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"Rules for Better Fantasy"

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by DurfBarian, Apr 2, 2004.

  1. DurfBarian

    DurfBarian IncGamers Member

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    "Rules for Better Fantasy"

    http://hollylisle.com/fm/Articles/rules-for-better-fantasy.html

    A person named Holly Lisle wrote a list of things to keep in mind when writing about the magical, futuristic, and otherwise fantastic. I think one reason this writer "take a significant amount of crap from SF writers" is because she can't count from one to three successfully, but her list is worth looking at just the same. There are some other tips on her site that might be worth showing to fledgling writers.

    Just FYI
    Durf
     
  2. Ãœdorim

    Ãœdorim IncGamers Member

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    "7. Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.

    If your magicians have been working successfully for more than a few years, they will have surely developed corollaries to the steam engine, the telephone, the television, the radio ... "

    It's like she's bashing her head against the wall of historically successful fantasy.
     
  3. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

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    Yeah, that one caught me up short, too. People tend to believe that most technological innovations were bound to happen, that "necessity is the mother of invention." In fact, invention is more like that crazy uncle who won't accept that things are just fine the way they are, thank you very much. Consider Edison, the old crackpot that thought electricity would make better lamps than gas. Gas lamps worked just fine. People didn't need electric lights.

    And speaking of Edison, how might the world might be different if Nikolai Tesla hadn't demonstrated the superior efficiency and safety of alternating current over direct current at the World's Fair (much to Edison's chagrin). What if we'd gone with derigibles rather than those dangerous, accident-prone heavier-than-air craft? What would have happened if we never figured out what to do with gasoline, that waste product we got from refining oil?

    That's not to mention the role in society, religion, and even the weather in fostering invention. The author seems to be begging the question that we would get the same result with very different variables, to which I must disagree.
     
  4. crazy_bear

    crazy_bear IncGamers Member

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    I thought this was a decent article. Definitely worth a scan for anyone thinking about writing.

    Not to be overly contradictive Tamerend, but I disagree with your analysis.

    This is the author's point actually... not that magic lamps would be better, but that a lamp is necessary, so a magic lamp would exist, because some crackpot magician wouldn't be happy with things the way they were... Gas, electric, magic or other. Note that this still fits in with the author's other rules, that magic has a cost. So if it's more convenient or cost effective, people might still use a normal lamp if a magic lamp is too much cost.


    If it wasn't Tesla, then another physicist would have demonstrated AC. Mass use of electricity would have made people use AC over time even if it had been delatyed. The limitations (particularly on velocity due to mass/surface area restrictions of a lighter than air vehicle) drove the development of other modes of air travel. These natural restrictions (along with the human quality of never being satisfied with what you have) made these other developments inevitable.

    Well, this is very true. However, I don't think the author intended to suggest that you get the same result with different variables, but that each race/culture/being needs to solve similar problems, and that the solutions tend to have commonalities. On the other hand, if you read the next part the author also mentioned that nature also tries variety in solutions....
     
  5. Ãœdorim

    Ãœdorim IncGamers Member

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    Meh. My problem with it is that the author/woman/girl who wrote the article tries to force on you the idea that 'magic' is interchangeable with technology, and to a lesser extent that it's commonplace. Whether that means it's wielded by the common man, or merely made accessible to him doesn't really matter. According to her, if one person makes a magic lamp, all of a sudden every city on the planet has rows of them.

    Whereas most fantasy that I can immediately think of does the opposite: keeps magic pretty much dead and often out of the hands of the protagonist. See Lord of the Rings for the canonical version of this.

    No, every series does not need to follow a certain formula. However all the best selling ones feature magic as a relatively dormant and misunderstood force in their beginning books (see Wheel of Time or Sword of Truth ... although I don't like either they do sell many a copy).

    Speaking of force, there is one example of a phenomenally successful sci-fi series featuring magic, even though the author of the article hints that kind of cross-over is a recipe for failure. Right? Well, I'd say it's close enough to magic anyway.

    Anyway.
     
  6. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

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    I have no problem with the existence of magic lamps in a fantasy setting, but I think it is a fallacy to take the magic/technology equivalency and just run with it. I suppose the main problem I had is that the article presupposes that magic necessarily replaces technology and, following that to its conclusion, implies the inevitability of some kind of magic industrialization. It seems to me a very shortsighted view considering the sequence of happy coincidences that led the western world into the Industrial Age. Could it happen? Yes. Does it have to happen for your world to make sense and suspend disbelief? Absolutely not.

    Let's look at one example the author gave: the telephone. That's a fairly simple device, right? There's a microphone, basically consisting of a membrane which, when vibrated by air, causes a magnet to move and induce current in a coil of wire. Similarly, we have a speaker in the earpiece, consisting of another coil of wire, a magnet, and a vibrating membrane that converts electrical impulses into sound. Simple, though engineering it pretty much requires knowledge of electricity, an understanding of the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and understanding of sound pressure and of how waves travel through a medium. Classical (Newtonian) physics would be the minimum knowledge requirement to start with, and even that would take quite a few of leaps of intuition on the part of the inventor. And that's the easy part. We haven't even gotten to the infrastructure that supports it all.

    The question in my mind is: do mages necessarily possess an analogous depth of knowledge in their magic? Maybe a magical telephone is possible, but first you have to understand how to catch and bind an air spirit or somesuch.

    Oh, but you don't need to think about all that. Magic just works, right? My answer to that, and the crux of my argument is this: You get to decide. Technology is, on the whole, quite reliable. We trust it with our lives every day. Technology also builds upon itself. We use and adapt the tools and innovations from yesterday to create new inventions today. Maybe magic works that way, too. If magic is predictable, safe, relatively inexpensive, and does not require knowledge of the underlying mechanics, a kind of magical revolution is possible.

    On the other hand, magic might be complicated, time-consuming, and unpredictable. Does a spell to project your voice to a distant location sometimes backfire with possibly lethal results? A mage might spend years simply learning the right inflection of certain syllables for incantation to prevent these kinds of mishaps. Would you want a telephone in your house that summoned a demon at random every few months of use?

    The article does a good job of stimulating thought and encouraging writers to create rules for their world and follow them. However, it is important to remember that they are your rules. Maybe wizards live alone in secluded towers to minimize the damage if magic goes awry. Maybe there's a benefit to wearing pointy hats. If you come up with a good enough reason for it and explain it well, the reader will believe you.

    I have to disagree that it was inevitable. AC current is great for centralized power and is safer, but DC is much simpler and has more immediately apparent uses. I could see an alternate timeline that would have small DC power generators powering city blocks or single buildings. It does not seem the most likely way of doing things given hindsight, but the possibility is there. And remember, Edison was a very respected, very influential individual (also a bit of a bastard, by Tesla's account). He thought DC was just grand.

    By the time we'd arrived in the twentieth century, we had enough knowledge to ensure that heavier-than-air travel was theoretically possible. If it hadn't been the Wright brothers, someone would probably have done it. But there was a period of several years after the Wright flight leading up to the first World War that the United States really didn't do much to advance winged flight. There weren't any innovators appearing, and there certainly wasn't a perceived need. Europe actually drove most of the innovation in this period. Add to that the two very public and very expensive failures of Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome that suggested that powered, winged flight was too problematic to attempt. If not for the Wright brothers' proof of concept, I feel that winged flight could have been set back by a decade or more, giving derigibles more of a chance to develop. If we'd spent the middle of the 20th century building skyports (like the Empire State Building was supposed to be) instead of airports, airplanes might have had some real competition, at least for a while.

    Your turn.
     
  7. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Necessity is the mother of production and distribution, not invention. You'll see that people had come up with the ideas and concepts for many things, but were never paid attention to until people with power and/or money needed them. Capitalism can lick my balls.

    Anyway, I like writing fantasy because there aren't any rules. This "your character has to solve problem with courage, integrity," etc might coincide with some themes, but it doesn't have to match mine. So Holly Lisle can also lick my balls.

    Tolkien himself said that there's no such thing as suspension of disbelief. There's suspension of BELIEF. If your world has enough internal consistency despite not making sense in our reality, your readers will be so immersed in that world that they won't notice. They won't think not to believe.
     
  8. crazy_bear

    crazy_bear IncGamers Member

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    I pretty much agree with what you say here.

    Well, Other than the fact that I think a telephone is a spectacularly complicated device, and that if you demonstrated it to a person from 150 years ago they would have believed it was magic... not to mention cellular phones TV's and so on...

    It really does come down to making a deliberate choice on the author's part. A great deal of it depends on the author's choice of "technology level" whether it comes to magic or technology. A telephone is not possible in a society without all the backgroud knowledge. And definitely the use of any tool depends on it's safety and reliability, thus my previous comment about cost (cost isn't necessarily monetary)

    In most fantasy magic doesn't seem to have progressed beyond cottage industry. But then, little fantasy occurs in an advanced technological setting.

    Well, fair enough. It is imaginable, but not likely.

    No argument here... I think we agree. Delayed, no problem.... but inevitable (waiting for the correct cultural/technological time) definitely.

    :idea:

    Yours again.
     
  9. Disco-neck Ted

    Disco-neck Ted The Dark Library

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    Nice post, Durf. Stimulated some discussion.

    And this has definitely got my motor running. First, I disagree violently with the way she expresses much of what she says, particularly in 2a.

    "Conversely, your villain's magic will have good fallout somewhere."

    Wrong. The villain's magic may have fallout that s/he neither desires nor is aware of, but it does not automatically have to be "good". Likening magic to fire, for a moment, a good application of magic might be to heat a home, but minor bad consequences would include depletion of the magical fuel source and possible magical pollutants. A disastrous misapplication might be that the house is destroyed when the proper safeguards are not taken in using the magical source of warmth.

    A bad application might be the use of magic to destroy a village. An unepected result might be that the villain is injured/endangered, or destroys whatever s/he was trying to gain by this attack, but it is NOT automatically true that something "good" will happen so much as something counter to her/his desires. It is hard to imagine the force of magic (or fire) running amok and accidentally creating something new and good. It is possible, but far from a given, and seems a mite contrived if it happens each time the villain lets rip.

    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
    - Arthur C. Clarke

    Lisle's reworking of this observation is fine, if unimaginative, but the conclusions she derives from that are not. Magic (or technology) will only be used for commonplace things if it is cost-effective. If it takes a master magician a lifetime to imbue a "light globe" with 60 watts worth of illumination (yeah, that should be in lumens or candlepower: bite me) then everyone will still be using candles and oil lamps. What is easy for tech won't automatically be easy for magic, just as the reverse can be true.

    Exclusion of a superconducter by a magnetic field leads to visions of frictionless bearings and such. It looks almost like a "free lunch" when you see the supercooled lead cube floating above a magnetic surface. Of course, there are no room-temp superconductors yet, and floating only takes place in a strong magnetic field, so that little inner "yippee!" you get from watching this is a little premature.

    But, such levitation might just be easy to acheive "magically", whereas making a steady light source could be exceedingly taxing and difficult. There is NO reason that the magical equivalent of the steam engine or light bulb should be as "easy" to develop or manufacture. Unless of course you want to model your "magic" as purely a cheap substitute for technology, in which case you will find me over here reading Use of Weapons or some other REAL science fiction.

    Lastly, she uses the word "should" a lot, which can be annoying. But I can see what she is getting at. Usually.

    My two cents. Thanks again Durf. :thumbsup:
     
  10. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

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    Actually, I completely agree with you on that. Perhaps I should have stated it better. A telephone is a simple device to build if you know what you are doing. I am confident I could design a basic, turn-of-the-century phone by hand from my moderate knowledge of physics and audio design. Just give me access to the right materials: some copper wire, magnets, paper, glue, and maybe a few rubber bands. Tone dialing would be out of my reach, though.

    Similarly, you could take someone with no knowledge of physics or phones and give them detailed instructions on how to wind the wire into a voice coil, create a cone from the paper, glue it to the magnet and suspend it from the coil with glue and rubber bands, making a speaker. The microphone would be a bit harder to design, but a very simple one could be made by varying the speaker design somewhat.

    Without instructions, the same person is completely lost. The complexity comes from the underlying knowledge of the physics to design it.

    DNT, it's good to see you. This Bud's for you. :drink:
     
  11. DurfBarian

    DurfBarian IncGamers Member

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    I'm also glad to see the discussion here. :) I didn't think the list of rules was an infallible one, but it does contain some pointers that inexperienced fantasy writers ought to heed.

    Re rule 5: There are plenty of stories out there that contain both futuristic tech and mysterious human powers. The prophecy of Dune comes to mind, as does the mental ability of the Mule in the Foundation books. I think she's a bit off base here with this idea that a wall is needed between fantastic and scientific writing.

    Re rule 6: I agree with this. Ursula LeGuin does this very well in Earthsea. There are great mages who wrestle with deep magic, and they are few and far between; but every village has its witch, and people use the odd word of power here and there to mend pots or find lost goats or keep the rain away from their picnics. If magic exists it will likely exist in some amount for most people, not just a select and puissant few.

    But I do agree she takes this concept too far with her rule 7. The existence of magic does not mean that it must inform all actions. Looking again at Earthsea, mages are careful not to resort to magical solutions when physical ones exist. Why risk upsetting the grand balance by cooking a meal with mage-fire when a tinderbox and twigs will do the same job?

    Here it might be interesting to look at how J.K. Rowling does things in the Harry Potter books. There are magical corrolaries for many muggle items--the newspapers whose images talk and move, for instance--but it's clear that these are built on mundane, nonmagical inventions. There's no need to use magic to reinvent the newspaper entirely. But the magic can be used to spice it up a bit.

    Just a few more thoughts on the list she provides. I haven't heard of a single one of her books so I don't know how much "street cred" her comments come with in fantasy circles, but I do think they're worth looking at.
     
  12. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Unless, of course, it doesn't. Does everyone approve of magic? Does everyone agree with magic? Is the general populace afraid of magic? Does everyone believe in magic?

    It's certainly not out there to say that this CAN be done, but to say that it SHOULD be done is just naieve. Most of her rules tend to fall into the trap of just reinforcing conventions. Therefore, I'll say it again: Holly Lisle can lick my balls.
     
  13. Snowglare

    Snowglare Fan Fiction Forum Moderator

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    "Therefore, I'll say it again:"

    Um, yeah. Stop saying that. There's no call for those comments. Focus on the argument, not the person making it.
     
  14. Ãœdorim

    Ãœdorim IncGamers Member

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    Well take a look at Lord of the Rings. Arguably the elves all have magic of a sort, being neigh immortal. However all of the real power is concentrated in the hands of but a few people, most of whom don't even originate from the world they live in i.e. the Balrog, Sauron and the Wizards. Other than that you've got Elrond, Lady ... girl elf thing, and that's about all. The only really powerful creature that seemed to actually belong in Middle-Earth was Smaug, but you know the end of that story.

    I know it's probably overdone, but that series is still pretty much canonical for all of mainstream fantasy. So that's a lot of evidence supporting magic as a force for the elite.

    Speaking of force, there's another sci-fi series that has a sort of magic.
     
  15. Disco-neck Ted

    Disco-neck Ted The Dark Library

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    Yeah, what he said. That was an image I could have done without the first time. It certainly didn't get better in the retelling.

    @Tamrend: thanks! Back atcha for reposting The Key. :drink:
     
  16. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Sorry. I wasn't looking to offend. I just feel rather passionately about those who attempt to force achetypes on every piece in a particular genre, which is essentially what this list is trying to do. It's not bad advice if you're attempting to just follow the standard format for a high fantasy story, which is certainly all right, but she's making it seem like breaking out of the mold is something to be avoided at all costs.
     
  17. crazy_bear

    crazy_bear IncGamers Member

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    Hey! No controversy here... how am I supposed to argue when we mostly agree!

    I think it looks like everyone here agrees... making a set of rules that everyone has to follow is just rediculous. On the other hand, it is extremely important that your world be internally consistent.

    BTW Tamrend, I like your Avatar. I have been a battletech fan since years gone by, and fan of all the mechwarrior games too.
     
  18. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

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    The Madcat aka Timberwolf is and probably always will be my favorite mech. I still play Battletech at game cons in LA at least once a year. Good times.
     
  19. Snowglare

    Snowglare Fan Fiction Forum Moderator

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    Lots of useful stuff on that site. *reads s'more*
     
  20. Khalic

    Khalic IncGamers Member

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    8. Magic is NOT your story. People are your story.


    Some of the rules have no controversy to them. They're just damn right.
     

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