Today I’ve passed the keyboard to my good friend and amazing author, Connie J Jasperson and she shares with us why it’s so important to set boundaries. Take it away, Connie…
Limitations can be so liberating…
Good fantasy stories frequently involve magic, and you love good fantasy. You have this great idea for a story, and you want to tell it to the world. You sit at the keyboard and start pounding away, and the story just flows from your fingers. You are sailing, the story is flowing, and then suddenly you realize that Bart the Mage seems to have unlimited magic ability.
Well, I am here to tell you, that is no good because now there is no tension, no great ordeal for Bart to overcome. Bart can do anything!
Game over! End of story.
So now, it is at this point that you realize that you must create the ‘rules of magic’. I find it quite boring to read a book in which the author has never tried to imagine their own work beyond limitations of the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, or Robert Jordan. Those are wonderful, riveting, fascinating worlds, but they have already been done! If all I want to do is expand on their work, that is fine, but I have to accept that at best it will be looked at as ‘fan fiction’ and not a true creation of my own. I rarely read fan fiction, and so I rarely write it!
I am an author, but I have a passion for reading. I spend many hours each day reading the works of wonderful writers, reading on average 4 to 5 books a week. When each book is done I analyze what it was that I loved about that story, or conversely what I didn’t love.
My favorite authors are evenly divided among the most well known of the mainstream authors and also the not-so-well known indie authors. Along with memorable works of enduring quality, I often read books that don’t really work for me. I always seek out the indies, because with indie authors it is more of a gamble. You have the chance of stumbling across a real gem, although some books are just plain awful, poorly thought out and poorly edited. With those, it is tough to get past the first chapter.
Then there are the so-so books. These are books that have such potential that I stayed with them despite the fact that they didn’t ring my bells. The reason why some books failed to please me was simple when I thought about it. I kept waiting for the tension, waiting for the plot to thicken and it just never did. Everything was just too simple, too easy for the hero. Or, the magic just sort of happened and was not at all believable.
A great plot and great characters must be supported by a world that is fully believable. For a world to be believable there must be limitations. That is also the first rule of magic.
I want each world that I read about to be unique, a new experience. With that in mind when I am writing, I try to tailor the magic to fit each world consistently.
Take Bart. He is a lowly journeyman mage, of average ability and intelligence. For a multitude of reasons he has decided that he must rid the world of Evil Badguy, a very powerful, very naughty wizard. Evil Badguy is very strong, and has great magic – but there are rules and so he is not omnipotent. Just as in real life, the antagonist must have a weakness and our protagonists now have the opportunity to grow and develop to their fullest potential. They will do this in process of finding and exploiting that weakness.
Now let’s say that Bart is a mage with offensive magic – maybe he can cast lightning at an enemy, or perhaps he can set fires with his magic. Can he also use magic to heal people? Can he heal himself? What are the rules governing these abilities and how do these rules affect the progress of the story? When it comes to magic, limitations open up many possibilities for plot development.
Let’s say that Bart can only reliably use one sort of magic. This is good, because now you have need for other several characters with other abilities. They each have a story which will come out and which will contribute to the advancement of the plot. Each character will have limits to their abilities and because of that they will need to interact and work with each other and with Bart whether they like each other or not if they want to win the final battle against Evil Badguy. This gives you ample opportunity to introduce tension into the story. Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world, and conflict is what drives the plot.
What challenge does Bart have to overcome in order to win the day? Is he unable to fully use his own abilities? If that is so, why is he hampered in that way? How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it? Are they hampered in anyway themselves? What has to happen before Bart can fully realize his abilities? Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for Bart to struggle and no story to tell.
Thus it is the limitations that you set on your characters that drive the plot. In the field of epic fantasy, characters are often given great ability, and how the abilities are used is what makes the story interesting. J. K. Rowling’s completely evil character, Voldemort has great ability, and great strength of will. He is so powerful that he is believed by all to be unbeatable. But while he is extremely powerful, he is not omnipotent. These limitations are what allow an 11 year old boy to grow up to be Lord Voldemort’s most feared opponent. The plots of all seven Harry Potter books revolve around the limitations of what the characters can do. How boring that would have been, if Harry Potter had been omnipotent from the outset and all of his adventures had consisted of him winning the day with little or no effort!
Now, the most important aspect of creating and designing the rules of magic for your world is to be consistent. Do not make a habit of breaking those rules in the course of the story, because that reduces the believability of your story. Let’s say that in chapter two Bart is unable to cast lightning while standing in a puddle of water. But wait! In chapter twenty-nine you have him drowning in a raging river and now he manages to fling a lucky lightning bolt at Evil Badguy, knocking him off a cliff. Readers remember things like that, and it ruins the flow of the story.
It is true that I have read many brilliantly crafted books where the author broke their own rules of the use of magic, but they did it within certain restrictions that made the conflict believable. The way they did that was to set up conditions under which an exception to the rule was possible. This added to the dimension of the story, and enhanced the flow of the story.
I hope that as writers you will think about the limitations of your worlds when you are creating them. Those limitations are what shape the tales you are so passionate about telling. Believable boundaries are what make a story that is really just another rehashing of the old Good VS Evil into a memorable and beloved classic tale of valor and battles won at great cost and against great odds. That tale will inspire and enthrall the reader, and I will be eagerly waiting to read that tale!
Wow! Thank you so much, Connie, for taking over my keyboard today and sharing your insights and tips – this article is great for both writers and readers!
As always, I’d love to read your comments on this fab article!
Connie J Jasperson lives and writes in rural Washington State. She and her husband share five children, nine grandchildren and a love of good food and great music. Connie has worked as a field-hand for a Christmas tree grower, a dark-room technician, a hotel maid, a bookkeeper and also ‘did time’ in the data entry pools of several large corporations. She now is semi-retired and is writing and blogging full time. She is the author of the epic fantasy ‘Tower of Bones’ based in the fictional world of Neveyah, and ‘The Last Good Knight’, a medieval fantasy. Currently in the works is another book based on the adventures of several characters in ‘The Last Good Knight’ and an epic fantasy, ‘Mountains of the Moon’ another tale of Neveyah. She can be found blogging at http://conniejjasperson.wordpress.com or http://bestinfantasy.blogspot.com.
Check out Connie’s books on Amazon – they are AMAZING!!!