A busy couple of weeks have passed, and while I’ve been careful to keep writing (including starting on another new story for the Surrealities series), it’s been a bit difficult to find a chance to re-connect with you on the blog site. Fortunately, there’s always something that comes across my short little span of attention which triggers the writing bug with me, especially if it’s something about writing. :D
Yesterday, while watching this CinemaSins critique of Harry Potter, Jeremy (yes, the CinemaSins guy’s name is also Jeremy… probably why I like watching his stuff ;) ) pointed out something that I have been critical about numerous times but (to my recollection) have not taken the time to sit down and actually write about: namely, the consistent usage of magic in fiction.
Now, I need to make a full disclosure here: for those of you who do not know this, I am a Christian. And when I say Christian, I mean a full-blown, historically confessional, catholic (not Roman Catholic, but catholic in the traditional sense of the word) Christian, not simply somebody who shows up for Christmas, Easter, and nothing else. And while I do not hit people over the head with Christianity every chance I get, I don’t hide it, either. I do take it very seriously, because it’s true.
I say that to say this: whenever I talk about this subject, there are people who mistake my disdain for the use of magic in writing for a carte blanche accusation of Satanism for all things magical in books and movies. Of course, this is not the case. I love Tolkien, and there is magic in Tolkien. I love Star Wars, and it’s just as apt to call The Force a kind of magic (yes, even despite the midichlorians) as anything else. So aside from the promotion of blatant occult practice (such as Ouija boards), I don’t have a problem with the idea of magic introduced in fiction as a natural part of that world.
My issue as a writer comes from this: that magic, if not carefully explained and defined, can become a major point of inconsistency within the storyline.
I have seen this more often than I’d like to remember, and you probably have as well. A character will have magical ability, and will do something as incredible as, say, obliterate a dragon with a single wave of the hand or an uttered spell. But later on, that same character will be confronted with a much lesser enemy (a human opponent, for instance) who also needs to be eliminated, but suddenly cannot use their magical ability for reasons not explained to the reader or audience. Yet, instead of suspending disbelief, the thoughtful reader stops and asks “Why?” And since the explanation is not given (or is given in a cryptic, unsatisfying manner, like when the character in question suddenly turns to the mortal with him and says “You need to do this on your own.”), the story’s sense of interior logic is upset. In the end, the author has unintentionally pulled the rug out from under his own credibility, and the world he or she has created has fallen apart.
It’s the Gilligan’s Island theory of consistency. In the television show, Gilligan’s Island, the castaways had a professor among their numbers who could build a battery charger out of coconuts, among other things, but for some reason had trouble constructing a raft. No real consistency is given as to why the Professor can or cannot put together some devices, and the viewer is left befuddled with the lack of order and logic. Of course, I realize that Gilligan’s Island was a comedic series which was never intended to be a show which required a great deal of intellectual discipline to watch, but nevertheless the inability for the show to put together sensible situations did leave it with a lack of credibility that is best left for humor which requires no such continuity.
On the other hand, a work of fiction which constructs a world governed by laws of nature differing from our own still requires consistency if it is to be taken seriously. If magic works in one situation but not another, it is up to the author to explain why this comes to pass, and do so with a plausible explanation. This is especially important when the author is coming to a climactic conflict of a plot and realizes that a particular character’s magical powers should be able to make short work of a conflict, thus making the climactic conflict not so climactic. Real thought and definition must be put into a work that draws on magic, precisely because there is just as much room for blatant inconsistency as there is for wondrous imagination.
And if you’re an author who wants to hear from your audience (like I do), you’d rather hear “Wow! Great story!” rather than “How is it that the antagonist could kill an entire army with a magic curse uttered halfway across the continent, but not do the same thing while standing in the same room as the hero?”
Food for thought this week. Digest it, and I’ll be back next week with part two. :D
See you in the Vein!