A post at Writer Unboxed: On Magic and Spirituality in Story
There’s a lot of talk in SFF communities about hard versus soft magic systems—hard magic systems being the most well-explained and intricate. Heck, I’m not even fond of the word “systems” when used in conjunction with magic. For me, explaining magic makes it more like science. I like magic to have an unknowable quality to it. I like magic to be just beyond the grasp, of the characters and thereby of the reader.
Oh, yes, I feel the same way! I react exactly the same way to the word “system” when used with “magic.” I especially like magic that isn’t systematic, isn’t explained. Think of Piranesi, for example, or the fairyland style of magic in, say, Song for the Basilisk.
Naturally I was pleased to run into this attitude in the linked post.
Getting to the core of what it is about magic and spiritualism that I feel enhances a story is a sense of wonder. I don’t consider it something that’s exclusive to SFF or speculative fiction. I love stories of any genre that can incite me to feel it, even as an underlying feature.
Yes, I’m on board with this as well.
I’m just finishing up reading a sprawling epic fantasy. The world-building is phenomenal, the scale of the story is gigantic, and the political maneuvering is elaborate. And I’ve been wondering why the story is feeling flat, lifeless. The story has kept me intrigued enough to keep going, but just barely. As I considered writing this post, it hit me: it’s failing to incite a sense of wonder. There is little in the way of overt magic in the story, which for me would typically be a good thing. There is, however, a set of deities, and we actually get to experience their interactions with one another. You’d think that would do it, wouldn’t you? But I don’t have to wonder whether or not these gods are interfering in human affairs, or even tipping the scales. Let alone whether or not they actually exist. These deities are right there, on the page, telling me exactly what they’re up to.
For me, my rapt attention or astonishment has been wiped away by this lack of mysteriousness.
This is a post that resonates for me. The fantasy gods I like least are the ones that are giant people who stroll onto the stage and are just … people. I think of gods like this as the Greek God style of deities: giant powerful people who aren’t at all special or even interesting except for being giant and powerful. This is the sort of fantasy god who lacks any sense of, yes, wonder, and I would add, who lacks any sense of the numinous. They are, for me, largely boring if they are not active in the world and largely irritating if they are active in the world. As always, the right author can make me enjoy the just-people sort of gods, so there are exceptions, but generally I prefer gods that are either more godlike or else absent.
The linked post continues:
I’ve noticed a compulsion by some storytellers to explain the magic. As if they need to define a consensus reality for the reader. When I look at the definitions above, the key terms are: mysterious; belief; assertion; personal; uncertainty; and doubt. Why would I want to take those very human aspects of life out of my story? … When I’m told in a story what to believe, what is certain—if I’m taken by the hand and shown a consensus reality—it can diminish my sense of wonder. On the other hand, if I’m experiencing the story’s world from the characters’ shoes, with a grasp of their beliefs, uncertainties, and doubts, my attention is more likely to be rapt. I’m more likely to be led to astonishment. I’m more likely to gain a sense of wonder.
I will say here, the desire to explain the magic may not be the author’s personal inclination. Two or even three times, I’ve had editors push me to explain and systematize magic in a novel. Not City, as far as I can recollect. That is so obviously fairy-tale magic that I think no one would push to make it more scientific or algorithmic. But for several others. I’m generally half-hearted about systematizing magic and I think the linked post captures something about why I’ve felt that way.
The author of the linked post is Vaughn Roycroft. As far as I can tell, he’s written one fantasy novel, The Severing Son. He discusses that novel in the linked post. I must admit, I’m not caught by the prologue, though you can certainly click through and see what you think.