by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2000 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
I absolutely love a good story and stories with magic as a major premise are amongst my favorites. Sadly, they can also be some of the worst stories I read. A couple of days ago, I was reading one of the worst I've seen in a long time. It was so bad, I actually went back to the beginning to see if it started with that classic opening, "It was a dark and stormy night." It didn't, and I'm not saying what the title of the story was. In fact, the examples below will be generic, pulled from a large group of stories. I read the whole story, which besides showing that I have a masochistic tendency, made me wonder what was needed to write a good magic-based story.
We'll gloss over the general rules of good story writing. You know them, good plot, good characterization and conflict. If you don't, click here for the index and check out some of Phil's articles on good writing.
I started with the obvious, magic must have rules. Even Spells 'R' Us, which is designed to be an excellent minimalist framework for story development, insists that magic has rules. One of them seems to be that magic cannot easily be undone by another practitioner, only modified or added to. Sure a wizard can remove a spell they've cast, but for another wizard to remove that same spell would be extremely difficult. For example, Bikini Beach's Grandmother can't change spells cast by the Old Man of Spells 'R' Us fame or vice versa. Or is that just what they want you to believe?
That paranoid thought kept creeping back into my thoughts no matter how often I discarded it. It just wouldn't give up the ghost, so I finally decided to think it through. Would magic users intentionally lie about their abilities? Sure. They are presumably human beings, albeit powerful human beings, with all the frailties and failings of human beings. But even if they are not human and have none of our human failings, they might still lie for protection, if nothing else. If your opponent underestimates you he, she or it is actually at a disadvantage. They might even lie because as a society they have decided that it was a necessity in order to remain unobtrusive.
Clearly, this way lies madness (no pun intended), but that's actually the point. If the only information about magic is from magic users (or, worse, writers) and there is no assurance that the magic users are telling the truth (we know writers don't), it is possible that magic really does not have rules -- in which case, anything goes, anything is possible, and the winner of a conflict of magic users is the craftiest and most ingenious critter around rather than the most powerful.
So the question is, "How do you formulate rules about the absence of rules?" And the answer is, "You don't." The rules become rules for writers, not rules for magic users and the first rule of writing, probably the maxim from which all other rules flow, is maintain credibility. This is the most common flaw I see in stories about magic. All of a sudden someone does something that doesn't fit with the character, the situation, or the magical abilities described. It can be a little thing, like the question that often arises in "slasher" movies -- "Why did that supposedly educated person go into that dark bedroom and alone at that?" The Scream movies did a wonderful job of answering that question. The answer is, of course, to move the plot along and give the evil guy some more folks to kill. Sadly, it's not a good answer. Events need to flow naturally and make sense within the story's framework. Look at movies like the Back to the Future trilogy or Poltergeist. Each character's actions, the good guys' and the bad guys' make sense, almost like a game of chess with its point and counterpoint. Thus:
1. Characters need to be true to their characters.
2. Situations need to be believable.
3. Action needs to flow from the situation.
Would that these were enough. It's a good start, but when you add magic to the mix, it's not. I spoke earlier of the Spells 'R' Us stories. The framework for these stories is almost genius in its simplicity. The hardest part is finding an original and entertaining way of restating that which all but the first time reader knows is coming. Pondering this is what caused me to consider a fourth rule for writing stories about magic:
4. The more "fantastic" the concept in a story, the more important it is to have the rest of the story grounded in reality.
Let's use the movies we mentioned above as examples. In Poltergeist we have Craig T. Nelson playing a father that is so plebeian and average, he's boring; but he's also a perfect counterpoint to the strange and baffling things going on around him. In the Back to the Future movies, Michael J. Fox's Marty acts like he was created from a census report; high school student, has a band, has a girl friend, wants a car, and loves to skateboard (the nineties version of the box cart or roller skates). He's the perfect, innocent foil to Christopher Lloyd's mad scientist with his fantastic inventions.
But if you think about it, it's not just the characters that are grounded in reality. Consider the house in Poltergeist. It's your average American "dream house" with a two-car garage, cathedral ceiling in the living room, a bedroom for each of the 2.5 children (actually three, but I couldn't resist), and a pool being dug in the backyard. Similarly, Back to the Future chose three of its four settings in decades that are probably better known than the one we currently live in. Who didn't love the '50s or the Wild West? And remember that the first film of the trilogy came out at a time when shows like Happy Days and The Wonder Years were at their zenith.
Anyway, to sum this all up, what I'm suggesting is in no way similar to the old engineering adage, "Given two of the three variables (i.e. personnel, money, and time), you can predict the third". I just like the quote. What I am suggesting is that given a story with four basic components (i.e. settings, characters, plot, and premise), the more fantastic one component is, the more important it becomes to have the others grounded in reality.
Think about it. Drop me a line on the Feedback Page if you agree or disagree, or if you're shy, send me a private e-mail.