Here’s what brought me here: “Why does magic need so many rules?”
And I don’t even know where to start, really, because I am so at odds with a lot of this.
Let me illustrate something by offering you an example, from a well-known novel by a big-name author, which DROVE ME UP THE WALL when I read it, to the point that I pretty much literally threw the book across the room when I reached this particular point.
To wit, posit a character who is a Very Big Deal In Magicland. He is Wizard El Supremo, Wizard Pizza WIth Everything, as it were. As powerful as it is possible to get. This fact is underlined, and underlined, and underlined, just so that you don’t miss out on knowing it. Okay? Okay.
Now take this character and put him in a situation where there is a long-standing war going on. It is a nasty war with many casualties, including this particular wizard’s *own family*. Okay? Still with me?
Now cut to the scene that drove me batty. There is a great momentous battle in this particular war that’s going on out there right now. People are dying. And at some point our wizard more or less floats out over this muddy bloody battlefield full of exhausted fighters, lifts his august hand, and says in the full power of the magic that he supposedly controls, “THIS ENDS NOW”.
*And it does*.
Just like that, on his say-so. Instantly. Shazam. Such is the power of this magic.
And we are now on page 400 or so of a 600-page novel, and it isn’t even the first novel in THIS SERIES, there were other books before it, and I heft the book ready to throw it across that room and scream, “If he could do this, why didn’t he do it HUNDREDS OF PAGES AGO and save all those people who died for nothing, including his own children?!?”
See, kids, this is what happens when magic is allowed to trump rules.
In the so-called “real” world, our world, yes, amazing things happen every day – but they happen within a given framework of reference. Gravity stays put (nobody has yet floated off the planet, screaming, to my knowledge). The air stays (relatively) breathable, unless you happen to be unlucky enough to be in LA on one of the heavy smog days I suppose (but even THAT you can posit reasons for). If you have nothing to drink in the desert first you are thirsty and then you die of dehydration within a given time-frame. If you get skewered through the heart with a knife or shot in the head, YOU DIE.
Without this scaffolding, nothing is a given, everything is possible, and the world is ultra-alpha-chaos. But it is not chaos – we all live by a certain set of rules (scientific, societal, cultural) and those rules define our existence.
A world that contains magic is not a world where all the rules are suspended – it is a world where DIFFERENT RULES APPLY. And if you break them, there should be consequences. ANd first you have to damn well KNOW them.
If you have a protagonist who is capable of doing anything at all and cannot be stopped by anybody there is no story – because (S)he will just do as (S)he pleases and okay why should I then care? And if it IS possible for said protag to be stopped, then you absolutely have to define the parameters of how. Even Superman had his kryptonite. There has to be a vulnerability because otherwise the stakes are zero and why would anyone care to read a whole book when they already know the inevitable outcome?
Magic is wild, yes. Nobody is saying that its spirit has to be broken. Nobody wants to make a mule out of that glorious mad wild stallion on whose back you can only stay if he wants you to and if he does then you need neither saddle nor bridle nor rein you control him with your heart and your spirit and your, er, magic, and that’s all there is to that. ANd yes, that is beautiful. But the underlying rule is that the stallion wants YOU on his back, and not Joe Blow, and there has to be a reason for that. There has to be a rule. Otherwise it’s arbitrary, and becomes irrelevant. It’s perfectly okay to break rules – so long as you know that you are breaking them and know how you are breaking them.
See, with our world our scaffoliding is already in place and the readers of a book set in our own version of reality don’t need to be reminded of it because they are LIVING it. But in a world with fantasy in it, with magic in it, the world has to be built from the ground up and it is impossible to build a solid edifice without a solid foundation. If your reader knows that every tight spot can be got out of simply by a protagonist reaching for a convenient pocket of magic and saying “this stops here” and it does, well, I for one would quickly lose interest in such a story. There would be absolutely no reason to read something where nothing stands in the way of a perfect outcome (because it can just be magicked up out of thin air). And it’s probably worse if the author of said story remembers that there has to be an antagonist in there somewhere, and an anti-magic of the same just-reach-out-and-pluck-it-from-the-air ilk as the original one just pops up out of nowhere in particular to counter that enormous largesse of “i can do anything I want” power that the protagonist is carrying around. I think what I am trying to say is that I would like the author to respect my intellignece as a reader, and to give me a premise on which I can build that necessary sense of suspension of disbelief. I have no problem believing in magic. NONE. But it simply cannot exist in a vacuum.
Hence, rules. Really, folks, rules. Without a price to pay, without a reckoning, without a problem that needs to be solved in a measurable way but without a deus-exx-machina copout, there is no story left – or at least not the kind I care to read. There is no light without shadow. There can be no light of success without a shadow of failure – because otherwise there is no depth, no texture, nothing more than a sense of something formless, faceless, and largely irrelevant to me just flapping whichever way the wind blows it.
I need to believe that some things are possible in a given world, if one is willing to pay the proper price for achieving them. I cannot believe in a world where everything is possible and free. TANSTAAFL, and all that.
Every world has rules. Magic HAS to have rules.
Otherwise it isn’t real magic. It’s just the author screaming “because I said so” – and I’m sorry, but that isn’t good enough for me, not as a reader, not as a writer.
Give me a REASON to care.I don’t care how wild and wacky your rules actually ARE. If nobody in your world can work magic without being clad a particolored green and orange jumpsuit, that’s fine – I’ll buy it – that’s the way your world works – but please allow for the possibilities that not everyone will have such a jumpsuit handy at all times, or have the time to get into it (if not already wearing it) in a crisis situation. Give me something to sit up on the edge of my seat about. A reader who’s going, “yeah, yeah, I know, they’ll just magick their way out fo this any moment now” is a reader who is halfway to bored – and that is not a place I either want to go (as said reader) or to take any potential readers of my own, when wearing the writer’s hat.
You don’t have to tell me how your magic works. In fact, most of the time I don’t want to know. Just let me know that there are circumstances where it perhaps possibly just maybe can’t, or won’t. Give me a world that’s properly built from the ground up.
Magic Rules! I’ll put that on a placard and wave it in any protest you like. But by that I mean TWO things, not just one. The first is teh obvious meaning, that magic is amazing and wonrderful and hey gimmemoreofthat. The other is that it collapses into a flolloping heap of shimmering lies and deceptions if it isn’t supported by an inner skeleton of the Bones of Law which are what makes it keep its shape and form.