Tag Archives: magic

Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.


But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).



And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing


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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Has Its Own Worth

Welcome to Fantasy IS Fantastic, part three. Better known as what happens when you yammer on too long about what you want to say, instead of saying it, or why part two should never be allowed to take steroids.

Okay, so last time I talked about how and why fantasy is disparaged by fans of other genres and society in general – and I failed to get around to what I actually intended to talk about. To avoid a similar mishap this time, I shall get straight on to the two issues which need to be discussed. To save you having to go back and check what I said last time, I will quote myself: “This disparagement of fantasy comes from two basic errors. The first is the fallacy that because fantasy can include things which could not be in reality that anything goes – and therefore that it is the “easy” genre. The second is a fundamental failure to understand what fantasy actually is.”
Huh. Pretentious much? Well, I never claimed to be perfect. In fact, in hindsight I now realise that I should have listed those two fallacies in the order they would have to be discussed rather than the order which sounded best. Oh well.

 What is fantasy? There is a common misconception that fantasy is about dragons and medievalism and magic, although not all fantasy has those aspects and not all stories with those aspects are fantasy. Likewise, science fiction is not merely space tits and death rays fiction, nor is horror merely jump scares and vampires. This is how they are commonly viewed, due to a typical error of assuming the thing is the same as what is often used to wrap it, but it is highly inaccurate. At its core, each genre pulls at a different emotional or psychological (or even physical) aspect of the reader. In most non-speculative genres it is very easy to see this:

  • The core of Erotica is arousal.
  • The core of Romance is attraction.
  • The core of Comedy is humour.
  • The core of Mystery is puzzlement (and the solving of puzzles).
  • The core of Adventure is curiosity.
  • The core of Action is aggression.
  • The core of Historical Fiction is nostalgia.
  • The core of Tragedy is grief.
  • The core of Drama is grief (this is because drama and tragedy were – to the Ancient Athenians responsible for their invention – the same thing; there was no differentiation in genre between the possibility of terrible things happening and their actually having happened).

These make sense. After all, to use the most straight forward example, no one reads Erotica for puzzlement (save, perhaps, baffled teenage Asexuals trying to understand why everyone their age has suddenly gone insane).

However, if you try to apply this to Speculative Fiction while only looking at the trappings of it, is simply doesn’t work.

  • The core of Science Fiction is NOT spaceships.
  • The core of Fantasy is NOT wizards.
  • The core of Horror is NOT things going bump in the night.

So what is?

We often talk about Hard and Soft, or Technical and Social, Science Fiction – an idea started by Isaac Asimov in his 1953 article “Social Science Fiction” (in Modern Science Fiction) when he suggested that all Science Fiction plots fell into one of three categories: Gadget (“Look, I’ve invented a car: this is how it works”), Adventure (“Oh no, the bad guys stole my newly invented car, we must rescue it!”), and Social (“Some idiot invented cars, now we’re all stuck in traffic”). But those are distinctions within the genre, not the core of the genre itself. Nevertheless, it does illustrate quite well what the core of Sci-Fic actually is. Every plot type, you see, hinges on scientific knowledge being extrapolated into something new.

The core of Science Fiction is comprehension. It is knowledge – both current (science fiction being based on current scientific fact) and future (what possible advances in knowledge can be theorised from current scientific fact)

  • The core of Science Fiction is THE KNOWABLE.
  • The core of Horror is, of course, THE FRIGHTENING.
  • The core of Fantasy is THE UNKNOWABLE.

And that is why I spent so much time, last time, talking about how the arrogance of humans – in their belief that they will one day understand everything in the universe – results in distain for fantasy.

Now, this might sound totally crazy, given how strongly how strongly fantasy is tied to magic, but answer me this: what is magic? Not; what kind of magic are you playing with? What is magic? Magic is a term for things that exist but which science cannot explain. Not “hasn’t explained yet”: cannot explain. Science is a system of making sense of the universe which doesn’t work on magic. And this is precisely the point. Magic is the most common term for this, but it doesn’t have to be “magic” to be the incomprehensible-unknowable that is present in all fantasy (because it is, in fact, the core of fantasy). Magic is, also, easily confused with the knowable – even though it is not actually comprehensible. This is because people often conflate coping with something (learning to do spells, for example) with the ability to understand something (there is not a single work of fantasy out there which can explain why magic can break the laws of physics which otherwise govern the universe it is in – and no work which did give and explanation could truly be fantasy). A way of coping and the ability to recognise a specific phenomenon is NOT the same as being able to understand it.

To illustrate: In Science Fiction the characters come across, or create, a phenomenon and proceed to understand it. In Horror the characters come across a phenomenon and proceed to be scared shitless by it. In Fantasy the characters come across a phenomenon and fail to understand it, forcing them to accept and cope with its status as incomprehensible. Now, this does not need to be overt – both because the presence of the unknowable, or incomprehensible, will inevitably subtly touch upon itself in the background of coping with it, and because the incomprehensible lends itself to themes such as good versus evil (the paradox of right and wrong) and the question of death.

Fantasy is a liminal genre. But the threshold upon which it stands is that between what can be comprehended and what cannot. Sci-Fi, on the other hand, stands on the threshold of what is currently understood and what is going to be understood. This is why all Sci-Fi stories which end with the “some things man’s not meant to know” cliché fall flat. The audience is not reading or watching Sci-Fi to experience coping with the unknowable. They are reading or watching Sci-Fi to cope with what is known and the process of coming to know more. Fantasy is the genre readers and viewers go to when they want to cope with, or experience others coping with, that which cannot be explained or comprehended. Horror is about being scared by either the known or the unknown.

Or, to put it in simpler – yet far more laden – terms: Science Fiction is about the expansion of the Self, whereas Fantasy is about coping with the Archetypal Other. WAIT! Don’t panic. I’m not going to start quoting Sartre at you. Instead I will direct your attention to the fact that, after variations on “Dark Lord”, variations on “the Other/s” is one of the most common and recognisable terms for big bads in fantasy.

The importance of Fantasy as a means for coping with the incomprehensible and unknowable cannot be understated. The Archetypal Other can be incomprehensibly huge – when the Other is not our universe or other than life (cosmic horrors, existential dread as related to the question of death, etc) – and it can be painfully close to home; not only in Us vs Them and the Othering of those we reject socially, but also in that we can never truly understand another person. Other people, other races, other species, phenomena which follow other rules than the norm of the universe, other states of being or not being; these are all things which ultimately we can never truly comprehend – which frightens us – and which, at the same time, we dread because our nagging doubts make us wonder if we could become like that or might already be that way. Ultimately, we fear the Archetypal Other because we fear that we may become something which we are incapable of understanding. And that’s why Fantasy is so important. Because without Fantasy as a coping method, all we have is fear – Horror.

This key difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, between knowledge and the impossibility of knowledge, is best expressed by considering the third major genre in the umbrella of Speculative Fiction and why, perhaps subconsciously, it has been placed with the other two. This is because fear is a reaction to both the known and the unknown and thus Horror cannot exist without one of the other two. Thus Horror, roughly speaking, comes in two forms: that dealing with real or soon-to-be real dangers and fears, like serial killers wielding Jigsaws and Aliens, and that dealing with incomprehensible or inexplicable dangers and fears, such as the House of Leaves, Stephen King’s IT, and most things written by H.P. Lovecraft. Or, in other words, the two main forms of Horror are that which falls under the genre of realistic extrapolation (Sci-Fi) and that which falls under the genre of trying to cope with the incomprehensible (Fantasy). Fantasy is looking at Eldritch things humans cannot comprehend (like magic: laws of physics which do not follow physics and appear to be utterly lawless) and finding it within oneself to see beauty as well as Cosmic Horror.

“We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.” – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

But this, precisely, is what Fantasy allows us to do. We no longer view magical creatures as a terrifyingly incomprehensible reality, as our ancestors did, but we still find the archetypal Other frightening and difficult to perceive as something which is not terrifying. This is also, perhaps, why Fantasy lends itself so strongly to the notion of Good Vs Evil. This notion allows for both the fear of the Other and the acceptance that some things cannot be understood to be expressed. And that’s a hell of a lot for one genre to (inherently) have to handle. There is no easy way to handle Fantasy because the core of the genre is our deepest unease.

But this is, once again, getting a bit long and I don’t want to rush my last point. So I’ll see, or not see depending on how you liked this, you next time in the (hopefully) final part four: Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Difficult to Pull Off.

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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in On Writing


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