Monday, January 14, 2008

When Do You Need A Good Dose Of Reality?

In trying to write a story for "New Fables", I found myself falling into my regular pattern of thinking through the reality and logic of the world, only I didn't (or may not have) done it quite enough. These worlds always have an underlying internal consistency to me, and I think the problem in this case is not that there's a big giant flaw in that consistency, but that I didn't give the reader enough of it to let them see it. So I need to work on that.

But it got me thinking about one of my limitations, which is that all of my worlds need to have a pretty strong underlying reality. I'm not so good with the wacky or surreal fantasy worlds, because I always start thinking "but where did the swarm of blue winged thockwarblers come from? And what do they eat when there aren't any yellow linen shirts around? What's their reproductive cycle?" and so forth. I can't even write fantasy stories with magic without thinking way too much in depth about how magic works. One of the things that always sort of bugged me about the Harry Potter books is that she never goes into depth about that. It seems like magic is basically a combination of an inherited ability to tap into it plus a long series of vocabulary lessons. As soon as you know the right words (and wand motions, yes) for a spell, you can do it. Harry learns the "Sectumsempra" spell from a few words in a book, for example, and carries it off pretty well the first time. Magic doesn't seem to take a lot out of the wizards, unless it's convenient for the plot to do so. Nor does it seem particularly hard to learn, unless the kids need to learn it for a plot point.

But here's the thing: none of that matters to the story. A quick Google of "harry potter theory of magic" turns up only one vaguely relevant link on the first page, which itself links to the really relevant article, a critique of Rowling's economics of magic by an economist (Megan McArdle). This is kind of how I feel as a trained engineer writing and reading fantasy. I think McArdle misses a point, however much she protests that "Children are great systemisers." Children are also able to discard systems and invent new ones. In the absence of Rowling giving us a consistent theory of magic, I'm sure most of the fans of the books have constructed some mechanism in their own minds that makes most of the facts fit.

Perhaps the spells are hardest early on, or some people just have a knack for them. Or some spells require a certain concentration component that isn't really described in detail. Maybe the DA (in book five) had an easier time with the Patronus charm than Harry did because they were able to practice it together en masse, and it's the kind of charm that requires confidence and positive thinking. Whatever your rationale, it's clear that the lack of a consistent magical system has not hurt the books.

And what I need to do, perhaps, is learn better what details can be left to the reader's imagination, and which I need to supply. There are certain things that are going to bother certain readers no matter what, but if you give the story a fabulist sort of feel, and make it work, people will be more willing to let the rest of it slide. The more realism you put into your world, the more people will demand from it. So that's what I'll try to do: give my story a bit more magic, and see if I can restrain my inner engineer long enough to let a few things slide.


Jonas said...

I think it's quite possible (as long as you're comfortable with it) to leave out virtually all of the details of a system that requires suspension of disbelief (e.g. magic) save those that might be critical down the line to the plot.

I mean, it occurs to me that the weakness you're describing can be found in almost all genres, to one degree or another. It's quite possible to meticulously research a particular subject that you're basing a plot element on, but to me actually describing it in detail, unless it's absolutely crucial to the story, might become tedious.

For example, if you were writing a hard-boiled detective novel, it'd certainly be prudent to research forensic methods of the early 20th century, due process procedures of the era, et cetera. But you wouldn't necessarily need to delineate all of this in the body of the work; simply having it as part of the backdrop (and maybe touching on a few aspects of it in dialogue/description) would hopefully be enough to satisfy the average reader. I think it's quite possible to overexplain things; the technobabble on the later Star Trek shows certainly sounded cool, but was it really necessary? Does knowing that the deflector dish has to be modified to emit an inverse tachyon pulse into the center of the anomaly make anything more dramatic? Couldn't it have been enough to say "We can rig something up, but it's really difficult and risky"?

I also think it also depends on your audience and genre; obviously if you're writing in a genre that is already fantastical, then the audience would probably be more likely to forgive mysterious technology or ancient juju, simply because the whole world is already built on suspension of disbelief. Granted, there are always limits, but I believe a skilled writer can get away with just about anything.

Ultimately, I believe that if you can make it at least feel like the character is reacting to it realistically -- neither blithely accepting the magic/technology/whatever nor outright rejecting it -- then that's what matters, since the characters drive the plot, not the gizmos. ;), I sat down to write a two-sentence answer and it turned into a bit of a spiel. I'm sorry. X)

Tim Susman said...

I think you're definitely right, and I guess what I was trying to get at was that I need to be able to make some judgments about where to draw the line as far as how much of the society/system needs to be explained. The other thing is that some people are naturally going to be more inquisitive about it than others, so you have to draw the line at the point where most people are going to be happy, because if you try to make everybody happy, you'll start to lose people at the low end (via overexplaining, as you point out). No doubt "Star Trek" feels that their fans have a higher interest in precise technobabble details and therefore need more explanation.

In the HP case, there are only a few instances where the question of the magic system comes up without you setting out consciously to worry about it (so making potions is just like following a recipe? is that all? are there, like, an Alton Brown or an Anthony Bourdain of wizarding potions?). One of those is the Patronus charm; another (for me) was the Sectumsempra charm. Both were pretty significant plot points, both showed some weakness in how the magic system was worked out. Even a little more, like saying that the words were intended to be a focus for magical energies and you had to figure out how to channel those energies through the focus of the word--that's something I could see some people being better at than others. Like music: some people can look at notes and hear the music in their heads immediately, and sight-read really well. Other people need to study it out note by note, but are really good at memorizing the progressions and understanding the logic behind it. I could see spellcasting working that way. But she doesn't even give us that.

Anyway, I'm sure she's tossing and turning at night on her mattress full of money about it. Us lesser people get to worry about questions like this, which are fun to debate, after all.