isn’t the only interstitial genre out there–at least, not for long.

Anyway, those are a few genres I’d really love to see some new material in.  Does anyone have particular areas of their own that they find interesting but under-populated?

 

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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

 

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Common Magic System Pros and Cons: Elemental Magic

Last post I wrote about the top ten ways to make me put your book back on the shelf. Or hit the back button—but that’s a whole other issue. Now we’re going to talk about common systems of magic and how they work or don’t work depending on how you use them.

First up is elemental magic, one of the most commonly used systems in fantasy, and also one of the most “simple”. It’s just throwing around the four five classical elements, right? Or three or seven, but the most common form uses five: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Spirit. I’ve listed them in order of perceived “coolosity” for when “cool” just doesn’t cut it which I define as “a scale running from ‘common amongst protagonists’ to ‘what kind of lame power is heart anyway?’”

You can’t deny fire is the coolest. Balefire, Balrogs, Firestorm, red-haired golden-eyed, fire-wielding necromancers… I’m sure I could name examples all night long and well past noon. And, of course, being its arch nemesis, water gets plenty of stage time as well. Frothing foaming river stallions, weather-magic, majestic water-falls and sacred ponds, rivers, and lakes. Wind gets in on the fun as well. At least, until you put a bullet through the mage. But since when has earth magic played the central role in a story? Why are people so afraid of earthquakes and mudslides? Maybe you get a few walking trees, or land-bonded kings, but fire is just that much flashier, I guess.

So, pros:

  1. Simple concept, easy to divide up and you can have the Five Man Band if you throw in a little “Spirit”.
  2. Easy conflict: Earth vs. Wind Fire vs. Water.
  3. Lots of Earth systems to draw inspiration from: Greek, Chinese, Arabic
  4. Combine elemental powers to get any damn effect you want. I’m looking at you, Mr. Jordan. Well, I would if he wasn’t RIP. I guess that means I’m looking at you, Mr. Sanderson. Not that you can help it much, but I need someone to point at.
  5. See Con # 1: Fertile ground for clever twists. Think about it.

Cons:

  1. How the hell do you put a price tag on it? Fatigue? Magical energy? Sympathy? Who knows.
  2. Gets cliché, and fast. If I see one more fire/water mage battle, I might have to gouge my eyes out.
  3. Never has even distribution between elements.
  4. Sexism: WoT again.
  5. Lame symbolism. Frisky fire mages are so last decade. And fiery fire mages. And fierce fire mages. And “cool-headed” water mages. And “flighty” wind elementals. And stolid earth mages—well, you know there would be if anyone actually used earth mages. (Don’t lie to yourself.) Mix it up people.

Please, somebody, come up with a fresh treatment. Use the Chinese system more. It’s better than another round of fire beats water beats fire beats everything else. And, last minute thought: alchemy is out. Just as cliché as straight elemental magic.

So, in the spirit of Limyaael, ways to make readers Atsiko like your elemental magic:

  1. Give some other elements besides fire and water the spot-light. Earth could be even more devastating against armies than fire. Wind could defend your coast kamikaze style. Or, you could do that thing that wind mages never think to do: suffocate the bastards.
  2. Give your system more than the old foursome. Wood and metal are both elements from the Chinese version of the system. I’d think rock and ice and sand could be culturally important to many peoples. Widen your scope. Be creative.
  3. But not “spirit”. Just don’t. How the heck is that even an “element”? Is the physical world made up of it? Not usually. Does it have a specific arena in which to work? No, it’s an excuse for whatever the hell the author wants. Set some limits and stick to ‘em, dang it.
  4. Integrate your system into the world. You know, this would be a great way to have a creative cost. Mess with the wind to make for fair-weather sailing? Hurricane nails important port town down the coast. Burn the enemy army up, well fine, but the forest they were hiding in is on fire. Or have a grassfire. Those are always fun. This isn’t hard, guys—it’s fun.
  5. Give me more deals between mages and elementals. Not Final Fantasy pacts, but a fair trade off. Maybe they want pretty flowers, or protection for their little pond. Or just a very-likely-to-be-called-in-at-a-crappy-time-for-the-hero favor. But make it some sort of price, not a freebie because your hero is so awesome.
  6. Find an appropriate cost. Sorry Tamora Pierce. Blood is interesting, but it doesn’t count as appropriate. (To be fair, her system isn’t strictly elemental.) Loved Pat Rothfuss’s method, though I think he could have at least thrown in some brain damage.
  7. Last one for now: Throw in some cool associations or symbolism. The Sun represents Fire. Boring. And planets don’t count either. I’ve always fancied flowers, or a musical instrument as an interesting association. Or maybe bone or blood or tears. Sort of like the Humours, but less body-fluidy. A little.

Okay, I’m done complaining. I really love elemental magic, if it’s a new portrayal. Shoot, I write a lot of stories with some form of it. But I’m tired of the same old same old. You don’t even really have to original—just be creative. And be sure to give me credit for the idea check yourself against what’s been written. Maybe it isn’t completely original—or maybe it is—but if it’s uncommon, it can still give your story a fresh feel.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing

 

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Magical No-Nos

Well, last post I talked about what it takes to create a believable magic system. There’s not much more to talk about in terms of basic magic theory. And I don’t have the materials on hand for the field work right now. So for now, we’ll just look at a few of the Do’s and Don’ts of magic. All those little things that authors do to drive the reader nuts, whether it’s avoiding good plotting with magic, or making their mage a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, but let’s just pretend “Mary Sue” is a neuter gender noun for now.) So, in this post, the top ten ways to make your mage hero a Sickeningly Speshul Snowflake:

  1. Making them the most powerful mage ever. This is boring. If they’re the best, where’s there competition? Maybe a few authors go as far as to make one of the bad guys the second most powerful mage ever. And maybe the gap isn’t even wide. But we still know the hero won’t lose. Unless the bad guys gang up on him, but that’s unfair and makes them bad sports. Because intelligence is evil. It’s okay not to be the best. Might even be better. Means you have to work and grow as a character and not coast through the conflict like you’re riding a greased watermelon.
  2. Making them the least powerful mage ever. Often leads to angst and whining and bullying of the pathetic MC. Look authors, we don’t want them to be the best ever, but why in the world would we want them to be the worst? A little adversity is good, but when everyone and their pet goat is beating on the hero, it gets old pretty fast. Just because not everyone is for you doesn’t mean everyone is against you.
  3. Making your mage a magical genius. (Somewhat related to #1.) Maybe they’re a newbie now, but they learn fast. Pretty soon, they’ll be taunting the teachers and beating the bullies and out-scoring the nerds on their Theory of Magic Exams. Patrick Rothfuss, I’m looking at you. Maybe the teacher’s are dicks. Maybe your mage is a master already. But leave the schoolboy fantasies for your Hermione slash fic. Always getting your own way is the number one characteristic of a Mary Sue, and having them play the most difficult song in the world while missing a string isn’t exactly making you look unbiased either.
  4. Making your mage the only one of her kind. Very popular in elemental magic systems, where everyone else had one element—two at most—and the hero has four… or five. Why doesn’t anyone ever have three? Or else they’re the only one who can use the fifth secret element. There are plenty more examples of this type of author favoritism. Fantasy may be escapist, but that’s supposed to be for the reader, not the author.
  5. Making your hero the only mage in the world. You’d think I wouldn’t have to go there, but I do. Some authors just don’t get this. There’s a limit to how speshul your snowflake can be before the book hits the wall. A very tight one.
  6. Making your hero immune to the rules. Somewhat related to #4. If there’s a rule that says one person can only use one element, giving your hero two—or four!—is bad. It’s a very blatant attempt to make your hero “speshul.” There’s a frickin’ book written about them, for heaven’s sake. How much more special do you need them to be? ‘Nother issue: if your hero needs to cheat to succeed, then maybe they’re not as heroic as you’re making them out to be. Which leads right into the next issue:
  7. Making your hero all about the magic. People are heroes because of who they are, not what they can do. If you keep piling on the power, people might begin to wonder what you’re compensating the hero for.
  8. Making your mage an auto-didact. Yes, it’s possible to learn something on your own. I taught myself piano. But you will not be as good at it as someone who has had nine years of lessons from a master. And neither should your hero. I know at least eight people who are better piano players than I am. All of whom live within twenty minutes of me. One reason that those with formal training are likely to be better is that they have learned from a comprehensive curriculum. Blah-blah curriculum blah stifling—whatever. Having a good basis in theory means you know what works and why, and that lets you extrapolate to other uses. Also, it’s a lot harder to get unstuck if you don’t have someone to bounce ideas off of. In an age when there aren’t any internet forums or Wikipedia articles, this is even more relevant.
  9. Magic by birth. Yes, ancient lines are cool, but just because you’re born with more than others have it doesn’t mean you’re better than they are. It’s a lot more impressive when the hero struggles for their power than if it’s handed to them on a golden platter.
  10. Making your hero an intuitive mage. Yet another reason Eragon is stupid. Randomly spitting out exactly the right ancient word you’ve never heard before to deal with a dangerous situation? Not at all unreasonable, right? Right. Sure, there are a few excuses, if magic responds to strong emotion (we’ll talk about that one next time), or if magic is like learning to skip—a physical skill gained through experimentation or practice. But learning another language on the spot? I don’t think so.

There are a lot of these sort of lists on the web, I’ll admit. But, unfortunately, there’s always room for another. People need a good reminder now and then. Besides too much theory burns out the brain. Next time, I think we’ll look at the most common systems of magic and their pros and cons.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Ideas, Magic, Writing

 

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How to Create a Believable Magic System

So, for the last two posts, I took a break from discussing magic to lay some basic groundwork on how stories function. To sum up:

Stories are kept interesting through conflict and suspense. These are created through tensionSuspense is built through external “story” tension, and conflict is built through internal “character” tension.

If you haven’t read those posts, I suggest you do. But if you understand what I just said, you’re good to go.

How do you create a believable magic system?

The first step is to decide on your goals for the magic. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Does it create suspense? Perhaps the Dark Lord has the power to turn all the seasons to winter, and your characters are on the verge of starvation. Or maybe he can’t. But you as the writer must know which.
  2. Does it create conflict? You know vampires? And all the angst that fantasy has decided comes with being one? That’s magic-derived internal conflict. But magical conflict isn’t only about whether Louis wants to drink blood or not. How would you feel if you couldn’t give your daughter a proper burial because that bitch Carnival had sucked her dry? Or what if the dragons are taking back their country dammit, and themselves take whoever is getting in their way.
  3. Does it resolve suspense or conflict? For example, are your characters allowed to escape a situation by using magic? This is fireball country, people. Brutes or brains? Or both? Lavan Firestorm burned up an entire invading army that seemed destined to overrun Valdemar. And Dirk Proven saved the world by figuring out when the next eclipse would occur—and lying about it.
  4. Does it create a sense of wonder? Who wasn’t impressed by the Nazgul, or Shelob? But I bet you don’t know where they came from, or how their power works. Good thing it didn’t matter. Now, Lackey’s ley-lines were fun, and you might even have wanted to be able to use them, but were they mysterious and awe-inspiring? No. Just a way to move along the plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is it what you—as an author—want?
  5. What themes will your magic express or explore? Yes, themes. I know you had enough of analyzing literature in high school. Or not. But whichever it was, this is still something you need to think about. Maybe you’re a panster, and you only know the themes after you’ve written the book. But they’re there all along, and it can be much simpler to follow them if you know what they are in the first place. Maybe you’re an environmentalist. Would you prefer a story about ghosts or trees that would rather not be cut down? What about the pollution of sacred sites? Ursula K. Leguin tackles this with the story of how one of the great cities used the Lips of Paor as a garbage dump. I bet they were really willing to help when our friend the Mender needed his powers temporarily removed.

Now that we’ve gone over choosing goals, maybe we should talk about how to achieve them. There are several things you need to do to make your magic meet your goals:

  1. Know what your magic is and what it can do. Yes, flying is cool, but if your character is a water mage, there’s not much they can do about it. Making them a wind mage is not the solution, folks. The solution is to make compromises. Your character needs to part the sea in chapter 4? Then they can’t fly over the Mountains of a Million Trolls in chapter eight. If your character can do anything, we aren’t going to have much of a story.
  2. Know what your magic is and what it costs. Maybe you can part seas and fly. But it’ll cost you your first-born child. And you’ve already got one. Maybe you know the character will pay for this later. But the reader has a much shorter attention span. The more you can do, the more—and sooner—it should cost you. Physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s permanent at some point. You can trade the cost as many times as you want, as long as you don’t trade it out of existence.
  3. Make it hard to learn. If your hero can learn the equivalent of a bible’s worth of spells in four weeks, why isn’t everyone and their pet hydra killing bandits and enjoying the magical equivalent of total climate control? If they are, then why does a prophecy about a fire-flingin’ half-elf princess so incredible to them? You’ve got to work out all the consequences. After that, it’s okay to indulge in some judicious ignorance.

Those are the basics, guys. There are way too any ways to create magic systems for me to fill out every little nook and cranny of magic-making theory. Later, I’m going to do some in-depth critiques of various magic systems, pointing out all the places things went right, and all the places they went wrong. And maybe I’ll even make up a magic system just for the Chimney, to really show you how the process looks. Field-work is fun, but “show don’t tell” is a real pain. Why do you think we writers don’t do it?

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Themes, Writing

 

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