This article is the first in a five part series about the skill of adding depth to fiction.
‘The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power.’ J. R. R. Tolkien (On Fairy-Stories, 1939)
Recently, a number of speculative fiction writers have spoken out on an important subject – the difference between “magic” as understood by current writers and “magic” as expressed by older authors from the pulp era of science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, writers today feel the need to make magic nothing more or less than a new system of scientific understanding. Or, as Alexander Helene, Xavier Lastra, Rawle Nyanzi, and Corey McCleery have all put it: modern magic systems de-mythologize or “de-magic” the supernatural by treating it as a fully understood and well-known science.
This is, indeed, a desperate issue for authors of current speculative fiction. I know because I struggle not to completely de-mythologize my own magic systems, more so now than when I was younger. However, this author believes this negative trend is a symptom of an even bigger problem, one that is felt but not easily defined. It also extends to more than the trope of uncanny powers, as we shall see in the coming weeks.
For now, though, we will focus on how to put the magic back in “magic.” Like the other writers mentioned above, I have noticed the tendency by modern authors to reduce the supernatural, the paranormal, the magical, and the spiritual to a staid chemical or technological formula. And, as previously noted, this writer works to avoid over-explaining the mythology of her fictional worlds. It is a never-ending effort to decide just where or when to lift the veil and when or where to leave the mystery intact.
But the good news is there are measures that can be employed to mitigate or, in certain cases, alleviate this modern difficulty. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, but each can be trained and cultivated. While these habit-forming practices discussed here and in the coming weeks won’t pay off overnight or eliminate the work writers must expend in keeping magic wondrous, they will offer the author who adopts them a good “base of operations” from which to venture into fictional worlds.
To begin, there are two questions and one response that authors ought to remember in order to keep the mystery in mysterious. The queries are as follows: “Does it matter?” and “Who really cares?” Although these seem to be somewhat heartless questions, they are nothing of the sort. They are very considerate of the story, the audience, and the writer.
For an example, consider the Star Wars franchise. The “explanation,” such as it was, for how humans and aliens could touch the Force was completely unnecessary. It did not matter to the story or the audience just how the Jedi, the Sith, and others can access the energy field which is crucial to the function of the series. What mattered to both fans and the story was that Force-sensitives could tap into this energy field, allowing them to achieve their goals via a variety of effects. As long as it worked in a logical, coherent manner everyone was happy with it.
This is the main crux of putting the magic back in magic. It does not matter how it works, where it comes from, or why some have it when others do not. All that matters is that it works. This seems counter-intuitive in today’s world, where everything has to be explained, categorized, or classified in some manner. It is, however, nothing of the sort. We can see that just by looking at the sun; no one cares or questions why it rises in the east rather than the west, north, or south. They simply accept that it appears every morning, rain or shine, and as long as it does this everything is fine.
Just so, as long as the magic or mystical powers within a piece of fiction “work,” no one will care about the how, where, or why. They will want to know, of course, why a fire mage cannot easily defeat or overpower an ice wizard and vice versa, but that isn’t the same thing. Rules of combat and what magic can be blocked or overwhelmed by a spell of a different type are an area where writers can make up any explanations they wish.
But for the big magic, the kind that is fundamental and imperceptible, there is no more need for clarification than there is for why a flower grows or the sun rises. All the science known to man cannot explain the mysterious beauty both the flower and the sun inspire. Neither should a good fictional magic system. Some things simply need to be seen, felt, smelled, touched, or experienced. They don’t need to be categorized and filed under “Explained Phenomena.”
A question that a writer will not typically ask himself is an inquiry that will often be directed at him by readers. These are the aforementioned interrogatives why, where, and how. For example, why does the Force exist? Where is the advanced X-gene? How are wands made in the wizarding world? Published writers are bombarded with these and other requests for explanations of the fundamental magic that makes their worlds go round. Today, many try to appease these demands by developing mechanisms to clarify the mysteries of their universes. As we saw above, this is a mistake, since it removes the mystique that made their stories so interesting in the first place.
Due to the inordinate desire of the modern world to define every item and phenomenon in existence, the proper answer to this question has gone out of style. It is, however, the best reply a writer can give to the curious. Rather than scramble to justify a particular “magical” component in their fiction, the author confronted with this query should simply shrug and say, “I don’t know. It’s magic.”
This response will likely cause some consternation among readers, especially in our modern era. Nevertheless, this is the truest and best way to “explain” a magical mystery within a fictional world, just as it is the most honest way to answer certain questions in our own. There are some things in this world that we will never comprehend or control. Pretending otherwise is nothing short of arrogance.
Misha Burnett demonstrates this with his story about electrical engineering here, but there are other items and events which serve to make the point as well. If one studies reports of the paranormal and the unexplained, they will find this world is not completely under man’s direct power. Rather, it becomes clear that what is known about this universe we call home pales in comparison to what we do not know about it.
Before continuing, let me be clear that I am not talking about witchcraft or anything of that ilk when I use the word “paranormal.” In the context this writer uses the word, it describes things that the normal or accepted venues of science cannot account for or measure. Examples of this include those people who have picked up a phone knowing who is on the other end of the line before touching the receiver, or who can sense the presence of others without actually seeing them. It also includes the stories told about people who can direct the flow of electricity with their mind alone.
Parapsychology, the study of paranormal abilities, is a branch of scientific investigation that is almost dead in this day and age because it cannot be measured or verified by other sciences. But as late as the 1980s a belief in strange psychic powers arising naturally in individuals or being passed on through family lines was still vibrant. From Andre Norton’s Witch World to Star Wars to G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero, this still unexplored discipline held a place in the fictioneer’s arsenal of tools. In this writer’s opinion it deserves to remain there, since it allows for a greater degree of mystery within a story as it does in life.
Studying the unexplained phenomena that science cannot account for in any way will also allow the speculative author to maintain a sense of the fantastic while backing up their answer of “I don’t know.” This lies not in discovering why or how these things happen, nor even in the fun of pretending to solve the mystery. It is vital that sci-fi/fantasy writers study these things in order to understand that there really are unknown elements and forces in the world that no one this side of eternity can understand, describe, or estimate.
From the Bermuda Triangle disappearances to the teleportation of a Spanish guard from Mexico City to Manila, there are incidents throughout time that prove how little we know of our world, let alone the universe. We can put forth every effort to dismiss these incidents or to find some explanation for them, but the odds of our actually discovering the mechanism by which they occur are very slim. To think that we will see these mysteries solved within our lifetimes – or worse, to believe we already hold all the answers – is foolishness.
The same holds true for our fiction. If an item appears in our story/stories for which we have no explanation and for which none is necessary, we ought to let it lie. There is no harm in admitting we do not know how, why, where, or what makes it work. The harm only comes when we try to lift the curtain on something that has been purposefully veiled not only from the readers’ sight, but from ours as well. After all, if the author was meant to know how a mechanism within his tale worked, wouldn’t that have occurred to him before he completed the story? Since it didn’t and the novel, short story, etc., still functions properly, why not let sleeping dogs lie?
Each of these four actions provides aid in preserving the thread of mystery and real magic within their fiction. But the final and, perhaps, best way to conserve this outlook is to read stories that have strong mythic/mysterious/magical “systems” already in place. Classical epics such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Legends of King Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings are all good tales which will shelter modern authors in a modern storm. Studying the masters’ works, seeing where they stopped and which doors they did not open, is an excellent practice for understanding how myth and the mysterious explain the ineffable at the same time they cloak it.
However, they are not the only source works from which to learn these things. There are many popular authors of the recent past (and, in some cases, the present) who had or have a particular gift for maintaining the mythic, mysterious, and the magical. Older novels and short stories by authors such as Andre Norton, A. E. Van Vogt, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Dean Koontz in our time convey the great truths through the mists of the supernatural.
DC and Marvel Comics’ authors did the same. Reading their pre-1990s comics, one can see the effects of these artists’ fruitful study of the mythical in the classics through their portrayal of various characters. Some of the protagonists who demonstrate this best are Wolverine, Superman, Darkseid, Thor, Mar-Vell, the New Gods, Dr. Doom, Galactus, the Collector, and the Grandmaster. Their histories, origins, and the sources of their powers are left purposefully vague to inspire the audience with wonder and awe.
Written fiction is not the only place to find this type of inspiration, either. Japanese anime, numerous TV shows from the 1980s on back, and fantasy films such as The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or Dr. Doolittle (the one with Rex Harrison) reinforce the mysterious and the fantastic. Their embrace of the fairy tale template gives them a sense of wonder and excitement the daily grind lacks. Thus authors who enjoy these things should feel free to rely on them for the inspiration they provide, and to follow their lead when they stop clarifying things.
Mystery’s power over an audience should never be underestimated or dismissed. It is a vital component to all branches and variations of speculative fiction, one that needs time and experience to grow properly. With practice and a steady eye, future writers should have little difficulty maintaining a sense of myth and magic in their stories.
As proof (and an experiment in self-promotion 🙂 ), check out Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Special this year. My novelette “Halcyon” has a lot of mystery and myth in it, if I do say so myself, and it is as good a place to start as any. Whether I hit the mark or was a little off-center, this author would certainly like to hear what you think of it, readers. Until then, stay mythical, magical, and mysterious, the way a proper audience and readership should! 😉