Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘author’

I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…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!

Read Full Post »

Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright.  He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant.  He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love.  So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!

Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design

When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.

Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.

Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.

You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.

Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).

They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.

1. Write in Limitations from the Start

Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow  In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.

By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.

In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.

Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.

2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies

Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.

Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?

With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.

Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.

And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.

For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.

Here’s an excerpt of that scene:

“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“

“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd.  “Hyperspace?  Did you just make that up?”

Roman was nonplussed.  He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments.  This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness.  “No,” he said. “I didn’t.  Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand.  Think about it like this.  Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”

The student said, “Well, yeah.”

“Well, it’s friction doing that.  Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them?  Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”

“I guess.”

“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together?  Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”

“I guess.”

“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace.  If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction.  There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast.  However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction.  Does that make sense?”

“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.

“It’s a stupid metaphor.”

3. Screw it.

Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.

At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.

And that’s pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.

 

Read Full Post »