The third rule of magic that I’m addressing in this small series of posts requires that it be limited.
Now, the word limited, plus all its synonyms and all their meanings, nearly always raises a writer’s hackles.
Who wants to restrict us? Who dares to constrict us? Who presumes to hold us back, keep us in, lock doors, set boundaries, inhibit our freedom, and otherwise stand in the way of our imagination and creativity? Our wildest instinct is to fight this, and yet we must learn the writing principle behind this rule of limitation and how/why it works for us if only we’ll let it.
Willful Writer has decided that Ms. Sagacious is less than competent to teach writing. Disappointed by her unfavorable reactions to his two previous stories, he’s convinced himself that she doesn’t understand fantasy or high concept. Therefore, Willful has decided to write a saga so big, so fabulous, so amazing that it will knock her nylon socks off.
This time, Willful promises himself, he’s going to reach for the stars and beyond to infinity. His newest protagonist, Wizard Warlord, can draw on the very energies of the cosmos. Wizard Warlord is a giant among other sorcerers. He can summon plasma bolts from the sun and fry enemies on the spot. No other character can withstand him. And not only is he all-powerful, but he is also possessed of a tender and forgiving heart. He is noble, self-sacrificing, and kind. Although he is certain to fry the puny villain Malicious Malton in a wizard-fire showdown, he intends to let Malicious Malton’s minions go free. This will prove how heroic and worthy he is.
Are you yawning yet?
You should be.
Willful’s story is going to last two pages, and most of the words he types will be description of the alley where the wizard battle will take place. Thinking he’s building anticipation by spinning things out, he lavishes minute attention on painting word pictures of the pavement, the buildings, the purple sky overhead, and the twittering of the birds in the trees at the end of the street. But at last, after much stalling and purple prose, he types the one-paragraph confrontation, showing Wizard Warlord strapping on his greaves and standing at the agreed dueling spot at the prearranged time. Wizard Warlord looks magnificent. He is charged with so much magical power that he glows in a nimbus of wizard fire. He is ready, ready, ready for the battle that can have only one outcome–his complete and total victory. Only, Malicious Malton doesn’t show. He isn’t there. Has he fled? Did he just stay home? After all, why bother to turn up? Oh, just imagine the joy that fills Wizard Warlord’s heart, for once again he has prevailed and won.
“Phooey!” says Ms. Sagacious, and slashes a line of red ink across Willful’s manuscript. “Too short! Too certain! No suspense! No hook! Nothing to hold reader interest.”
“But I’ve written flash fiction,” Willful protests. “It’s, like, over in a flash.”
“You have no story,” Ms. Sagacious insists.
Willful trudges out. Phooey, he thinks. She doesn’t understand my genius. My concept was so huge she missed it entirely.
Poor, bone-headed Willful. Once again, he has broken a rule of using magic in his fiction. He has refused to limit the magic his character draws on, and in doing so, he has created a sure-thing.
This is not only a suspense killer, but it leaves a plot nowhere to go. Magic without limitations, magic that can do anything and solve everything, leaves a story’s outcome absolutely dead certain. The story question is answered right away, leaving writers with nothing else to convey.
When we write fiction, the reason an antagonist is stronger than the hero or has the advantage over the hero is so that we can make the outcome uncertain. That, in turn, forces us to generate a longer story as our beleaguered hero tries one tactic after another with little to no success. Conflict, resistance, adversity, bad luck, betrayal, and trickery all play a role in blocking a hero’s easy path to success. That, in turn, pushes a protagonist into abandoning the easy path and stepping out of the box, taking bigger risks, leaving comfort zones behind, and embracing change in order to survive and win.
Magic that’s too powerful or too easy or carries no limitations at all is magic that unbalances a story and answers the question too soon. That destroys any suspense and does not entice readers to keep turning pages to see how it turns out.
That is why, in many stories, we see a confident character dealing with a spell that suddenly goes wrong, or meeting a terrifying, more-powerful mage that scorches her. It’s okay to jerk the magical rug out from beneath your fantasy characters, and in fact readers are hoping something terrible and unexpected will happen. Because when things go wrong for your protagonist, or when the unexpected flips her upside-down, the story has to move forward, and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.
On the other hand, if the antagonist is too powerful, possessing magic, spells, warding protections, and demonic assistance to the point that the hero has no chance whatsoever of prevailing, then why show up? Why not forfeit the contest, like Malicious Malton did, and just surrender? It’s not very heroic, granted, but it’s safer.
A story with a fateful situation, with an antagonistic force that’s unbeatable, is pointless. The hero is doomed before he starts. Cheering him on is futile. And readers don’t want to vicariously pretend to be a doomed character.
What readers want instead is a hero that only seems to be doomed. They want an antagonist that only seems to be unbeatable. Then they can experience the hero’s attempts, struggles, and hard-won victories with great enjoyment. A chance–no matter how small or risky–makes all the difference. And limiting the magic helps provide that chance.