Tag Archives: Ideas

Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.


So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?


The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?


I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.


1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.


And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.


In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building


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Annoying Questions People Ask Writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Writers are always complaining about things that people ask them, and this is one of the most cited questions.  There are tons of different answers, none of which are right for everyone, or even for someone all of the time.  There are just so many places to get ideas and inspiration from, and many, many methods of combining these things into something that could actually support a story.

But, because I think about this kind of stuff a lot, and becuase, like all good writers, I have more ideas than I could ever manage to use in my natural lifetime, I’ve come across an answer to this question that describes how I get ideas most of the time, and which corresponds fairly well with what many other writers have described as a common process for them.

Since I’m a writer, I’m going to tell you a little story, rather than writing a long boring essay:

Our story begins about 4 billion years ago, before there even were writers to come up with ideas in our solar system.  The Sun was here, but the planets were yet to be born.  A massive disc of material left over from the Sun’s formation, called the solar nebula, was as close to planets as the solar system had gotten.  Much like the cultural soup that every human being inhabits, this disc was full of tiny little grains of stuff, held together by some force; in the solar nebula’s case, this force was gravity.  Over time, these little dust grains began to collide with each other, and every now and then gravity would cause some to stick together, creating a larger piece with more gravity than the little pieces surrounding it.  As time passes, these larger chunks collide again, their mass building and building, clearing out the space around them, until they bccame around 10 kilometers in size.  These huge masses of dust and gas were called planetesimals.

The collisions continued, and these planetesimals increased in size at rates of a few centimeters per year.  Just imagine all the little interesting facts and scraps of information you encounter daily.  Over time, one or another begins to take on weight as you learn more things about it, and over time, it might become an opinion, or a desire.  And these opinions and desires feelings and thoughts and hunks of knowledge are just like our little planetesimals.  Over time, the planetismals crashed together, and snagged most of the remaining dust and bcame the planets.  And each planet is like a little idea, starting from a tiny grain of thought, and gradually accumulating a mass of information and images and words, until it becomes the basis for an incredible story.

And most writers have tons and tons of these ideas orbiting them, or still forming.  And because, unlike the sun, we have an infinite sea of information surronding us for our entire lives, there are always more ideas, more little thought planets forming around us.  This process is called “accretion”  and it’s where almost all ideas come from.  For example, the first grain of the idea behind this post came from an Astronomy class I took at a community college over the summer.  And then many many threads trying explain where writers got ideas began to collide, and were caught up in the gravity well of that astronomy course, until eventually there was enough mass to support and atmosphere, in which grew little tiny forms of life that finally evolved enough to smack me on the back of the head and say “Duh!  Here’s where we come from!”


Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Authors, 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.


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


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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.


  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.


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.


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


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Respecting the Writer: Making Shit Up

I’m sure many fantasy writers have heard their genre described by readers and other authors as “making shit up.” As in, “I could write fantasy. It’s just making shit up.” I can’t answer for the reactions of every fantasy writer who’s heard this, but I know it always pissed me off. Making shit up? Well, yeah, that’s what *fiction* writers do… all of them. But this strange idea is only applied to those of us who write fantasy. Or sci-fi depending, but that’s a whole other post.

To be fair, a lot of beginning fantasy writers think this, too. I’ve seen it everywhere. On several of the many writing forums on the web, in a few blogs that shall go nameless, over on the NaNo boards. Some of these people are honestly ignorant. They just don’t realize the kind of work that goes into creating a believable fantasy world. Others are lazy. They feel they can get away with making shit up, because who is there to catch them? The readers, sure, but the Fantasy Fabulation PoliceTM aren’t going to show up at their house and beat some work ethic into them.

And then, finally, there are the people who are on the “make it up as you go” side of the world-building debate. I mean them no disrespect. They’ve chosen a method and they feel it works for them. Whether or not someone has the chops for this sort of writing is a debate I’d rather not get into (again). Heaven forbid someone make subjective statements about someone else’s behavior. On the Interwebz? Shouldn’t happen.

But hey, I have no trouble admitting there have been many great books written like this. Not how I do it, but then, I haven’t sold tens of thousands of copies of over twenty different novels. I’m not going into the mechanics of world-building on the fly. I may be a punster when I write, but I have files and files of world-building material on paper, on disk, and in my head.

The point I haven’t gotten to here is that world-building on the fly is not the same as “making shit up”. I could make up a world in 30 seconds, and nine times out of ten, the reader would have thrown that book against the wall in half the time. People think getting a real-world city/religion/philosophy/branch of science right through research is tough. And it is. One mistake, and that community is all over you. But when you fuck up in world-building, the number of people who can–and will, believe me–get on your ass is exponentially greater.

Readers like a story to make sense. Why? Because then they know how to react to it. Awesome Fantasy Character #1482 is crushed by a fifty tone granite tomato(hey, this is fantasy): *atsiko weeps*. Two pages later, the author resurrects this character. *Atsiko screams and throws the book out the window.* Well, the window was closed, and I have to pay $200 for a new one. Now I’m doubly pissed off. If I had known how easy it was to bring characters back to life, I would not have cried. I would have winced, maybe. ‘Cause the Goddess knows getting squished by a fifty ton granite tomato hurts like hell. But if it doesn’t kill the person, why should the author trick me into wasting my emotional energy? Guess what would happen the next time someone died? Atsiko would flip through the lame-ass death speech (because they all are), confident that the character would return by the next chapter. If I didn’t already need a new window.

I’ve talked in other posts about how the reader doesn’t like being played with. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, and if we are really engaged in the story, it can be emotionally draining. For the same reason you don’t make a book all action, you don’t constantly fuck around with the reader’s emotions. We also don’t like it if the author is an idiot. Ground glass is not poison people—it’s beach sand.

Now, to relate this back to our original topic:

1. Readers like to have a general idea of how much of ourselves we should invest in a given part of the story. That’s not to say we don’t like surprises. A predictable book is a boring book. But if anything is possible, nothing is interesting.** And a boring book is also boring.

2. Readers like to have a general idea of how easy it will be to solve a problem. That is, if the hero is surrounded by a thousand ravening orcs, the reader would like to know how much effort it will take to defeat them—or if the hero is just screwed. All the tension is gone if you take the cheap way out. So, what’s the way to accomplish these goals? How can you give the reader an idea that they know what is going on? By making sense. If you make shit up, it usually doesn’t make much sense. “Crap, I’ve written my hero into a corner. Wait, I’ve got it! If you say ‘bambino’, they esplode!” An extreme example, I’ll admit. Let’s try something more sensible. “My hero’s dropped his sword! And he’s not wearing armor. What’ll I do?!” Hint: don’t have him catch the sword. This looks cool until I put the book down to get a glass of milk. Then the fridge logic kicks in, and I remember that a sword is a wedge. What do wedges do? They wedge things apart. Like hands. Not to mention that, um… you know… this: gravity + human strength > human strength. Duh, author.

Sure, fantasy writers make things up. But they also do this thing called “being consistent”, which is a lot harder for most people to grasp. It’s not any less work to make stuff up than to use real stuff. It may even be harder. You don’t have to suspend disbelief for a story set in New York. But in Random Fantasy Kingdom #127?

Yes, readers, fantasy has to make sense, too—just its own kind of sense.

So, to sum up: Make sense, not shit. And have a little more respect for fantasy authors.

More on “Respecting the Reader” later.

**I’d like to thank Limyaael for making my point for me.

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Posted by on October 22, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Ideas, Writing


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The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding

(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


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


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