First, a bit of administrivia.
I’ve switched the Twitter digest posts to a weekly format, so they they aren’t spamming the blog every day. So, when you see “Updates for the Week of…” what you’re getting are the snippets of thought I posted over the last 168 hours, starting with the oldest at the top, just to confuse archaeologists because to HELL with archaeologists.1
I silently weep for the loss/breaking of the add-on that collected my shared Google News Reader items into a digest post, with my comments on same. It was working just fine and then poof. No idea why. No idea who is RESPONSIBLE.
Anyway, if anyone wordpressy knows of a good addon I might try that will do what I want (daily digest collections of shared new reader posts), please to be contacting me.
So: Magic. I’ve been thinking about it; the different kinds of it you see in stories. Specifically, the kinds you don’t see as much of in favor of traditional magic.2
I got started on this due to some work I’m doing with a game project that I forced my way into playing with am collaborating on with some great guys; things that got me thinking about the Tolkeinesque style of… well, not magic, but the way magic is depicted in the fiction. I’ve talked about this before (though I can’t find the original post), but what I’m specifically referring to is the tendency in Tolkein to play coy with magic in the story — to leave the reader wondering “did he just…” rather than blatantly stating “yeah, he totally did.” Most of this boils down to describing the effects of magic in equivocal terms, usually how something appeared, from the point of view of other characters.
I tend to do a lot of this in stories I write even when they aren’t in a modern setting, but it really serves well in magical realism — you can get away with a lot of stuff in the story that the POV protagonists simply explain away as something else; maybe because they don’t believe, maybe because they’re afraid to — in either case, because the characters want to explain it away.
“That’s all right,” the man replied, taking a slow drink. He set down his glass and turned it slowly counterclockwise on the bar, as though it were a dial. The sounds of the club around them seemed to fade, allowing his quiet words to carry.
My disclaimer: I’m only seeing this equivocal language in hindsight. I wasn’t aware I did it until recently.
With the last spoken syllable, the door opened, spilling cheap golden light onto the walk and the front of Calliope’s jeep. The four moved inside so quickly that they barely seemed to cast shadows.
Also in hindsight, it’s not surprising that I do this, especially if I picked it up from reading Tolkein in my formative years (which I did, over and over).
Aside from just being fun, it provides a subtler tone that pays off with a nice shock when the kid-gloves come of and things get overt.
The figure in the doorway turned his head towards her. He spoke one guttural word that bounced off the dark paneling of the office; Lauren dropped to the ground in a heap. Her glass hit the floor with a thump and jumped sideways, spilling its contents over the thin carpet; the room filled with the stink of whiskey. To Calliope, Joshua’s wife looked like a puppet that had just had its strings cut. Violently. Her eyes were still open and staring.
After all the oblique stuff, this sort of magic is almost refreshing. Coupled with the language (short, hard words; short phrases; timed to feel like gut punches), the hope is that the whole thing kind of knocks the wind out of the protagonist (even better: the reader). It’s no Balrog-and-Gandalf on the Bridge, but it’s servicable.
What else? I also really enjoy fairy tale magic.
By that, I don’t mean the kind of ‘new fairies’3 that you see in the flavor of the week Dark Urban Fantasy Noir… thing.4
I mean Fairy Tales, where magic is a kind of eclectic toychest collection of whimsical special cases and exceptions that are, nevertheless, accepted as matter-of-course by most everyone involved. The prosaic supernatural.
If you eat the food here, you can never leave.
We’re immortal, except for iron melting our faces off.
Pancakes don’t have calories if you cook them for someone else.
I bow humbly to Neil Gaiman on this one – no other modern day storyteller grasps this kind of magic and how to talk about it on the page better. The Graveyard Book is the most recent example, but of course there’s Coraline, Stardust, even Anansi Boys (though that one is kind of a blend of fairy tales and old god stories like American Gods… a kind of magical story I don’t have a good name for). I’m working on something like it with Spindle. We’ll see how that works out.
How about you guys? What’s your favorite kind of magic in stories? How does it feel? What’s it do? How’s it portrayed?
1 – Not really. Those guys are rad. Is ‘rad’ still cool? Is ‘cool’ still cool?
2 – By which I mean standard DnD fantasy fireballs, hurled lightning bolts, and pink-aura Marvel-style precognition. Also, I suppose the sorcery you see in things like good Conan and Fritz Leiber – demon bindings and choking vapors and so on. I talk about the difference between Fantasy stories and Magical stories over here, and I don’t believe repeating myself will improve the content, so go read it.
3 – Or faeries or feyries or pharies or fehries or however the hell it’s cool to spell it this year.
4 – Super-hot, super-alien, utterly incomprehensible… yet with soft, kissable lips.