Wednesday 15 September 2010

Fantasy trappings - is less more?

"Too much magic can ruin a fantasy. I was much more interested in the people."

Thus spoke George R. R. Martin in the recently released behind-the-scenes footage of the HBO Game of Thrones production.

This struck a chord with me, as recently I'd started pondering the same idea and the extent to which I agree.  I can't deny that many of my favourite fantasy series have moderate to minor fantastical elements: Martin's own A Song of Ice and Fire, David Gemmell's Drenai novels, John Marco's Tyrants and Kings trilogy, J. V. Jones's Sword of Shadows, and most recently Daniel Abraham's The Long Price quartet.

The reason I like these various series so much is because the focus is almost entirely on the characters; the fantastical elements add texture and depth, but aren't overbearing. These are fantasies that retain a very strong human element.

Yet that's not to say that I don't enjoy fantasies at the other end of the spectrum. I love the magic-intensive world that Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have created for their Malazan tales, and have really enjoyed some of the epic sequences that spring from this more pronounced fantastical element. The same is true of Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun sequence - I really like the world and all the weird trappings.

I guess this leaves me somewhere in the middle when it comes to the above statement. I certainly understand the angle that GRRM is coming from, but can't fully agree with it as I like many series that really do embrace magic and/or more fantastical elements. As long as a story has strong characters, I don't think it really matters how intense the magic and other supernatural aspects are.

That's how I feel at least - I'm quite interested to see what other readers think. Do you prefer books that really crank up the fantasy elements, or do you like the magic and whatnot to be more subtle so that the characters really take centre stage? Or maybe you're like me, and you don't really care either way so long as the author spins a ripping good yarn?

Interested to hear your thoughts.


Adrian Faulkner said...

I guess I'm in the minority here, but I'm getting a little tired of what I call "fantasy lite". Don't get me wrong, there are some of these novels that I really love but there seems a deluge of them.

T.N. Tobias said...

In a great fantasy setting, the fantastical bits are so well integrated that they don't seem as fantastical. They spring from the character's integration with their surroundings. If it's easy to separate the magic from the story, that's a recipe for failure.

logankstewart said...

With you on this one. Each side has its own pluses, and both can be done with excellent results. Most importantly, as you wrote, is the author must tell a good story. Otherwise, why even waste our time?

James said...

Adrian - could you elaborate a bit? Not totally sure what you mean by 'fantasy lite' (though I think I have an idea)?

Tobias - that's an interesting point, certainly. Abraham does that very well in the Long Price quartet - the andat are the sole fantastical element, yet they merge seamlessly with the world.

James said...

Logan - you must have posted just before me! Yes, I completely agree - the story is the key, not the degree of fantasy.

Alex said...

I don't think it's 'magic' that puts me off per say - I'm actually more likely to be drawn in by weird, interesting magic, for instance if it takes influences from non-standard (e.g. celtic/norse) folklore - voodoo for instance - or mixes up and blurs magic and technology.

I think it comes down to whether the fantastical is truly fantastical - the closer it sticks to genre conventions, the more familiar it is, the less surprising it is: then fantasy becomes less surprising and more mundane. To me, it doesn't really matter if it's character driven or not if it's all dressed up in cliche.

Unknown said...

I don't think one really needs to choose and I'm not sure I agree with GRRM's implication that magic comes at the expense of character.

The "trappings" and the character should be as one. If the magic and the fantasy races and the wondrous creatures are just sort of there and no one bats an eye, it can be disheartening. If they fit into the story, it tends to be much more satisfying.

Really, the concept of "too much magic" and such, I think, comes when magic is more of a tool to use than an aspect of the story itself. That's just bad writing, which I am definitely with George on not liking.

Aidan Moher said...

I don't care either way. I've enjoyed Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson and A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham. As long as the internal logic stay consistent, and the level of magic is applicable and important to the story, then I'm happy.

There are certainly examples where the magic system got in the way of storytelling, though. Blake Charlton's Spellwright is one example, and Brent Weeks' The Black Prism (which I'm just reading now), are two recent examples.

Salt-Man Z said...

Yeah, I agree with Sam that magic and character don't have to be mutually exclusive. I think a good writer should be able to write quality, character-driven stories in a fantastical, magic-filled world or in a mundane one; there should be no difference.

Gregory said...

I do not know if I think magic gets in the way of character.... I happen to enjoy the gamet from GRRM to Erikson and sometimes find intricate magic systems like Mistbornes as intrigueing as the characters. I think for me it comes down to how empathetic the writers make their viewpoint and background characters that does the trick.
I will be a heretic here in saying I can't say I'm a lord of the rings fan and that has everything to do with the lack of connection I felt to the people in it. Robert Jprdan had me for numerous volumes but I lost much of my compassion for his trio around Path Of Daggers. In contrast Malazan's characters still have my interest and empathy. I'd say it comes down to how the writing style jibes with the individual readers.

Mike said...

At this point, I'd take shallow but inventive magic and supernaturalia over faux-European settings with thinly reimagined history.

Character arcs and themes are important aspects of a good story. If magic and its like can complicate a plot or provide a situation outside of the norm, I'm content. Used as a device to alter what we know or understand, all the better.

Mind you, I'm not criticizing GRRM, his books or his opinion, but at what point does fantasy-lite lose the fantasy to become a soap opera set 700 years in the past?

That's not what appeals to me.

Memory said...

T.N. Tobias said exactly what I wanted to say. I love me some flashy magic, but authors lose me when it's clear that they're more interested in their magic system and/or the fantasy aspects of their setting than they are in their characters.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I like both sides, Guy Gavriel Kay and GRRM as well as Erikson. What I don't like is when magic is too predictable, too much bound in a system (that's why the first Sanderson book I'll try is Way of Kings because it seems there's enough different magic going on, and I like my epics big).

I also prefer a soap opera set in an alternate version of our world (without magic) 700 years in the past to badly researched historical fiction.

redhead said...

i guess i fall into the less is more category? I want something that's about people, rather than about magic or about spaceships or whatever.

not to say it can't be about all those things, but this is the one instance where i'm a people person.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly what I was thinking when I heard Mr. Martin say that. I really enjoy that some people can write fantasy without a large amount of magic. But I also really enjoy Steven Erikson's books and other such series.

Anonymous said...

I agree with logankstewart and other like-minded. It's the good story which is most important.

I love LotR because its world is so detailed it feels almost like it'd really existed. I love ASoIaF because most of its characters feel like real humans. I'm very happy that I could've read both.

Our era is very individualistic so it's understandable that modern writers pay extra attention to characterization, but it would be a sorry day if different takes on SFF were dropped.

Jamie Gibbs said...

I'm usually not worried about how much of the fantastic is added into a story so long as it's a good story. However, I'm usually drawn to a good solid magic system when I'm looking for things to read, and it usually enhances my enjoyment of the story.

I'm with Alex, I like a magic system that takes its inspiration from real world cultures, and that it's consistent in its working.

Ryan said...

I think they key is that too much magic *can* ruin a fantasy. That doesn't necessarily mean that it does, if done well. I think in the end, people are most interested in good stories about other people. Magic (or sci-fi elements) can spice up a story, but they shouldn't be used as a crutch.

WordTipping said...

Fantastical elements are just an extra ball in the air for authors to juggle. It just complicates things. That said, I do prefer novels that lean towards the fantastic.

I also believe the opposite is true. I have enjoyed GRR Martin's work but he runs dangerously close to simply being historical fiction.

Being a medieval historian by education, authors like GRR Martin tread dangerously close to engaging a completely different part of my mind. A more analytical part that picks apart all the inaccuracies and stereotypes. GRR Martin is a fine fantasy writer but a poor historical fiction writer.

I love fantasy for the escapism. So by that measure, I am predisposed to the fantastic and less towards something like GRR Martin. But, I generally enjoy any good writing in the fantasy/sci-fi spectrum.

James said...

Thanks all for your comments - some interesting points here.

I agree with the sentiment that the fantastical elements should be seamless and shouldn't get in the way of the story. They should be used to add texture and depth, and ideally have some sort of affect on the story (otherwise what's the point?), yet at the same time should not overburden it.

I'm happy to go on record and say that I don't much care for magic systems, and the masses of exposition you sometimes get to explain them. It's a technical aspect of many novels that I could do without - I don't really care how magic works; I'm more interested by the possible effects of it. Repeated exposition about how magic works is dull, in my opinion. As long as it doesn't clearly screw the novel's internal logic, that's enough for me.

Simeon said...

This has already been said, but to me Martin is dead wrong. Magic means nothing in terms of quality. One can focus on characters in a world completely devoid by magic (mainstream writers do it all the time), or in a world steeped in it. That's why I just wouldn't make a division at all. To me, fantasy has to have magic. I am put off by writers who avoid it, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't read their books if they are good. It's just that Martin's words sound a bit like "I don't like food, I go to restaurants for the atmosphere".

Alex said...

PS. I don't see any need to explain a magic system, or for there to be a 'system' full stop to be honest. It takes away from the mystique. I always seem to end up coming back to him, but China Mieville has the best approach - vague and evocative. You don't need to know HOW magic works, but rather what it does and what's done (in a sense) to do it.

Pratchett takes the piss out magic systems when he writes about the 'thaum' - a unit for measuring magic. It's the kind of thing you get in gaming - because it needs to be there - but is best left out of 'serious' fiction - which is to say fiction that isn't in some way taking the mick out of Fantasy conventions.

The whole thing sort of relates to M. John Harrison's argument about the futility of mapping a Fantasy world because every step you take in that direction is a step away from imagination and, to paraphrase Clark Ashton Smith, toward the realms of census takers and the like. Although some people may say it's an example of thorough, immersive worldbuilding, I agree with James - there're so many more interesting things to be writing/reading about.

In a way though, I do quite like the kind of magic systems you find in stuff like Vance and Pratchett (even Harry Potter) where you've got spells like Mudwindle's Amazing Combustor that knackers you out after casting it and can only be defeated by another similarly sillily-entitled hex... But it's always a tongue-in-cheek enjoyment.

Justin said...

As long as the writer tells a solid and satisfying story, the amount of trappings doesn't make much of a difference to me.

gav ( said...

I love the magic in Fantasy - shocked it's not loved as much as I though! :(