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Category Archives: Ideas

The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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Not All Elementalists Control Their Elements

Another random short-story recommendation:

Elementalism is one of the most common forms of magic in fantasy.  Flinging fire, whipping up the waters, hurlling thunderbolts.  Who wouldn’t love to do that?  But, like many other popular forms of magic, elementalism has lost its grip on real magic.  Because, real magic has a price.  And real big magic has a real big price.  Being tired for a few hours just doesn’t cut it.

And along some Helen Keeble and makes the magic magic again.  In Helen Keeble’s world of elemental magic, it’s the elements that are in control, and the humans who are just poor vessels of that power.  Specifically, I’m refering to two short stories in Strange Horizons, entitled “In Ashes” and “In Stone“, where we learn just what price you pay to control nature, and just how cruel the choice of who pays it.

And I guess what I’m saying here is that that’s how true magic works, or should be.

 

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Atsiko’s Speculative Fiction Alphabet

There’s a lot of material out there about writing, but most of it is general: how to use adverbs, dialogue tags are bad, mix up your sentence length.  Then there are less general posts and articles and discussions: race and ethnicity in fiction, how to design a magic system, how to world-build, three act stories.  These things get a lot of traction and a lot of focus.

What don’t get a lot of focus are more specific issues of plotting.  Tropes, plot devices, themes.  So, for the next little while, I’ll be exploring these less-appreciated elements of fiction.  And since this is a spec fic blog, I’ll be exploring their applications in that genre.  There’ll be more than one post for each topic, so think of it as a series of miniseries.  I hope you’ll find something useful in these posts.

 

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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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