Fantasy has a funny way of calling things magic that aren’t really magic.
Isn’t that Brandon Sanderson’s message? All magic is just science we haven’t explored yet. There are systems we can’t see, but since the world isn’t outright chaos, we can dig deep and find them.
The sea! A dark goddess who smites the unwary from beneath, dragging them down to sate her hunger. Or, just a giant pile of water pushed around by heat, air, and whatever else happens to be living in it. Relationships! A magic spreading over all the world, connecting person to person and heart to heart, bringing the like-minded together, never to be healed once severed— life debts binding strangers, dreams binding loved ones, twins feeling each other’s pain. Or, just a bunch of individual minds with individual wants who step on each other’s toes, come together and drift apart, and once in a while stick. A house! Dark and leaning five degrees to the left, hallways that lead nowhere (or everywhere if you come back at night), a cook in the basement who you always hear whistling but never actually see. Or, just an old house you get lost in far too often.
There’s something fun about simplifying life this way. The myths give explanations for why the sun rises on one side and sets on the other but never turns and goes north for a change. Animal fiction, as I’ve mentioned before, deals with death, spirituality, and other heady topics without restraint because instead of humans they’re all cats. Fantasy introduces creatures that are vastly different from us— thirteen eyes, ten claws— and deals with otherness that way. It’s a lighthearted look at things that generally inspire confusion or depression, and a light heart is worthwhile.
But how much magic do you need in a story? How much simplification, how much metaphor? After all, simplification does not equal fun— you could end up confusing the issue instead of clarifying it if you go too far.
The limit is fluid. Many stories only need a slight simplification. Many need more. But how do you get that feel of what a story “needs”, at least in this area?
Here’s a rule: simplify what you want to ignore.
Does that seem wrong to you? It might. We’ve been talking about how making something magical can make it more fun to look at. But we still want to look at it. Ignoring the issue won’t help— that’s why we need to mysticize the issue in the first place, so people will stop ignoring and start paying it attention.
But what keeps people from paying attention? What’s making them ignore it in the first place?
Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Loss. Revulsion. Unfamiliarity. Discomfort. Something about the issue rubs them the wrong way, and whatever their reaction to it, the end result is choosing to ignore it completely. Why pay attention to the thing that’s causing you grief? Turn away from it instead.
So, let’s simplify what we want to ignore. We want to ignore the anger, the sadness, the discomfort. We want to ignore the wall between ourselves and this issue. We want to ignore the distance we’ve created between it and us. This problem, whatever it is, has a solution— or at least, a benefit to pondering different solutions— so let’s break through whatever we’ve set between ourselves and that solution. Simplify what you want to ignore.
Want to ignore the long-standing barrier between a person and the problems of race? Simplify race into species, like in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Want to ignore the bad experiences of struggling with religion? Simplify religion into a magic system, like in Star Wars. How about ignoring the heartbreak and annoyances of looking for, and finding, and losing, deep relationships? Simplify relationships into pure magic, like in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle and so many other books.
But keep this in mind: you’re simplifying. You’re blurring the boundaries that exist in real life, and sometimes when those come back into focus, they look sharper than they did before. I wish relationships were that easy. I wish differences were that easy to realize and surpass. I wish Athena would show up and tell everybody to stop fighting. We could use a good god out of the machine to fix things. When you make believe a real-life phenomenon is the product of something fantastical, you’re simplifying it— and you’re making the real thing seem more unapproachable.
That’s your trade-off for the day. If you write it well, solving this problem will be cathartic— that catharsis will drive people through what the real world tells them is too much to overcome.
Sometimes the simplification will fail. The obstacle is different here, without magic to sustain it. It’s too deep-seated, in a way that the fantasy world just doesn’t convey. It’s never going to get better, because the way it gets better is for someone to wave a wand and make it that way.
And sometimes the simplification will succeed. The obstacle wasn’t as bad as it seemed, now that I look at it. It’s pretty flimsy, actually. And while it would be nice for someone to snap their fingers and fix it in a flash, the truly noble thing is to try. Try, and fail, and try again.
Because the only way to lose all hope is to stop trying.