Saturday, June 20, 2009

There's Rules, and There's Rules

My post today was triggered by something I read over at Writtenwyrd’s blog. Particularly, she posted Lawrence Watt-Evan's “Laws of Fantasy.” Thanks, Writtenwyrd.

Although I agree in principle with most of these rules, I do have a pedantic bone to pick here and there. Here’s my response to the rules:

1. Watt-Evans' First Law of Fantasy: Stories are about people.

-- I’m afraid this isn’t always true. Nor should it be. Personally, I generally prefer stories about people. But fantasy can also be a literature of ideas, in which the people are secondary. I think this happens more in SF than fantasy, but I can see it in fantasy. And, what of those writers who truly try to imagine an “alien” people. Certainly, most races in Fantasy are thinly veiled humans with pointed ears etc., but does that have to be? Mr. Watt-Evans may, of course, be defining people broadly, and that would dispense with most of my objection.

2. Watt-Evans' Second Law of Fantasy: People are never wholly good or wholly evil, and therefore characters should never be wholly good or wholly evil.

-- Here we have a problem with logic. Mr. Watt-Evans is absolutely correct in saying that real life people aren’t wholly good or wholly evil. The second part of his law doesn’t necessarily follow, however. The problem is that, by his own statement, these laws deal with “fantasy.” That means we’re already outside the realm of “real life.” Magic doesn’t work in the real world. So, if we are not allowing “unreal” characters then how can we allow unreal magic? One of the great powers of fantasy, of fiction in general, is that it allows us to contemplate and experience that which isn’t real. There is not only room in fantasy for unreal characters such as those who are wholly evil or wholly good, but one could argue that there is a demand at times for exactly that kind of character.

3. Watt-Evans' Third Law of Fantasy: The basic human motivations are universal.

-- I agree completely with this one. It does not necessarily follow, however, that all human characters in fantasy should have only real life human motivations. See my commentary under #2.

4. Watt-Evans' Fourth Law of Fantasy: Everything other than the basic human motivations will vary, depending on the cultural setting.

-- I agree. Culture is very powerful and most fantasy writers (including myself) struggle in developing realistic seeming cultures and properly predicting what the humans in those cultures will do.

5. Watt-Evans' Fifth Law of Fantasy: Magic, like everything else, has rules.

-- Again, I generally agree. Personally, I much prefer stories in which magic has clearly defined rules (although they don’t have to agree with the normal physical laws of our universe), and has a cost attached to using it. I’ve actually seen a literary writer deliberately break this rule for effect, however, and though I didn’t like it, I could accept it as an experiment. This is pretty much an exception, though, and doesn’t disprove for me the validity of this fifth law.

6. Watt-Evans' Sixth Law of Fantasy: If a story can be written without a fantasy element, then don't bother with the fantasy element.

-- I agree that fantasy elements should not just be thrown in. They should be integral to the story. However, doesn’t most “magical realism” violate the sixth principle? Many of the magical realism stories I’ve read could have been told without the fantasy elements. But they would have lost something, something I couldn’t necessarily define.
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35 comments:

JR's Thumbprints said...

1. Watt-Evans' First Law of Fantasy: Stories are about people.

I believe stories are about "character," and character doesn't have to be people; it could be the wind, or trees, or some other physical thing. Hell, the character could be more abstact, it could be the setting of the story much like Dos Passos's "Manhattan Transfer" (yeah, I know it's not fantasy, so what).

JR's Thumbprints said...

Um ... "abstract." Man, do I hate typos.

Cloudia said...

Charles: You have inspired me with rule #2 to adress some "good & evil" character issues in my Sunday post. Thanks!

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, I'd agree with you. You said it better than I did.

Cloudia, looking forward to it. ;)

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction said...

Im having a hard time with #2 in the sense that most wholly good or wholly bad characters I have ever seen are just...bad characters. Unbelievable I suppose is the real reason behind it. Nightshade in Brooks Landover series is an example of a wholly evil character that makes you cringe, but is believable at the same time. Perhaps due to the fact that everything is dipped in faerie magic and it just makes it all that much more believable. Anything can happen in fantasy...especially when faerie magic is involved! :) Good series and a great getaway from "traditional" fantasy.

Anyway, not sure why someone would really write these laws unless they just wanted debate?

ivan said...

Wht you might be auguring for is fabulism, perhapts the fabulism of J.L.Borges. Often, the labyrinthine open-ended short stories might just involve a time-warp dialogue between the author and a younger self, an encounter with a labyrinth someone had put you in, or mention of some 14th century Caliph Borges assures us we all know, but, of course we don't and are fascinated by the obscure character all the same, because he might say things like "In revenge I will pray to God and He will put my antagonist is a straight labyrinnth, which is the cruellest of all."
Fabulism and philosphy from Berkeley to Buddha. Borges has read all the books, all of them, and like a short-hand Gene Roddenberry,uses the themes in those great books, but in a minimalist fashion.
Ultimate condensation.

I am still trying to find a 1946 story by him where a mad microsurgeon has reduced people to about the size of a microchip, and each person is in his or her own little box, whispering frantically from within.
Makes me smile to think of bloggers and their comment space...But I can't for the life of me find that actual story, no matter how hard I google or pore through the library.
Are we all whispering to each other from blog to comment, comment to blog?
If technology changes man, have we become holographs talking to each other? It's a thought, but I think Borges guessed at this first.

the walking man said...

I guess I will have to read some of the books on writing so I too can become a writer.

Merisi said...

An apple is an apple is an apple.
An apple suspended in mid-air by a chuggler is an apple is an apple is an apple. How much more interesting to watch, though! :-)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Point number 1 is very interesting - essentially I think you are both right (time for a break here - I wrote that you were both write) - in the sense that, for the purposes of some stories, characters are 2-D and represent an idea you are absolutely right. In the sense, that a story written by a person is not a story about people (big picture here; sound of one-hand clapping and all that) I'm going to lean toward LWE. The story of ideas, be they the authors or ones s/he want to portray, must always be about people.

Perhaps I'm generalizing too much here ...

Don

writtenwyrdd said...

Like any of the great and glorious "rules for writing," there's plenty of room for debate and interpretation.

Great thoughts on these points, Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, yeah, I think if it's done well it can add a dimension to a fantasy. If it were done in a realistic thriller then it wouldn't work, but in fantasy it could. As for the rules, writer are always being asked for opinion about writing. It may have come out of that or out of a panel at a con. As soon as you put 'em down, though, someone will debate them.

ivan, I don't know that story by Borges. I'd like to read it myself. I've read other stuff by him. There's definitely a fabulism element that is fantastic but set within other more real world elements.

Mark, I think the writing element is more important. But I like to read books on everything so sometimes I read them on writing.

Merisi, excellent. That's both deep and makes sense. I agree.

Don, no I think you're right. That's sort of what I was thinking. Stories do not always have to be about people when the person embodies an idea and hte idea is more important to the tale and author.

writtenwyrdd, anything that provides food for thought is worthwhile.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This was very interesting. Especially the last rule. I'm not sure I fully understand it yet but it bears thinking about. I wonder if it applies to other genres.

Thumbelina said...

A really interesting and well thought out, logical argument. I agree with most of what you say I think, but as a reader (not a writer). I like JR's comment too. I remember writing a story in school about a river - and the river was the character. So I agree, it is not about people, but about characters, whatever they may be.

Finally got over here. Off seeking more wisdom. ;0)

Steve Malley said...

Good points, Charles. I doubt I would've thought of them...

laughingwolf said...

for the most part, i agree with you... BUT, if the 'element of fantasy' can be left out, seems to me the tale is no longer one of fantasy....

jodi said...

Charles, I HATE the limitations of rules. Who besides him says so?

Travis said...

I don't know that I agree with the 6th rule. Of course, you want to be economical...so you don't want to add things that the story doesn't necessarily "require". But taking out the fantasy element just because the story could also be told as a western seems like picking nits with the writer's chosen setting for the story.

Erik Donald France said...

You're right on with the refinements. Not pedantic.

As far as evil/villains go, it's fun when they have something sympatico, or at least understandable in their outlook. Richard III is fun; Spielberg villains, generally devoid of anything remotely interesting (maybe a mirror of his interior mind).

Jo said...

I think that is why the Harry Potter series was so popular with both childen and adults. Almost everything was "black and white". People were good or they were villainous. The fantasy element was almost a character itself, and the magic had clearly defined rules, and thereby had a purpose.

I think the whole point of SF or fantasy is escapism.

ivan said...

The Walking Man"
Mark,
To the tune of the Dying Cowboy:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy

...Think I'll get an outfit and be a cowboy too!

...or should that be writer?

benjibopper said...

Yeah, #6 doesn't make sense to me either.

Of course, most 'rules' of writing have all kinds of exceptions. But they can be useful guidelines.

BernardL said...

I'm not sure about wholly good, but there have definitely been people who were wholly evil in reality.

Rachel said...

Well, I agree in principle to many of those things, but I also have read enough enjoyable fantasy that doesn't fit into that mold to realize that all those rules can be broken. Italo Calvino wrote many stories making characters of quarks, equations, and mere concepts. Check out Cosmicomics and T-zero if you haven't. Or what about The Non-existent Knight and the Cloven Viscount? In both cases they are non-people or simply memories of people. Yet they are the main characters.

Charles Gramlich said...

pattinase, yeah, it bears some thinking about. I think there's some gray area in the definition of fantasy perhaps.

Thumbelina, glad to see you back. I still haven't been able to get your feed to work on my google reader. Not sure why. I'll go over to your blog today, though.

Steve Malley, my mind often works in mysterious ways. When it works.

laughingwolf, you're probably right. I've long had a dream of writing a kind of fantasy story where the fantasy element is totally matter of fact. Where it is just life. Not sure how that would contradict his idea.

jodi, oh I'm sure he was asked for these by somebody somewhere. Many new writers want rules, just to give them guidelines. but when you write them down someone (like me) will debate it.

Travis, yeah, I'm not sure about it. It might be more important for the writer to choose an approach rather than be strictly dictated to by the storyline.

Erik, I do think blackhearted villains can be fun. And if they represent something globally powerful, like death say, then they are legitimate in fiction.


Jo, that's definitely true of the Potter series in general. Although there were some subtelties in the good characters. But in general you are right, especialy about most of the villains. Snape definitely had some complexity, though.

ivan, you just have to pony up to be a cowboy.

benjibopper, yeah, they can be fun. I had fun with these, and sometimes they make you think, which is good.

BernardL, I don't know. Even Hitler loved his dog, man. But yeah, people in reality can get closer to true evil than true good methinks.

Rachel, yes, the worst thing about rules is that they will cause some folks to limit themselves. Or what about Flatland, where the concept was more important than the characters. IT's been done well and should be.

X. Dell said...

I have always had reservations about artistic rules in the first place, because they don't belong with the art, but rather with the craft. Yet, they have this tendency to become ingrained in our thinking as we're trying to create something unique.

laughingwolf said...

neat idea, hope you get to follow through, would love to read it...

Greg Schwartz said...

i've never read those laws before, but i pretty much agree with your comments. especially about the last law -- just because a story CAN be told without something, doesn't necessarily mean it should.

ivan said...

Greg Schwartz,

Wow.

Jonny M said...

I'm not a writer by any means and I appreciate your answers CG , but most of his "laws" sound more or less like common knowledge. I would think they might be a little more specific like your explanations. They seem very ambiguous. Laws are supposed to be very direct and blunt, not open to interpretation

my $ .002

Jonny M said...

God I sounded repetitive there...

I was just dumbfounded while reading these, thinking to myself that I could have written these and called them the Jonny M Laws of Fantasy....lol

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, that's a good point. It's definitely a craft versus art thing. The only rule I ever heard about writing for publicatin that seemed reasonable to me was, "you must write, you must finish what you write, and you must submit what you finish."

laughingwolf said... it's done now. I kind of like how it turned out.

Greg Schwartz, yeah, the last law seems pretty vague.

ivan, eh?

Jonny M, yeah, most are pretty "yes, of course," rules. I'm probably just being picky with them. I get like that when I've been writing a lot. I start analysing words. Maybe I need a break.

ivan said...

Well, some things should probably not be written about. Like the pasage from the Marquis de Sade where guests' orifices had been sewn up after a heavy dinner. Yikes!

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, now I've got that image in my head. Thanks.

laughingwolf said...

cool, where can i read it?

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I've submitted it to an anthology. No word yet.