One of my friends, who is an avid fantasy reader, recently asked me, what part will magic play in A Drowned Kingdom?
Well, I didn’t want to give away all the goodies, so I must admit I was somewhat evasive! What I told my friend instead was what type of magic I preferred in terms of fantasy fiction, to give my friend some hint about what can be expected in terms of how magic manifests in my upcoming novel.
What Do You Mean by “Magic”?
To be clear, when I speak of “magic” in fantasy fiction, I am referring to elements that fall outside the “normal” powers, capabilities, and characteristics of earthly beings in our world. So, firing lighting bolts from one’s hands, the existence of flying, fire-breathing dragons, and the ability to vanish into thin air, for example, would be considered “magical”, for the purposes of this blog.
What’s the Purpose of Magic in Fantasy Fiction?
Modern-day fantasy novels rarely do NOT feature magic, and in fact some measure of magical use is thought by many today to be paramount to what comprises a good fantasy book. Magic in fantasy can greatly enhance and drive the plot forward. Magic provides a source of conflict, and many readers will agree that conflict is what truly drives fantasy fiction, or any fiction. Good books have a problem, or multiple problems to be faced and surmounted, at the heart of the plot. Having supernatural problems that are much more difficult to overcome than more commonplace ones, makes for compelling reading. Magic can help instruct, guide, and transform the setting of the novel, and the characters, and be a crucial part of the story’s evolution.
Readers of fantasy often crave mystical action. There are numerous excellent fantasy novels, especially high fantasy novels, that do not feature magic. They are set in alternate worlds or universes that conform to our version of reality, and are absent of wizards, mythical creatures, or casting spells. That being said, I believe the vast majority of fantasy readers today have come to expect a strong thread of magic to permeate the books that they read, and would be somewhat disappointed if there were not at least some magical occurrences in what they were reading. Fantasy has become the genre where one expects to read about magic, as much as in the science fiction genre, where some type of futuristic setting, with advanced technology beyond that which is current, to wow the reader, is anticipated.
“Hard” Versus “Soft” Fantasy
I have read a lot of excellent fantasy books that I thoroughly enjoyed that employed a fairly “hard” magical system.
What I mean by “hard” magical system is that the magic described is somewhat akin to science, whereby there are a set of prescribed rules that more strictly govern the magical elements. How the magic can be used, who it can be used by, how often it can be used, who or what if anything can repel or defeat the magic, etc., are all outlined. In a “hard” magical system, the reader will typically be fully aware of how magic can be applied, know who can use the magic, and what the consequences of the usage are to the user, etc. (i.e. if using magic causes physical fatigue, or prematurely ages the user, or even is potentially fatal to the user). A “hard” magical system has structure, guidelines, and implications that normally both the characters and the reader (eventually) have cognizance of.
“Hard” magic systems seem to be gaining popularity and I find are beginning to dominate recent fantasy novels of the past decade. Whereas it seems that in older works, fantasy authors relied predominantly on “soft” magic to tell their stories. It appears that there has indeed been a market shift towards “hard” magic systems. It would seem more and more, readers are clamoring for magic to have an increased sense of “realism”, even though this seems almost like an oxymoron. Readers want to know precisely how magic can be used, what degree of power a particular brand of magic has, and what the cost of using magic entails.
Why? I don’t have the answer, only a supposition. Perhaps as technology advances and it seems that there is less and less about the world that we practicably don’t currently understand, or feel confident that understanding is imminently within our grasp, and even our mastery, we are growing less and less comfortable with the idea of that which we can’t understand. That’s my theory. There seems to have to be an explanation for everything, and if there isn’t, it drives humankind a little crazy. Our sense of curiosity and of suspicion, our human need to relentlessly seek knowledge and uncover every single mystery the world has to offer, perhaps, drives our desire to be able to define all. And thus, if we as humans can’t categorize it, give it rules and regulations, and set parameters around it, it’s hard for us to accept.
In all magical systems, “hard” or “soft”, magic is often a weapon or tool, like a sword or spear, that can be wielded by those trained, or gifted enough to use it. But in “hard” magic systems, the reader learns quickly which specific characters in the story have the talent or ability to wield that tool, how much damage the tool can do, and what are the circumstances when the tool can be deployed effectively. In “soft” magic systems, the reader rarely is privy to that information, and often is as surprised as the characters when those tools or weapons are turned against people in the story, or when they are deployed to save them.
Why I prefer “Soft” Fantasy
Even though I have loved many fantasy books with “hard” magical systems, I ultimately prefer magic that is a bit lawless, and undefined. When I think of the word “magic”, I think of something mysterious, the element of surprise, and powers that cannot easily be described, and certainly not easily comprehended.
Give me magic, please, that I don’t know the limitations of, and where I don’t understand the rules! I want to be awed, I want endless possibilities for the reach and scope of magic, the potential for immeasurable power, and I love the ambiguity of how transcendental the magic can be! I want to have to guess what the magic (and the wielder) is capable of, and be worried by those possibilities of what it can do to harm my favourite characters, or hopeful of what it can do to help them, precisely because I do not know how potent it is. For me, magic that is too rigid, too restrictive, can rob a little bit of the joy, and engagement in the story.
Additionally, I believe having a “softer” magical system can provide some ideal levels of conflict for characters, as they strive against something that they struggle to control or understand. This can lead to some great moments of discovery and wonder for the characters and the readers that can enhance the story and can heighten the excitement and tension. The restrictions of strictly “hard” magic systems can be too binding for me. I don’t want so much to know how the magic works, only that it exists, and I want to be surprised when it happens. For me, that’s one of the best parts of reading fantasy, and why I enjoy it so much.
Several of the fantasy authors – who indeed are some of the most celebrated fantasy authors ever – that I enjoyed reading the most seemed to utilize such “soft magic”. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin, never pulled back the curtain to reveal exactly how their magic worked. The magic was a mystery. In The Lord of the Rings, we as readers don’t know how much Gandalf can do, when he will do it, or how he will do it, much less where his power comes from. We don’t know, in A Song of Ice and Fire, how the Others resurrected corpses into undead zombies, why dragons live, or why you must be born Targaryen to ride one. But we love reading anyway. I don’t believe the reading experience is lessened by us not knowing; indeed perhaps it is augmented by not knowing. Of course, that is subjective to the reader, but judging by the current, enduring popularity of all things Tolkien and Martin and their overall esteem and reverence in the fantasy community, I believe the effectiveness of their use of “soft” magic speaks for itself.
So by now, I’m sure you have discerned how you can expect to see magic manifested in my upcoming epic high fantasy novel, A Drowned Kingdom, and I hope that you like what I’ve done with that magic.
Please feel free to comment on this and future blogs and I will be sure to get back to you. Chat soon!
P.L. Stuart's Blog