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Sunday, 10 August 2008

How much is too much?

Over on e-buddy Jo's blog we had a bit of discussion last week about fantasy books we've enjoyed recently and the kinds of magic the authors had invented.

I must be odd. I don't read fantasy for the magic, but for the characters. My premise is "What if there were a world just like ours but with different races of people, some of whom could do magic and some of whom couldn't?" My primary interest is not in the magic per se, but in its effects on human relationships, so I don't often show magic going on, but assume it as a "given" for my invented world. The reader often sees the results of magic, but not its performance.

Some readers, however, read fantasy primarily for the magic. I found this out when I was a member of Online Writers Workshop, an online critiquing group for speculative fiction writers. It was apparent from the comments of several OWW critters that I don't show nearly enough magic for some people's taste. As a result of those critiques, I've started to include a lot more of the actual workings in my books. But how much is too much? While I'm a firm believer in giving the public what it wants, I feel the gratuitous depiction of any one thing impinges on whatever modicum of artistic integrity a work might possess.

Gee, does that last line sound pretentious, or what? Nevertheless, I put it to you that it's possible to use magic gratuitously, just as it's possible to overdo sex or violence. Do many people really like to read about magic even when it has little bearing on the plot and does nothing to show character development?

Some fantasies I've read go way overboard with magic. That's way overboard for my preferences, of course: as with all things, everyone has the right to draw their own line in the sand with regard to what constitutes "too much". One person's erotica is another person's pornography. One person's vivid description of violence is another person's horror. Where do you draw the line, magically speaking? Post a comment and let me know.

I'm about to start a new house-sitting gig, this time for my friend Ellen, who is off to Russia to take part in an international choral festival. Choirs from all over the world are getting together to sing Verdi's Requiem in St Petersburg and Moscow. What a wonderful experience that will be for the performers! As always, when my friends go away, I wish I could go, too! BTW, Juliet has blogged her marvellous Baltic experience at Writer Unboxed. It was obviously a trip full of contrasts, from the joy of a Latvian Folk Festival to the darkly emotional experience of WWII concentration camps. Russia and the Baltic are not common destinations for Aussie tourists, so I love to get reports of such expeditions.

No dogs and cats at Ellen's place: just five chooks. (Chickens or hens to those of you who don't live in the Land of Oz!) I haven't looked after poultry for well over twenty years, so wish me luck!

15 comments:

Jason Fischer said...

It is so true that some fantasy works have an over-use of magic, but I think the true dangers lie when there is magic without consequence. When anyone can do anything or use a magic thingummy to get out of strife, it removes the conflict and the challenge for that character.

Personally i think magic in fiction is like salt...a little helps improve the flavour, too much and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth :-)

mikandra said...

Being one of those OWW members, I probably have to comment. I think the question is not so much that 'magic' is required, but some form of 'otherness'. What you don't want is a book of characters that sound just like normal people, have concern that could be plucked out of our own lives, with only the made-up names as guide that this is a fantasy world. I have seen this a fair bit in workshops; I am yet to see any of it published. IMO there needs to be some form of 'otherness' in the setting, else the work isn't really fantasy; it's just like the real world, but with made-up names.

I have definitely seen the other extreme published. I call this rampant fantasy, where the author seems to pile concept upon concept without letting each idea crystallise and take shape within the plot. I sometimes get the feeling the authors do it to bedazzle the reader. I find it merely annoying.

I feel that a book should contain as much otherness as is pertinent to the plot.

For example, if your plot revolves around the marital customs of a made-up race, you need to delve into this aspect as much as you can, and resist dragging a whole host of other things into the story. So you delve into the customs of these people until the plot reaches a level of otherness that can't survive without the fantastic customs. I'm guessing you probably wouldn't need magic at all in a world like this.

hrugaar said...

I know its not a direct parallel, but I imagine there's a kinship with the question of how much science you put in 'science fiction'. For 'soft' SF, the tech you show has to be plausible (i.e. you get your scientist buddies to check out that the science 'works' according to known laws, current theories etc.) and then you get on with whatever plotline you want to write about in that setting. The 'harder' the SF gets, the more you go into detail about how the science of the universe-setting works, what might or might not be possible, and it becomes much more integral with the development and resolution of the plot (or the plot becomes more like a vehicle to explore the scientific idea). Well, something like that anyway. :)

When you choose to include magic in a Fantasy world (or universe) I think you need to include enough detail to establish that it has its own internal consistency (i.e. that it functions along the lines of certain basic laws and limitations) and how it fits in (or otherwise) with the cultures and societies you portray. But if your story isn't actually about the magic, then enough is as good as a feast - in other words, the appearance and use of magic is determined by the needs of specific plot events or character development, or where it would be integral with the world setting as described.

But just as there is a readership for 'hard SF', there is clearly a large readership who have a passion for magic and want to see a lot more of it - whether just because they enjoy seeing it at work, or because they want to see the nuts and bots and mechanics of how it all fits together into a complete workable system (expect email from such fans requesting a complete grimoire - there are probably a lot of gamers among them, *g*). They will pounce with joy upon books such as Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series - which one might term as 'harder magic fantasy' - because the use and abuse and exploration of magical techniques and powers play a major role in the text.

Yes, it's possible to use magic gratuitously - just as one can use sex or combat or horror etc. gratuitously, if they don't really contribute anything significant to the story development. Presumably the inclusion is to make it more marketable to those who enjoy such things ... though the ploy fails with those who aren't so enthusiastic and get irritated by the digression.

Juliet M said...

Interesting discussion! How much magic is too much? Well, you use what you have to use to tell the story the best you can, I reckon. Mikandra makes a good point about the Other being the critical element in a fantasy, rather than the practice of magic as a craft. (We all have different definitions of the word magic.)

I prefer fantasies with great storytelling, believable, rounded characters and a focus on the life journeys of those characters, but I also love the tinge of the Other, the folkloric resonances, the strangeness of a well written fantasy. That doesn't necessarily mean magic, and certainly not magic in the potions and wands sense.

Where a writer does the magic ingenously and originally, it can be a striking element of the novel. Example: Garth Nix's Sabriel series with its powerful chiming bells and world of the dead - not a gratuitous note in sight, and good characterisation as a bonus.

Subtle magic is wonderful. I've just read the Orson Scott Card novella, Stonefather, in the Dark Alchemy anthology. Seamless integration of deep elemental magic into the narrative, all explained logically, and beautifully written.

Internal consistency is a must in fantasy, unless the writer is performing some kind of literary experiment ...

Jo said...

Whoooo, as a reader, not an author, you are all going very deeply into this subject. I just enjoy books with magic, and as Ru know, I love dragons which are, of course, magical creatures in most stories. But then I love Anne McCaffery's dragons which aren't magical at all, just overgrown fire lizards although I suppose telepathy is magical. Right now I am pursuing Katherine Kerr's Deverry books which are full of magic and enjoyable. My only complaints in the first two books, was the extremely odd way of speaking used by some, if not all, of the characters. It seems to have improved in the third book. I guess I have always believed in fairies and by reading about them it provides a doorway into worlds of magic and mystery.

Satima Flavell said...

Wow! Thanks, guys, for contributing to this very worthwhile discussion. It's apparent that we must go back to old saw about writing what you love; what moves you. Furthermore, it's important for the writer to keep sight of what the story is really about. People who want stories that are primarily about magic will probably not like my books. All any writer can hope to do is to please some of the people, some of the time!

I agree, Jo: some of Kerr's language in dialogue does come across as distinctly odd. I have read that she was trying to replicate the style and structure of the Irish form of the Celtic language. One of its ideosyncracies is that there are no words for "yes" and "no", so yes / no questions in Irish will get a reply such as "I will" or "I will not". An interesting exercise for a writer, but perhaps not such a good idea from the readers' PoV! However, it does serve the purpose of heightening the feeling of "Otherness" that Mikandra and Juliet both stress as being such an important component of fantasy.

Graham Clements said...

I don't think it's so much the magic, I think some readers, particularly younger readers, are impatient to get to the next confrontation, and that they expect each confrontation to be bigger and better than the previous one. I used to read novels like that, for example, the Dragonlance series. The fantasy I enjoy reading now has a lot less magic and spends a lot more time in the character's heads. I am currently reading Fatal Revenant, the eighth book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where the author has, so far, reduced the the use of magic, perfering to focus on the main character thinking through the many different agendas of the allies, enemies and chaotic characters that surround her. I can image that a reader who wants an explosion of magic in every chapter would quickly become bored with this book.

Jo said...

I don't find it heightens the feeling of otherness, it is just rather annoying. Another author I read, insisted on using (I think it was Gaelic, memory has gone) masses of other language conversation all over the book and then promptly translating it. It was very irritating, and I told her so. She said that was why she no longer wrote fantasy. Pity, her story was a very good one.

Satima Flavell said...

You're right, Graham, fights and battle scenes, including magical battles, are very popular. I find I get sick of them if there are more than two or three in a book.

I agree that few things are more annoying than long screeds of dialogue in another language, Jo. One little taste, interpreted by a character who knows both tongues, is OK. If it goes on for hours it's probably better, I think, to have it reported in translation rather than given as direct speech.

And don't get me started on linguistics and fantasy. It's one of my many hobby horses:-)

Marilyn Z. Tomlins said...

Satima --

What to say? I plead guilty to not being a reader of fantasy. I lay my head on the guillotine, if you so wish it to be there. In fact, I am writing to much these days that I don't read much of anything.
Marilyn

Marilyn Z. Tomlins said...

Satima -- correction: I am writing *so* much ... etc
Marilyn

Satima Flavell said...

You haven't blogged about your work for a while, Marilyn. I hope you'll tell us what you're working on soon.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins said...

Satima --

Like one of those movie stars of old, I'm "resting". OK seriously, I'm still deep into murder ...

Marilyn

Satima Flavell said...

I do a lot of 'resting' too - lit. and fig. Murder? Do I hear a new book coming on?

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