This is the first on the series of blog posts I mentioned earlier where I want to touch on recurring comments and/or questions I’ve gotten while out selling my books to the washed and unwashed masses in literature and convention land. As you can see by the title of the post, we’re going to be talking about magic. Specifically, magic in fiction and whether or not it makes for “lazy writing” or “deus ex machina” situations and endings. I’ve heard both of these from potential readers more times than I can count. The other criticism I hear is that people can do anything with magic, but for all intents and purposes, I think that belongs under the big category of lazy writing.
I want to start off by saying that I agree with the above statements. Magic can lead to lazy writing and when it does, deus ex machina is quite prevalent. And even when the writing isn’t necessarily lazy, deus ex machina happens. We’re writers, we’re not perfect, but I understand the kvetch. I also understand that readers often need thing spelled out for them, and if it’s not, they think the worst.
Example, you ask? In the battle at Hogwarts, Hermione casts a spell that turns a set of stairs into a slide, thereby saving her life (and probably Ron and Harry’s, too, though I don’t recall for sure) and I’ve had more than one conversation where a reader has called foul.
True, but c’mon, we’re dealing with an entire world with magic, and not playing Dungeons & Dragons. Not every spell is listed on a convenient card with effect, casting time, and material components. Also, it was Hermione who cast the spell. The best and brightest of the bunch, so it further stands to reason she’d know a spell no one else did. Why? Because Hermione is awesome.
One could argue that the end of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells was deus ex machina. It wasn’t magic, but the machines were nigh invincible. and they’re brought down out of nowhere by the common cold, a mere germ. (let the arguments begin on that one)
The lazy writing can be a problem when the author doesn’t set up rules surrounding the use of magic or takes a piss on whatever rules they’ve established. More often than not, it’s the former and not the latter that ends up being the problem. Most authors who take the time to build a foundation and rules for their magic aren’t going to break them. That’s a lesson for anyone wanting to write magic into their stories, and one that should be heeded.
Along with establishing and following rules for creating and using magic, there are a few other things you can do to avoid lazy writing when using magic.
First, limit the magic that’s available. I’ve only read a book and a half in the ASOIAF series, but in all that time Martin has limited his magic to “sight,” dragons (which, I’m not sure really qualifies as magic), and some undead (which I also don’t know if that qualifies as magic). But having magic doesn’t mean you have to abuse it. It’s about the quality of it, not the quantity. So far, Martin’s approach is very earthy and not overbearing.
Another option is to make your protagonist a muggle. That’s right, make the main character someone who can’t use magic. Now your book isn’t about using magic to escape death, danger, or disaster. Now magic is something to be abhorred or lusted after (usually), and while there’s focus on it, it’s not used as much. It also reinforces the rules you’ve created since, as a general rule, the protagonist is trying to get around the magical barriers to obtain his or her goal. And if your magic is all encompassing, all empowering, and unbeatable, well, your book is going to be short and not very good.
That’s the route I took in Necromancer. Torrin cannot use magic and he’s constantly being manipulated by it, but in the end he finds a way to fight back. This is possible only because the magic has boundaries. The end of the novel is organic and fits into the universe nicely. You should check it out.
A third option to consider is to give everyone magic. If you take away magic’s ability to elevate a character’s power, then everyone is once again equal. This obviously robs the story of the imbalance magic provides. In this scenario, it’s almost okay to go nuts and over-the-top since everyone can. Think about Kal-El in this example. On Krypton, he’s normal, and just the same as anyone else, but you bring him to Earth and he’s fucking Superman. Level your playing field and let the characters speak, not the magic.
In closing, I reiterate that it’s a valid concern to think books with magic are going to suck, but it’s not always the case. So authors, please use caution when adding magic to your stories and novels, and readers… quit assuming that a book with magic is junk the moment you hear it. Pick it up, read a few pages, it may just be the next best book you read.
Join me next week as I get all fanged off…
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