Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: realism

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.