Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts about magic systems and laws...

Mistborn: The Final Empire

I unfairly judged Brandon Sanderson before I read any of his books. Those laws of magic he made up seem constrictive and should be examined by writers interested in magic systems. This has nothing to do with his ability to tell a story nor with his writing abilities. After reading Mistborn: The Final Empire, I had to admit that he can spin a yarn.

Mistborn is excellent on many fronts. This should come as no surprise years after its release. It is because of this fact that I didn't go ahead with a review; like Harry Potter, it is near-universally accepted as an example of a good novel.

The one aspect of it that was bumpy, as far as the reading experience for ME went, was the tutorials on how to use Allomancy.

I've mentioned this before, but I thought it was an interesting enough topic to explore further. Why does an author feel the need to explain away the magic system, giving it rules that help define how it functions in the story? That's part of the answer, I think, that it helps the author make sense of it in his/her story.

**NOTE: I refuse to say that it will help the reader because there is no telling, with 100% certainty, what will help that diverse group of men and women called "the reader."


Brandon Sanderson's First Law of Magics

Brandon Sanderson helped me out a little by putting his thoughts on the subject. He has laws of magic, which I commented on in the review I wrote for a different book (The Night Circus).

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Just as a side comment, the statement doesn't make any sense to me. I think I know what he meant, but what is written doesn't say it.

Let me break down the first law:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to

To me, this speaks of an experience that most writers of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction in general can relate to. Building a functional system of magic or creating rules for how the super-natural will interact with the known laws of physics is necessary to help resolve conflict, as well as help other elements of fiction: setting; characterization, etc.

Since Sanderson focuses on conflict resolution, I will too.

The next part of the First Law is:

how well the reader understands said magic.

This is the part that doesn't make sense to me. When he said, "An author's ability to solve conflict with magic," I took it to mean during the writing process. The manuscript isn't complete. The writer must find a way to have the magic system/world building help resolve the conflict that rises from the story. So, the law should say:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how functional the writer has made said magic system.

In other words, a poorly created magic system will have no believable boundaries; the wizard/practitioner will have unlimited access to the supernatural without either limits or unsympathetic constraints. There's also the random solutions, which bring to mind the deux ex machina weakness that is often a cheat to conflict resolution; the gods come down to slay the dragon for you, very nice of them.

Yet Sanderson isn't writing his laws for writers exclusively or readers exclusively. This is what I think his First Law of Magics meant:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: The effectiveness of a character's ability to solve the story's conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the author introduces said magic (its rules and limitations) as the plot develops.

This makes more sense to me because it throws the full burden of solving the conflict on the author and keeps away the reader's ability to understand (since this varies per reader) off of the equation. It also says that an author, when he/she chooses to introduce a detailed description of the rules and limitations of the magic system, must have skill in writing exposition (discourse meant to introduce information to the reader).

Why is that?

The chapters I least liked about Mistborn: The Final Empire were the ones where Sanderson gave tutorials on Allomancy. These were heavy in exposition: discourse and were like lectures. The information mostly came from the mouth of one of the characters, Kelsier, aimed at his pupil, Vin.

Compared to the exposition chapters in other novels, it is well handled. Brandon Sanderson knows how to inject this subject matter much more effectively than other writers. But do you notice how much exposition is required to properly introduce a rule-heavy magic system?

Big deal. Once it's introduced, the author need not worry about it. Right?

Suppose I picked up a copy of a Fantasy series' second chapter (or third). Do you assume that the readers coming into it have read the first chapter? No author (myself included) will say yes to that question. What we assume is the opposite: The reader coming into a series' subsequent chapters probably did not read the previous chapters. That means you will read book two or three of a series and get information that was already presented in book one, like why a character has a nickname, their tragic childhood history, etc.

For magic systems that require a large amount of exposition, this presents a new problem.

I'm currently reading the second chapter in the Mistborn trilogy and actually want to see how he handles the redundancy problem of exposition.

Redundancy problem of exposition? Oh, you've noticed this little issue... The lecture chapters I mentioned above cover a ton of material. The problem arises when subsequent installments of the series (and it's always a series) must reintroduce said material about the magic system.To not reintroduce the material risks alienating anyone who didn't read the first installment. To do it poorly creates messes.

I remember reading The Name of the Wind and thinking the exposition was on the heavy side when introducing the rules of "sympathy." After reading The Wise Man's Fear, my perspective changed; the exposition chapter about "sympathy" was overly dense to the point where it didn't make sense to me. The author tried to solve the problem of redundancy by cramming all the exposition into a single tutorial chapter to one of the characters. It was akin to getting a lecture on the whole of physics in a one hour period.

It's a tough choice: Redundancy or alienation?

The right answer is... There are only preferences, no right answers. And like I said, I want to see how Sanderson handles this problem.

But the question I have is, why explain the magic system to such a degree?

I give the answer using Brandon Sanderson's original words: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic...

If a writer wants to solve the conflict with magic, it behooves him/her to introduce guidelines that will make the resolution of said conflict satisfying. No cheats. If you say your wizards can't use magic during the day, then having one of them using his power at noon in order to save the world will be a cheat...

Well, what if the conflict in your story doesn't need to be solved with magic?


Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings

I think we all know about this inconsistency in Tolkien's trilogy: Why didn't those giant birds just take Frodo to Mordor? There are a number of explanations to this, but the one I think sums up the most logical of these is: Tolkien just doesn't bother with a tutorial with how the magic works in the trilogy.

Let's suppose Tolkien had said, "And the Great Eagles, messengers of  Manwë, were at the whim of that great being and could help only for certain distances and never to resolve the conflicts of the inhabitants of Middle Earth..."

Then, the following question would have been: Who is Manwe (with the funny dots in the name)? Tolkien, of course, would have had to explain who this being is/was and what its role in Middle Earth politics is/was. For that matter, why not explain the mechanism of how Gandalf was reborn as the White? Or why Gandalf and Saruman didn't just make their own power rings? Or why didn't the Elves just make a power sword or shield to counter the power of the One Ring?

And that would have led to further explanations about the role and powers etc. and a long list of issues not pertinent to the One Ring and the quest to destroy it... Tolkien exercised incredible restraint in the amount of details regarding the magic of The Lord of the Rings.

But did LoTR need a tutorial? It's just not that type of story. The main conflict cannot be resolved with magic (beautifully illustrated during the Council of Elrond). If you notice, Gandalf's role during the multiple battles is small; he never decides the ultimate outcome. In fact, it is the point of LoTR that the role of magic and its representative agents diminishes at the dawn of the Third Age.

It is because of this theme in the novels that I'm hesitant to say that Tolkien kept the magic tutorial out of the novel in order to add a sense of mysticism to it, to make it magical. The novels don't need the magic tutorials since the system won't solve the conflict.

I've also said that this is true for the magic system in the Song of Ice and Fire series. G.R.R. Martin doesn't need to give a tutorial since the novels focus on the inter-human struggles of the Stark family and the Seven Kingdoms. There is magic, but it is part of the setting mostly or used as a symbol of power; the dragons are too small to defeat an army (at this point), but they let the powers-that-be know that Dany is a true Targaryen heir.


I think some authors create a complex magic system to be original. My guess is that still others just like the challenge of devising a series of rules that govern the supernatural; that is my reason.

Overall, I do think that Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire is an excellent novel. I'm currently chewing on his second Mistborn novel and can't wait to see how he handles the series redundancy issue. It will help me on my own novels, especially since I'm writing a sequel right now.