Yesterday, one of my friends shared this gem of an article with me on Facebook. It’s called “Why does magic need so many rules?”, and it’s written by fantasy author N.K. Jemisin. Her basic premise is that magic is inherently different from science, so why is it that so many readers of fantasy demand strictly structured systems for using and understanding magic?
Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death – things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.
I completely agree with her. Frankly, the whole reason that I write fantasy is because the culture of magic lets me do all kinds of shit in the story without having to really explain it–because, you know, it’s magic.
Jemisin points to D&D as a possible culprit for the systematization of magic, and that seems like a logical conclusion to me. But what the article really got me thinking about was not just magic in fantasy novels specifically.
It’s the idea of setting a standard and demanding that it be present across a genre. Now, I’m not talking about a standard quality of writing–that ought to be a given. I’m also not talking about traditional fantasy devices, like creatures, mentor figures or what have you. I’m talking about demanding elements, and sometimes whole plots, that ought to be unique to only a handful of stories.
Take, for example, the explosion of vampire series after the success of the Twilight franchise. Suddenly, paranormal romance got its own goddamn SHELF in bookstores. All the covers looked exactly the same: black with white text surrounded by glow fades in red, purple, blue, sometimes green, usually imposed over the pale face of some open-mouthed girl, perhaps a girl and a boy in an intimate embrace, often with a moon or some other symbol in the corner. They just went on forever. And so many of them had the same plot descriptions: girl meets boy who just happens to be _____ supernatural creature, difficult romance, outside condemnation, etc. etc.
YA literature began as more of a marketing genre than a literary one, and its origins show in this situation. Twilight was a hit, for some reason. Publishers, agents, and authors capitalized on it by meeting the demand for more stuff exactly like Twilight.
Same thing post-Hunger Games. Dystopia is the new vampire. You can blame the industry for it, but part of it will come back down to the audience. Publishing is a business that caters to the demands of the readership, and when the readership wants vampire romance over and over again, that’s what gets published.
So what does that mean for writers? It means getting boxed in. The audience expectation for magic that is clearly defined and practically scientific leaves writers like me, who have free-flowing and mysterious magic in their novels, wondering if it will be enough to turn off a huge chunk of readers. Will it make me seem amateur to them? Why exactly is it so important that magic be quantified?
To be honest, I don’t leave magic in my novel completely unexplained. A lot of the magic I talk about has to do with black magic and crossing into the underworld, which I explain because it’s relevant to the plot. But I don’t bother with the rest of it. Because it’s magic. And because reading fantasy already requires suspension of disbelief. And because my story and my characters are more important to me than the magic that’s more of a sidebar to the whole situation.
Part of my frustration comes from a few incidents lately in which I’ve worked with up-and-coming writers as part of convention workshops, etc. I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers – and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
It’s good to write something that people want to read, obviously. But unless you’re in writing for the money (in which case, there are a lot of hysterical people laughing at you), it’s better to stay true to yourself and your vision. If your vision is one of extensively explained magic, then have at it. But mine is not, and that’s the way it will stay. That’s because what I really want to shoot for as an author is for a presence in the tradition of fantasy literature that is distinctly mine. I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter fantasy. For some people, that’s about creating magic that is separate from any other magical system ever devised. For me, it’s about an original story and characters.