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World building is criteria for many fantasy fans, drawn to well fleshed out worlds and unique magic systems. This makes sense. World building is a wonderful opportunity for writers to show their originality. Yet fantasy authors can place too much emphasis on world-building and neglect storytelling.
Sophisticated magical systems can come at the expense of character development, or of a riveting plot. Magic systems are no replacement for story and character.
This is something I struggled with, in both the fantasy community and in my writing. I used to write flashy stories with unique witchcraft and enchanting ‘laws.’ Yet they were still rotten. There was no heart or emotional core. Ultimately, I had nothing to say as an artist.
That is a terrible position to be in. My stories ought to use mature metaphors and opaque emotions. Good writing, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, is not shallow. It contains an ocean’s depth of mystery and emotion. Sometimes, the best way for an author to convey that is through character choices and development.
Other authors may be different. For them, the ‘art’ is the magical system. I know this is true of Brandon Sanderson’s universe, and although it’s not an approach I use in my writing, I can respect him. His conception of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ magic has changed how we discuss and interpret fantasy.
Yet I wonder if that’s an entirely positive move. The fantasy genre often uses the ‘fantastic’ to convey a richer meaning. For example, Tolkien’s work. His magical lands of the Shire are reminiscent of England.
As LOTR is soft magic, it’s hard not to presume that if Tolkien used a different magical system, that may have distracted from the point he was trying to make. ‘Hard’ magic can have depth, but not every author can achieve that. It’s tricky!
I believe that it’s okay to prefer hard or soft magical systems. However, it’s problematic to read fantasy and judge it solely on the magical system. It’s easy to fixate on ‘magical systems’ to where it clouds your judgement and enjoyment of a book.
Adding to the confusion is magical realism. Although people say it is not fantasy, I believe it is. This is because magical realism activates the unreal and impossible, just as much as any mainstream fantasy work. Yes, there is a difference between Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.
Yet that doesn’t make magical realism less fantasy, because it utilises the genre differently.
I’m mentioning magical realism to make a greater point. Not every fantasy author will consider magical systems a priority. And that can be a good thing! JK Rowling’s magical system in Harry Potter is marked by whimsy and is bound little by any underlying principle. It allows Rowling to focus more on character moments and move the plot along. Personally, I like that.
I’d add that there is no ‘correct’ way to create fantasy. Story, character and imagery is important to me. However, I understand that my priorities are not shared by others.
What fantasy is great at is using the human imagination to craft the impossible. To reveal the already-existing truth of our lives. That could mean focusing on magical systems.
In conclusion, fantasy authors must show prudence. Maybe a delicate, magical system suits you and your literary goals. However, the reverse could be true.
What are your thoughts? Comment below.