Anyone who’s played an RPG as a magic user knows that there are subtle ways to handle magic. You can slink around casting Fearful Gaze, Burdening Touch, or Mesmerizing Grasp, trying to charm and finesse your way through the various dungeons, dissolving the swords of bandits, or tricking the kobolds into thinking you’re another kobold, or whatever.
And then there are the not-so-subtle ways. How about some Blazing Spear, assholes? A little Withering Bolt? Eat it, frost atronach! I respect players who take the former route, but when I fire up some magic I want lightning bolts to leap from my fingertips, Emperor Palpatine-style. I want meteors to rain down from the sky. I want shit to burn.
It’s tempting to try to write this style of magic, too. Plenty of writers do it, with varying results. The trouble is, you’re competing head-to-head with both video games and movies. What looks totally bad-ass on the screen might not come across as well on the page.
“But,” I hear an ardent reader protesting, “the way I imagine the Withering Bolt is so much cooler than the way it appears on screen.”
Fair enough. This is, after all, the whole point of novels. Smart writers take advantage of the active role played by their readers’ outstanding imaginations, using those imaginations to supplement their own text. They know when to draw the line with their description, realizing that if you overwrite the scene you’re actually limiting your reader’s ability to visualize it for herself. In this case, writing becomes a sort of collaboration between the reader and the writer, rather than an imposition of the writer’s vision on the reader’s mind, the sort of imposition that we find in movies.
Don’t get me wrong; I love movies. Sometimes I like to be imposed upon. It’s just that movies don’t allow the same latitude for imagination. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars has pretty much the same idea of what Darth Vader looks like.
If we return to novels and the magic that appears inside them, there’s an opportunity lurking here. It’s possible to turn away, at least from time to time, from exterior, physical magic that clamors for elaborate description. If the writer is asking the reader to visualize things for herself anyway, why not occasionally turn the focus from the supernatural event itself to the psychology and struggle of the spell caster?
One of my favorite instances of this approach takes place in Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan. Without ruining the book for those who haven’t had the pleasure, I can say that Ged, a powerful wizard, is stuck in a very nasty labyrinth, harried by some very nasty forces. He and a young woman, who has become his companion, are trying to escape. On the surface, it doesn’t seem as though Ged’s doing all that much:
“Beside her the man would breathe deep, and hold the breath, again and again, like one making a mighty effort with all the strength of his body. Sometimes his voice broke out, hushed and sharp, in a word or fragment of a word.”
No Exploding Brain. No Rain of Hell-Fire. But we do catch a glimpse of his internal struggle, a struggle made all the more riveting when we discover what he’s actually up to:
“Tenar, I hold the roof up over out heads, this moment. I keep the walls from closing in upon us. I keep the ground from opening beneath our feet. I have done this since we passed the pit […] They are seeking us, seeking our will, our spirit. To quench it, to devour it. I must keep that alight. All my strength is going into that.”
It doesn’t look like much, but the drama is intense. Ged is literally holding the up the earth, and he is pushed to the breaking point, an impressive statement when you understand the extent of Ged’s power.
There’s a scene from Robin Hobb that strikes me as quite similar. Here the King-in-Waiting, Verity, is using his magical Skill to deceive the sinister Red-Ship raiders who have been harrying his coastline and doing unspeakable things to his people. As in the LeGuin novel, he doesn’t seem all that impressive at the outset:
“Verity was sitting in a chair by the window. A summer wind off the ocean blew into the room. It could have been a pleasant chamber, full of light and air on a stuffy summer day. Instead it seemed to me a cell. There was the chair by the window, and a small table next to it. In the corners and around the edges of the room the floor was dusty and littered with bits of old strewing reeds. And Verity, his chin slumped to his chest as if dozing, except that to my senses the room thrummed with his effort. His hair was unkempt, his chin bewhiskered with a day’s growth. His clothing hung on him.”
Only a few pages later do we learn the full extent of his efforts. Every day, every night, almost without time for food or sleep, he is muddying the minds of his assailants. The effort involved is literally killing him, but, as he points out in this argument with the king, the stakes are enormous:
“Perhaps there is a Red-Ship right now, not so far that they cannot see Egg Island, and already the captain of it is discounting the dream of ill omen he had last night, and the navigator is correcting his course, wondering how he could have so mistaken the landmarks of our coastline. Already the work I did last night while you slept and Regal danced and drank with his courtiers is coming undone, while we stand here and yatter at one another.”
In this second case the magic involved (Skilling) is interesting in its own right, but Hobb chooses not to focus on the magic itself. Instead, she shifts our attention to Verity, a man struggling mightily but – and this is the crucial point here – struggling internally. The same is true of LeGuin’s handling of Ged, only more so. In that case, we don’t even really understand what magic is at Ged’s disposal or how it works. It doesn’t matter; the human drama blazes all the more brightly for the lack of a conjured fireball.
I was reminded of this inner intensity almost a year ago as I watched my wife labor with the birth of our son. There’s not all that much to look at: a beautiful woman, her face etched with concentration and pain. At the very end, of course, there’s the jaw-dropping, tear-jerking sight of a child being born, but the real business, the real struggle and doubt and courage, takes place internally in the long hours before, in the mind and heart of the mother.
Of course, we wouldn’t want to get rid of some of the more theatrical bits of our favorite novels. I still want to see demons riven in twain by sky-rending conjurations. I suppose the trick when handling magic is to find the right balance between inner and outer, between character-focused and effect-focused writing. I’m eager to hear what others think of this balance, and of other novels in which it’s been skillfully achieved.