I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…
…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function. I think rules are important to creativity. You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is. If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article. I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.
Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.
First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“. I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?” This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me. I consider it to have a fatal flaw: it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“. In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.
In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story. Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one. Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories. That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter. Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances. Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part. The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions. When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.
If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe. There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were. That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.
One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book. I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do. Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers. Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses. I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out. It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power. Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications. Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.
These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do. The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility. That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems. That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.
If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story. To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem. Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying. Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools. This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no. This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.
Case study: the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work. Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.
This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic. It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense. The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be. That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much. Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world. This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices. I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative. I suspect other authors do as well.
Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too: Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler: he answers in the affirmative)
Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices. This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate. Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion. As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding. That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!