Building Better Magic Systems, Lesson 10

When Fantasy Fails

Sometimes I read a story that is well written and it leaves me empty. It’s like feasting on cotton candy—there is an illusion that there is something to it, that you’ve consumed a huge volume of food, but ultimately . . . well, cotton candy is just sugar with a few dyes added to it that are probably carcinogenic in large enough dosages.

So it goes with fantasy. A writer might spin a fantastic yarn, adorn it with enviable prose, and still it feels empty. The problem is that the story doesn’t feed the reader. It doesn’t provide them anything of real substance.

If you are writing a story where your protagonist makes all of his dreams come true simply because he masters the “spell of ultimate power,” what value is that really to the reader? It may be that there is a message behind it, like “You can win if you just keep trying,” but ultimately the reader knows bullshit when she hears it. I enjoyed jogging a lot when I was young, but I was never going to win a race against Usain Bolt.

So fantasy in particular has a problem. In fantasy we master imaginary power systems, which may not apply to the real world.

If your political systems are all imaginary, once your reader is finished with the novel, what value will he have received by learning how to deal with imaginary politics? Boy, those Tarnsmen of Gor sure know how to handle problems and please a woman. We really ought to learn from those macho Harvey Weinsteins.

If your economic systems are all imaginary, what does your reader really learn about economics? You keep your damned Ferengi hands out of my wallet, or I’ll rat you out to John Galt!

If your characters are all imaginary, does your reader really learn anything about real people?

And so it goes. Shakespeare pointed out that writers walked a fine line between brilliance and lunacy. So often what appears to be brilliant is in fact harmful, and what appears to be ludicrous is wise.

Which brings me to a question that is relevant to your magic system and to your novel as a whole. If you write a fantasy, what real value can you bring to the reader? How do you feed her or him?

I think that the answer can be found in something that Stephen King and other writers have pointed out: “Fiction is a lie. And good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

In other words, lessons can be learned from fictional stories. As writers, we can try to expose our readers to those truths, offer them something of real and lasting value.

Do you understand something about how the world really works, about how your reader can master herself and find joy? Then share it. That is the meat of your story, the nourishment that makes the whole reading of your novel feel satisfactory to the reader. Impart as much wisdom as you can.

But just be sure that what you are teaching really is valid, that it reveals a real depth of insight.

I fear that many of our most popular and talented authors fail to be “great” authors simply because their insights into life show that at some level they are deeply flawed.

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– The upcoming Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop in Provo, Utah is FULL. The Fantasy Writing Workshop in Oxford, England has one space available. Learn more or register here.

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