1. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    Do Super Hero Novels Need a Unifying Magic System?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by John Calligan, Feb 15, 2019.

    When the flying alien with super strength stepped out of his spaceship, a super scientist, a genetically engineered energy being, a man from the future with robotic parts, and a small super genius child who befriended a sentient power armor stepped up to fight him.

    Obviously, that's all perfectly average for a comic book, but what about a novel? Can novels lean on tropes and expect the reader to just go with that kind of stuff, or does each source of power need to be explained, detailed, and elaborated on?

    I read this article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/may/20/fantasy-imaginary-worlds-george-r-r-martin-robin-hobb

    Which tilted me a little, because I love fantasy, or thought I did, but I do not give a f--- about world building or magic systems. I like the aesthetic of myth, folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy, but I do not care about world building. So, do I like fantasy at all? Maybe not according to this guy.

    Same with super heroes. If I'm reading a novel and Mike opened a box when he was twelve that causes a blast of energy to shoot out of his eyes every day at noon, and he's made peace with it, whatever. I don't need to find out where the box came from, or require that all powers come from the box, or have sources somehow related to the box. I don't care. If he got it from a box, and another guy was born with it, and another is an alien, and another a future robot, I don't care. It doesn't bother me. I'm not even curious about it.

    I want that aesthetic, and I want the interpersonal story, and I want the plot.

    Is that permissible in any kind of novel, even fantasy, or is that kind of thing something else? Literary fiction? Speculative fiction? Alternate history?

    When I think of writing a superhero story, I think of things like:

    What if two friends started beefing over grant money?

    What if a group of kids had to survive a weird alien?

    What if a woman woke up with the memories of (edit: that's good shit, keeping it).

    I don't think:

    What are the effects on a world from a new material that retains all of the heat from a chemical reaction of a new element that lets people levitate by thinking about their childhood?

    What if all spells came from a lantern and the lantern was dying?

    I do not care about that shit. I don't. I don't even think of it.

    This thing about world building and magic systems is just stifling to me.

    Goodnight.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2019
  2. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Active Member

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    As someone who puts as much or more effort into 'invisible' (to the reader, at least at first) worldbuilding as I do into plot and characters, this point of view baffles me, but for the sake of debate, I will try to understand.
    First, I feel it necessary to point out that the article you linked is probably generally correct, but it feels derogatory of fairy tales, almost for the crime of being short and lacking in extensive world building. There's probably a universal truth the author thinks they're commenting upon, or relying upon, but it just feels like they're insulting fairy tales. Not for being childish, but for being...incomplete, I guess.
    To this, I object.
    Second, while I recognize that world-building is not important to you, and therefore you don't think about it, that doesn't mean there's none to be had in superhero novels. I don't actually read them myself, so I can't expound at length about how they function, but I do know enough about them to know that there is a) a world, and b) building. Any frame that mentions Celestials or the Power Cosmic or how gods work is, implicitly if not explicitly, worldbuilding. Someone, somewhere, sat down and thought about that. They thought about all the possibilities of a power of flight activated by thinking about your childhood, and what happens when that childhood was absolute shit and it's not happy thoughts.
    Any time someone brings up Krypton, that's world-building. Anytime someone brings up their childhood, or the world as it was, or how Earth-53 differs from Earth-2, that's world-building. It's simply too grand a concept to just not worry about at all.
    Thirdly. Having said that, it definitely doesn't need to be your focus. It just needs to be...there. The guy who came up with Superman didn't need to know what color the walls were in Superman's dad's childhood house, or what they named the family's pet robot, to write the first issue of Superman, but as you build a story, details become the fulcrum upon which your story turns. A foot slips, an ankle twists, and now someone can't run for their life. (disembodied parts, anyone?) A single flaw in a plan, a single drainage ditch in an impenatrable stone wall, not noticing one minor detail out of place, can destroy a well-crafted good or evil plan.
    Details are important, and one could (if one were so inclined) define worldbuilding as a collection of relevant and irrelevant details.

    Most people, I would say, who go in for writing non-alternate history fantasy go there because they like worldbuilding. It's sort of fantasy's thing. It's what we do. Some of us are better at it than others. I see worldbuilding sites occasionally who ask questions about who feeds whom, and how, and I can't imagine...caring about that. But at the same time, I've put an absurd amount of effort into the association of mages that my MC, and by extension, the reader, will never see. I like to think that when the plot brushes up against those details, the fact that I have them will make it better.

    I do think, from an outsider's perspective, that comic books tend to have a...looser canon than actual novels, due to (among other things) space constraint. You can't spend two thousand words detailing how whaling works in New England in the mid-1800s if you've only got 600 in the entire issue. You've got whales to spear, and legs to be eaten. I do not, for a moment, believe that it makes them any less valuable as either a medium or a story, for all their brevity, but there is a certain economy of words that is required.

    So, then, to answer the question. Do super hero novels need a unifying magic system?
    In my admittedly inexpert opinion, the short answer is yes.
    There needs to *be* one. That doesn't mean it needs to be your focus. Unless your novel is about how or why the powers work the way they do, I don't know that it's necessarily critical to expound upon it. Just the knowledge that everything works, and the consistency of that working, is good enough, I should think, for a novel that isn't actually 'fantasy' as most people understand it.

    ((criminey, that was a lot of words. why can't i write that much in my WIP at once?))
     
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  3. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Magibabble is as bad as technobabble.
     
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  4. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Contributor Contributor

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    @John Calligan Which fantasy books/authors are your biggest influences?
     
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  5. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I'm wondering how you define world building. Because if you like fantasy, you're surely aware of the fantasy world.

    My tentative guess is that you don't like the mechanical minutiae of world building? The stuff that one might be tempted to put in a chart?

    Could you explain a bit more?
     
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  6. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    I think what I am mostly indifferent toward as a reader, and that I'm not interested in writing, is the material that isn't at leas tangentially related to the plot, but which makes up that extra 20k words that makes an epic fantasy longer.

    I was thinking about your question while I was driving, and it brought to mind the iceberg analogy. "World building is like an iceberg. You see a little above the water, which is what the reader sees, but beneath the water there is another 90% of the ice which is what the writer knows and informs the story."

    And I'm not sure that's the case, even with media I like.

    Avatar the Last Airbender: 10% above the water, 90% below

    Avatar is probably the latest, greatest in TV world building. The world building is deep, with multiple kingdoms and factions within those kingdoms. They use a mostly hard magic system which influences every part of culture, and you always have a huge impression of depth, as if the world is living an old. It's perfect.

    I happen to love the original three seasons of Avatar so I'll back up on my original statement. However, a lot of the things that I took issue with in that show come directly out of the world building, because it's not and can't be complete. The Earth Kingdom's walls. The lack of interest in healing magic which only the water tribe has. The segregation of the kingdoms and the lack of disease outside of the water kingdom. The dumbass mail system in the earth kingdom. The sudden discovery and limited use of hot air balloons. None of those issues were necessary, but the stick out as a kind of dull "fridge logic" because the world is trying so hard to take everything into account. For me, it was wasted effort.

    Star Trek Original Series through Voyager: 90% above the water, 10% below

    Star Trek does not give a fuck. I love Star Trek. I'm a trekkie. I've seen it all. I go to the cons. I promise that when the show is being written and the movies made, no one writing cared if they were sticking to some kind of map or canon. If they needed a map, they just made it up. If a large and powerful race was boring, they dropped or changed them. Where are the Gorn? The Orion? The Tamarian? Did a world eating monster plow through? Who cares. It only ate like one place in the backstory. Maybe the crystaline entity took care of those races. How come Kronos being destroyed in The Undiscovered Country plays no part in TNG? If Star Trek needs you to know something about the world, you hear it as exposition in the captain's log exactly thirty seconds before it becomes relevant, and can forget it after.

    And then you have all the stories that are kinda in the middle. I'd put V.E. Schwab's "A Darker Shade of Magic" series in the middle, because she has exactly four cities, all called London (I've only read the first two), and an elemental magic system that seems to play on the social culture but not the physical one, and that is fine. I ate it up. I'd read it all day. But it's still 50/50.

    I don't mind reading stories that lean heavily on tropes and history. A (describes Turkish guy with a scimitar) on his horse starts a campfire because he's a pyromancer--I get it, I'm good. "Not Turkey" is a place and some people do most of their magic with fire. I really don't need anything else about that guy. If the book goes into it, and I need to know it to get the plot, that's whatever. But just to know it to know it? Not that interested.
     
  7. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    There is a book that I think influenced me more than any other, but I only read it once like 10 years ago and gave it back. It's been stuck in my head ever sense. It was about an apprentice wizard going to learn magic from a greater wizard, but finds the guy is a prick who turned a bunch of people into animals and animals into people and kept them all around his tower. I'll tell you what the name was when I think of it.
     
  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think I agree with you, assuming I understand, which may be a false assumption.

    In my WIP I've "world built" pretty much only what matters to plot or character development. When I need to care about, say, inheritance, I figure out that culture's general attitudes toward inheritance. When somebody needs to bribe a law enforcement official, I figure out what I need to know about that area's law enforcement. And so on.

    But I don't see the world as a few complex things surrounded by white space; I see it as complicated and rich everywhere. It's just that I haven't bothered to "discover" (and, yes, I'm making it up, but it doesn't really feel that way) the stuff not relevant to the story.
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2019
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  9. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    I'm with you, 100%
     
  10. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Contributor Contributor

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    Since you only came up with one influential fantasy novel, does that mean the majority of high, epic, and heroic fantasy doesn't suit your preferences? Because those are the genres I mainly read, and in my experience, they almost always have extensive worldbuilding.

    Also, you used Star Trek as an example of not prioritizing worldbuilding, but did you factor in that it was an episodic series? When those episodes were created binge watching wasn't a consideration, which meant they could adjust world lore & technology between episodes more or less without anyone noticing. Comic books also get away with this. However, I don't believe this is true for novels.
     
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  11. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The main reason for a structured magic system is give a sense of consistency and order to the story. Magic should appear as a discipline requiring talent and study, and having plausible limitations. If there are no ;imitations or appearance of order, there are no obstacles and no story.

    You don't need to identify how and why it works, but you do need to establish that some magical solutions are possible, while others are not, and make the reader accept that reasoning.
     
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  12. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    I agree, if you want to let the characters solve problems with magic in a satisfying way. But there are many characters with powers that have simple, small systems.

    Frodo uses the ring to turn invisible, but that lets the eye know where he is (or whatever, I never read it).

    Cyclops shoots energy from his eyes whenever they are open, but can use a ruby quartz filter to block the beams so he can open his eyes and see. His power can be suppressed with gene therapy.

    These are magic systems, but they don't go very wide or deep. Cyclops' powers being from genetic abnormalities is practically a hand wave.
     
  13. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Contributor Contributor

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    Sure. Marvel's X-gene justification for any conceivable superpower is basically a hand wave, yet it works for enough people.
     
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  14. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    I agree.
     
  15. Rzero

    Rzero Contributor Contributor

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    From your list of power sets, it looks like you're squarely in Marvel territory. I'm a big Marvel fan. DC mixes magic, gods and demons with imaginary science and technology. In the Marvel universe, even the few "magicians" are explained as harnessing energies we're aware of in reality. The handful of "gods" are usually aliens mistaken for gods by primitive peoples. There's just no magic with which to contend. This puts them in the sci-fi category, not fantasy. The difference between the two being, as you probably know, magic. You don't need it, not with the characters you mentioned.

    Most fans of the genre in comic form are going to be fine with carrying over their existing knowledge to the book and making assumptions as to the underlying mechanics. You only need to convince people that something works if they're unfamiliar with it. This doesn't mean you should skip backstory and origin, of course, but it does mean that you don't have to explain the effects of gamma radiation (don't use gamma radiation) or the fact that an alien might have normal abilities on his home world that would be considered super powers here. Powers and abilities as well as weaknesses and limitations should all be well-defined, but explaining something we know all about from other works is more tedious than helpful. Especially don't come up with a bunch of new reasons for these powers to exist. Maybe explain a bit for people unfamiliar with the genre, but don't overdo it or reinvent it.

    DC-style characters are gods on Earth, and the stories lend themselves to certain allegories impossible in other genres, and that's great. What I love about Marvel-style characters though is the fact that, with notable exceptions, these are predominantly human characters with human problems. It's still rife with allegory and epic story lines, but who's more easy to identify with and understand, Peter Parker of NYC or Kal-el of Krypton?

    To use a non-comic analog, consider Firestarter. She's the offspring of two telepaths who acquired their abilities though a drug trial. We don't need to know how magic works on this planet. We only have to accept that a drug could potentially unlock super-human abilities. Back to Marvel, the X-Men are mutants. The same principal applies. We only have to accept that a specific and rare gene causes random abilities and characteristics. After that, the writers can go absolutely bananas with the powers they give the characters.
     
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  16. Rzero

    Rzero Contributor Contributor

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    If my daily count matched the number of words I can drop in a single post (or god forbid, a whole day of them,) I'd be a golden god of writing. (I guess they'd also have to be good, but you know what mean.)
     
  17. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Active Member

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    I put 5k (brand new) words into a (brand new) unrelated project in one sitting the other day
    why am i like this
     
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  18. 18-Till-I-Die

    18-Till-I-Die Banned

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    I think perhaps a unified magical system isn't the word, I honestly don't know what would be really, but one thing I would love to see in superhero comics is a more defined idea of what certain powers do and don't do. One of the major problems is that no one in comics wants to create a defined idea of what these superhumans are capable of and what that means for the universe they're set in, like the fact that Squirrel Girl defeated Thanos...THANOS...at least once, even if it was a joke, is so absurd that I lack the words to describe it. And yes I get it, she's a "joke" character and it was meant as a joke, but the fact is that it's insane. It causes the entire previous thirty years of canon to disintegrate. It causes the entire point of both his character and the death and destruction he causes to disintegrate. Because at that point then why wasn't Squirrel Girl able to stop him when he had the Infinity Gauntlet too? Why doesn't she kill Galactus? Why doesn't she just kill the One Above All and take the throne of infinity for herself?

    If she's so godlike she can KILL A GOD then why is there even a Marvel universe after that, just close the setting down with her seated on the Golden Throne as the new God Empress of Mankind and reboot the entire universe.

    The thing is, and I also heard this brought up in a video by a guy named Razorfist on YouTube, when you have a serial which is kind of the standard for superhero universes, then you have to have one vision, one story, one unified concept behind it. Not just the magic system but a standard of who is and who isn't the most powerful one, and more over what it means when they have conflicts and who is truly more powerful. Comics never had this because they have always had SO MANY WRITERS and such completely disparate settings between series. The MCU, ironically, did this brilliantly. But if you're going to do it today, then I would suggest doing that. Have one setting, one story, one overarching plot and yes one unified magic system.
     
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