After my post about writing bad epic fantasy the other day, a friend of mine had a nit to pick with me regarding one of my qualms with the genre.

“Friend!” she cried, brandishing a steel sword kissed by Death. “I disagree with your list!”

“Bring your most logical argument!” I shrieked in reply, magical power coiling around me like a writhing serpent.

Actually, none of that happened. We were playing 7 Wonders around a dinner table, and she said she didn’t like that I said rule dumps were lame. But sometimes I really do wish my life had magical battles.

Anyway, my friend said that she actually appreciates rule dumps when she reads, because it defines the conditions of the unbelievable stuff right up front. When you know the limits of magic in fantasy books, it helps you distinguish excellent plot points from lazy or bad writing. She cited a recent book she read where the author ignored some of the established rules of the magic system in order to create a neater, happier ending. And I agree, that can be infuriating. Those neat authors with their joy-words!

But it does bring up an interesting point, in that sometimes rule dumps are absolutely necessary. Not only does it help you distinguish the good from the bad, it fleshes out the world in a way that makes it feel realistic. Sometimes it helps us to have some guiding principles in fantasy, simply because what we’re dealing with is in no way real at all. If we have a few logical anchors, our minds can better connect with the larger-than-life stuff we’re reading.

Also, magic is cool and it’s nice to see an amazing system that’s really been fleshed out.

But is it necessary to give us every single theorem, dissertation, or bit of history on the matter? So many authors seem to take such great pride in showing off how much thought has gone into the magic systems (or any systems) that have gone into their stories, and sometimes pull the reader straight out of it.

Do we need to know every bit of how it works? If we made a real world equivalent, not everybody can tell you how quantum physics works in our world, or mathetmatics, or science. Why does everybody know every last detail of it in fantasy worlds? And by the end of the story, the rules are going to get broken in some way, so it seems almost moot to pound us over the head with them.

When it comes down to it, the only thing the reader needs to know about anything the author has put a great deal of thought into is this: whatever they need to understand where they’re at in the story. Does the reader need to understand why you can only shoot four fireballs instead of ninety seven in order to understand what happens next? Then great, let’s hear why. But I don’t need to know how many degrees below zero your wizard can make his ice spells unless the story calls for it in that moment. Instead of focusing on your world, focus on your character’s place in it, and let the details be dictated by what your character must know to keep moving that plot machine forward.

What are some examples of cool magic systems that you’ve seen in fantasy books? What are some examples where authors have given you too much info?

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