Aunt Maria (second post): The laws of magic

Orson Scott Card has some excellent books on writing out, but there are a couple of points on which I completely disagree with him (I’m referring to writing advice, of course—on politics, I think I disagree with everything he’s ever said).
In his book on writing SF and fantasy, Card states that SF fans are quite used to waiting a chapter or two for explanations of how the world works. Fantasy, on the other hand, needs to spell out the laws of magic upfront, because they’re so removed from reality, readers will be lost otherwise.
I think that’s bunk. It’s true, fantasy may prevent a very different world from ours, but it’s world most people are familiar with, even so. We’ve grown up with fairy tales, fantasy stories, Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed or Harry Potter (depending on your generation of course) and I think the vast majority of readers have no problem accepting variations of “Wizard casts spell, people turn into frogs” or “wizard casts spell, things explode” and so on.
In Aunt Maria, for example, we learn men and women have separate magic in Maria’s town, but not exactly how it works or gets divided up. Or how Maria can turn the narrator’s brother into a werewolf, or make her mother forget him. It’s just what wizards do.
There are times you need an explanation, but it’s usually only a small one. Early on in the Conan story People of the Black Circle, for example, the villainous wizard tells his ally how very hard it is to magic someone to death (stars have to be in the right conjunction, for instance). That settles the question why doesn’t just zap his enemies dead and instead resorts to poisonous mists, illusions and killer spiders.
The only real requirement is that everything feel consistent: If a wizard destroys his enemies with a bolt of lightning in Chapter Two, you need to explain how the bad guys can take him alive in Chapter Four.
This may reflect my personal distaste for complicated magical systems. I’m rarely impressed by books that create their own laws and magical rules (at least, I’m not impressed by the system—I may like the book anyway), particularly if they start becoming self-referential. If an author makes up their own rules, then characters raise a hue and cry because The Rules Are Broken, it’s hard for me to care. Other people may be able to wallow in the minutiae the same way I can indulge in endless debate over DC Universe technicalities.
But either way, I think Card’s off-base on this one.


Filed under Reading, Writing

4 responses to “Aunt Maria (second post): The laws of magic

  1. Pingback: Chekhov’s Mage: Dr. Strange in the Defenders « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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