I’m a pretty laid back person. Really, I am. There are a few things in this world, however, that really really drive me crazy.
One of those is people who start putting rules on writing before they even put pen to paper. This is especially true for fantasy and it makes me want to kick something. Now, I’m not talking about rules of grammar or punctuation—not the technical stuff—but rather content. Fantasy is fantasy for a reason. It’s a time to let your mind and imagination run wild. If there is anything unique about fantasy, it is that there are no rules. It is completely up to you! However, the moment you think, “things must work a certain way” before you begin to even plan your story, you limit yourself to no end!
For example: your magic has to have rules
I hear this one a lot. And it makes my brain explode a little bit. I call bullshit
Really? Magic has to have rules? Really? Who says? Is there some great infallible committee that dictates how all writing must be that says all magic use must have rules? Where is this coming from?
The reasons people may say this is because they a) can only imagine a society where magic has rules b) prefer that system or c) don’t want the magic to be too powerful.
The last point may seem reasonable, but here’s the thing. Any writer worth their salt knows not to make their magic too powerful. In fact, think how hard it is to write a story where magic will just solve everyone’s problems. When that’s the case, you don’t have a story because you eliminate conflict and tension. Thus using ‘don’t make magic too powerful,’ as a reason for forcing rules on magic is stupid since it probably won’t happen anyways.
The second point I want to bring up is if magic must have rules then how come there are so many successful authors out there whose magically systems don’t seem to have much rule or structure?
What was the magical system and rules that governed Gandalf’s magic in the Lord of the Rings?
What about all the magic in most of McKillip’s books?
What about the magic in Oz?
You see, there isn’t one way to write, and when we lay down a blanket rule on how magic should and should not work, we limit our imagination and show an incredible ignorance stories and plot lines.
Instead of laying down these rules, we should, instead, try to see how using magic in different ways, rules/no rules/some rules, will affect the world and story we write.
If you want your magic to have a system of rules, that’s fine. As a result though, the magic you use will make your society (usually) seem a bit more structured in response and thus effect the tone of the story.
A great example is, of course, the Magic of Recluse series by L.E. Modesitt jr.
On the other end of the spectrum, having no rules, or ill defined rules allows for more flexibility in how it manifests. Not allowing the reader to see all the mechanisms and internal workings of the magic allows a world and tone of the story to seem more mystical and fantastical.
Most of Patricia A. McKillip’s works are this way.
Sometimes, using a combination or not having much in terms of explanation, is great when you don’t want magic to be a big focus or a bit part of the story. Rather you want other things, like character, to be emphasized and the use of magic only helps to establish a tone.
You see? Look how much we learned about writing by actually examining magic instead of establishing absolute rules.
Next time someone tells you ‘magic must have rules’ ask them why. Challenge them. Have a dialogue. See what happens.