Musings on Fiction in the World of COVID-19

Remember what life was like this time last year? Most of us had probably never even heard of COVID-19. Terms like lockdowns, facemasks, social distancing, track & trace, shielding and self-isolation have all become so central to our daily lives from the youngest to the oldest in a very, very short space of time. Not only has the world changed in the blink of an eye, but it is continuing to change rapidly. Will we go back to lockdown? Will there ever be a vaccine? A cure? Will life ever return to normal? Will COVID-19 still be here in a years time? Ten years? Ten thousand years?

We writers (especially those of us who indulge in speculative fiction) love to think we can anticipate the future. There’s a reason so much sci-fi is set in a future dystopia; it’s there to warn us of potential disaster that could occur if we go down a particular path in the present. Even utopia’s like those imagined in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek are there to show us one writer’s vision of how the world could be if the right conditions were met. If that’s the kind of thing you write, you’ll have a hard time ignoring the events of the last year, unless of course you decide to imagine a miracle vaccine which makes the whole situation disappear overnight. I doubt serious authors of hard sci-fi would choose such a course.

Writer’s of non-speculative contemporary fiction have it even tougher. Can you write a cosy locked room mystery with social distancing? How do romance novels work when you’re not allowed within more than 2 meters of people who don’t live in your house? Can Barry Trotter go back to Pigboils School of Magic* after the summer holidays even if he has a bit of a cold? Do we avoid writing a story set in 2020 altogether or can we find a way to deal with these issues head on?

Honestly, it depends what kind of story you want to write. It may well be more appropriate to set your story in the spring of 2019 when we were all still blissfully ignorant, but with COVID-19 ravaging so much of our lives, you may well be wise to face it head on, in which case the tried and true principles of good story writing still apply.

First and foremost good story writing is about good characters, their goals and the forces that prevent them from realising their goals. The world may change in sudden and extreme ways, but people will always be people, with general motives feeding into specific goals. These are the things readers care about, far more than deadly plagues, dashing rogues, post-apocalyptic world-building or wizards learning to do magic.

Who are your characters and what matters to them? This is at the heart of telling a good story, no matter what is going on in the world you have created. Start with your character’s motive. Do they want true love? COVID-19 and lockdown could be an obstacle to that if they aren’t able to go out and meet new people. That’s a potential story in itself (one I’m curious to read the ending of!).

Of course, COVID-19 need not be central to your plot (what a boring world it would be if every novel from now till doomsday featured the same central conflict!) and it may be appropriate to set your novel in a time without COVID-19 in order to tell your story well, but don’t be afraid to face it either. Tell your story as truthfully as you know how. No one really knows how long this is going to go on for or how much worse it will get before it gets better, but what makes for a good story remains the same. And now more than ever, we need good, meaty, meaningful stories.

Footnotes

*Do not write a story about Barry Trotter going to Pigboils School of Magic. You’ll get the pants sued off you quicker than you can expellibraccas.


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Throwback Thursday: Super Snappy Speed Reviews (Star Trek Edition)

Originally published 24/09/2017
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen all of the films in the Star Trek franchise is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

The day we’ve all been waiting for with a combination of both hope and dread is finally here. Star Trek: Discovery premieres in America today, and so, in honour of this momentous occasion (and since we Brits won’t be getting it until tomorrow), I am pleased to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition!

We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books (twice, in fact), TV shows and films but today it’s going to be a bit different. Today I’ll be reviewing all thirteen Star Trek films in order of release. As ever, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsphasered, disruptored and bat’lethed into just two or three sentences. So without further ado…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

While it has a lot of the elements we might look for in a good Star Trek episode, The Motion Picture is spoiled by ridiculously slow pacing.  Buckets of atmosphere but not much else to say in its favour.

My rating: 🖖🖖

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This film’s got it all: a familiar antagonist with a score to settle, exciting space battles and plenty of sub-plot. Arguably the best film in the entire franchise.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

I can’t say much about this without giving away spoilers galore but suffice to say it’s a good popcorn muncher and is integral to the overall Star Trek canon. Its main let-down is the half-baked antagonist: a random Klingon with no redeeming qualities trying to steal a technology which he thinks will make a good weapon of mass destruction.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Definitely the most light-hearted of the Star Trek movies. Plenty of humour, a casual ecological moral and no real antagonist to speak of (okay, there is a giant probe thing threatening to destroy Earth, but only because it wants to make friends with some humpback whales and earth doesn’t have any them any more)

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The rest of the world seems to hate this film but I quite enjoyed it. Sybok was a particularly interesting antagonist, in that he seemed to be well-meaning, if badly misguided. It probably could have benefited from unpacking some of the more important themes, however.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

My favourite Star Trek films and episodes are always those which focus on interstellar politics, particularly the Federation’s tense relations with the Klingon Empire. If that’s your flavour too then this film’s got it all: conspiracies, interstellar peace talks and even a Klingon courtroom scene.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Generations

This film has a great bad guy (although I could have done without the Duras sisters…), strong themes and apart from being a little on the slow side at points, is generally well paced. The (mostly humorous) subplot concerns the previously emotionless android, Data, now fully equipped with emotions he can’t control, which is funny at first, then gets serious before kind of just fizzling out and resolving itself without explanation.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: First Contact

If Wrath of Khan isn’t my favourite in the franchise, this one is. Excellent acting, strong writing and well paced. The Borg Queen in particular provides the previously faceless Borg Collective with a leader who is as subtle and seductive as she is evil. Unfortunately, this film does also include my least favourite line of dialogue in all of Star Trek history: ‘You people, you’re all astronauts on… some kind of star trek?’

As an aside, non-Trekkies should not begin here; this film is full of important references to the TV series.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Insurrection

This might’ve worked as a TV episode, but as a film it’s just boring, boring, boring with extra boring on top. Some dude we’ve never heard of (with a simply appalling plastic surgeon), from a race of aliens we’ve never heard of wants to chase some helpless innocent people we’ve never heard of away from their planet and Picard doesn’t like it and… zzzzzzzzz…

My rating:  🖖🖖

Star Trek: Nemesis

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart’s acting as Shinzon and Captain Picard respectively are about the only things this film really has going for it. In theory, the premise had lots of potential but it turned out to be a bit of a poorly written non-story about a disgruntled clone who decides to kill everybody with a particularly nasty WMD, only to be thwarted by an inevitable act of self-sacrifice from one of the heroes.

My rating:  🖖

Star Trek

As reboots (especially prequels) go, this was a zillion times better than I thought it was going to be. It features, quite simply, some of the best plotting, characterisation and pacing I’ve seen in a Star Trek film. There are a few inconsistencies with prime universe that are not explained by the time travel story but nothing anyone but the most knit-picky of fans would worry about.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Into Darkness

Take all your favourite scenes from Wrath of Khan, mix them up a bit and boom! You’ve got Star Trek Into Darkness! Even so, with its strong plot, superb acting (especially from Benedict Cumberbatch) and plenty of excitement, this remains my favourite Star Trek film since First Contact.

My rating:  🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Beyond

After Insurrection and Nemesis, Star Trek Beyond is my least favourite Star Trek film. The writers clearly decided to forget about pacing, characterisation and all that boring stuff and created a non-stop heart-pumping thrill ride instead. Great acting though, I’ll give it that. Click here for a more detailed review on this film.

My rating: 🖖


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Spotlight: The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Rules of Blackheath

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. Understood? Then let’s begin . . .Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others . . .The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave listeners guessing until the very last second.

Praise for The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

This book is one of the smartest things I’ve read in a long time… The plot is intriguing and keeps you on the edge of your seat, the characters are quite complex which I like and most of all THAT GREAT, creepy, and intriguing ATMOSPHERE is ALL I needed. Amazing book!

Sofi, ‘Book Review | The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton’, A Book A Thought, 11/08/2020

Atmospheric and unique, this is a mystery that adds “Who am I?” to the question of whodunit, with existentially suspenseful results.

Meg Nola, ‘The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’, Foreword Reviews, July/August 2018

You will put this book down feeling immensely satisfied…. Thrilling, Unpredictable, Captivating.

Amy, ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’, Amy’s Bookshelf, Jan 2020

Have you read The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Click here to buy The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle on Amazon.

Click here to check out Stuart Turton’s website.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Monday Motivation


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (Vol. VI)

It’s Sunday and it’s the 6th day of the month and that can only ever mean one thing here on Penstricken: another exciting instalment of ‘6 “Six Word Stories” for the 6th’!

You probably all know how this works by now. I roll six story dice on Zuidsoft’s ‘Story Dice’ app and I write six tiny little stories, exactly six words in length, based on whatever stimuli the dice gives me. I feel quite pleased with myself for a minute or two until you guys come along and share your superior efforts in the comments section below.

So here we go:

Iacta ālea est.
  1. BEETHOVEN CLONE DEMANDS ROYALTIES BACK PAY
  2. Beautiful dress, perfect makeup, impure intentions.
  3. CLONE LAB ARSON ATTACK: NO SURVIVORS
  4. Hello? Is anybody else out there?
  5. Lost a bet– and my taste-buds!
  6. Wished for love. Got a dog.

Well, that was a mind stretching experience as always. I never for one second imagined the flame would turn out to be a sequel to the musical notes, but that’s all part of the fun of these little challenges. Why don’t you give it a go yourself? Try and come up with six word stories based on the stimuli above and share them in the comments below so we can all see how much better you are at this than I am.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Being a ‘Real’ Writer

Originally published: 03/09/2017

There seems to be a notion in a lot of folks’ minds that while lots of people may wish to be authors, and may even actually sit down and try to thrash out an original work of fiction, not all of these are real writers. If you look around the internet or other public forums where writers gather, you’ll see what I mean. People will say things like ‘if you don’t write something every day, you’re not a real writer,’ or ‘real writers read at least twenty books a year– oh and newspapers as well!’

These are just examples but you get the idea. Many try to be writers, but only those who do this-this-and-that are real writers. But wait just a minute. What does it even mean to be a ‘real writer’?

Oxford Dictionaries has a rather lengthy definition of ‘real’ you can view here, but let me draw your attention to the important bits:

Adjective

2. (of a thing) not imitation or artificial; genuine.

2.2 [attributive] Rightly so called; proper.
‘he’s my idea of a real man’

I would suggest that when people talk about being a ‘real’ writer, they are referring to something akin to this: ‘[attributive] Rightly so called; proper’. So, a ‘real writer’ is someone who displays certain key attributes we might expect a writer to possess, and is therefore justly called a writer. In other words, ‘real writers’ are people who do a certain thing, behave a certain way, drink a certain brand of coffee or write in a particular genre (or who spit out the word ‘genre’ are if it were an insult); something which separates them from other unreal/pretend/bogus/inferior/impostor writers.

Well I think you can see where I’m going with this. I’m here to set the record straight. And I’m going to do it with a parable.

The Parable of the Real and Pretend Writers

by A. Ferguson

In a certain town there lived an Aspiring Author. This Aspiring Author religiously attended the local coffee shop every day with his laptop. He would arrive early in the morning and drink their most expensive coffee and diligently study blogs about how to be a writer (he was a particular fan of Penstricken.com). His mug said ‘WRITER AT WORK’, and his table was always littered with notepads (with snazzy writer slogans on the front) and pens. He had even scribbled out a few character profiles and he had a strong idea for a plot in his mind. He got to know the staff there and told them all about the novel he was writing and promised to give them all signed copies when it got published. He also had a Twitter page which he used to communicate with other Aspiring Authors, tell the world about the novel he was writing and to share inspirational quotes about writing.

This Aspiring Author also had a five year old daughter. She spent most of her time in her bedroom scribbling out stories in crayon (complete with illustrations) which she then sellotaped together into a book and sold to her long-suffering relatives. To date she has “published” seventeen such books and is now working on her eighteenth: The Day Mummy Took Me To The Zoo (We Saw Lions!).

So… the question is, who was the real writer: Aspiring Author or the daughter?

The answer is the one who displayed the attributes of a real writer. Specifically, the one who actually wrote stuff: the daughter!

Dear friends, writing stuff is the only truly defining attribute of a writer that I know of. If you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer. If you’re not writing stuff, you’re not a writer. If you publish ten thousand best sellers, all of which get made into films, then stop writing, you’re no longer a writer. You may be the author of Such-and-Such a Work but you’re no longer a writer. Similarly, if you are writing with any kind of regularity, you are a real writer. You might be a professional or only an amateur, but you are a writer. Really.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only manage to write five days a week!’

That doesn’t invalidate the fact you write. I agree that you should write as often as possible, and certainly if you intend to become a professional writer you might want to do it as close to daily as possible, but I’ve found that writing regularly is far more beneficial than writing constantly. In any event, how often you write does not define you as a writer, as long as you write often.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I care about my husband/wife and kids more than I care about writing. Why, I even missed a deadline to attend my husband/wife while s/he was in hospital!’

That proves nothing except that you prioritise your family above your writing (a perfectly right and healthy thing, if you ask me). Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard it suggested that ‘real writers’ put their writing before their families, but I for one profoundly disagree. In any event, how you prioritise your life does not define you as a writer. When my daughter was born, I took the day off my day-job as a clerical officer to attend her birth. When I returned to work, no one questioned whether or not I was a ‘real clerical officer’, just because I had other things that mattered more to me. In the same way, whether writing is your life, your day-job or just a hobby: real writers are people who write.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only seem to be able to write YA space operas!’

So what? You still wrote it, didn’t you? If you write, you’re a writer. Don’t let snobs get you down. No genre is any more valid than any other so write what you’re going to write. People that like your writing will read it and people that don’t, won’t, but the same is also true of people who write so-called ‘serious literature’.

There seems to be a strange mysticism surrounding writers, as if being a writer is something otherworldly; an awesome gift bestowed upon only the Chosen Few. Worst of all, I fear it has perhaps gone to some of our heads; that we may be tempted to believe we really are somehow supernatural or unusually gifted. But we’re not. Writers are people who write. Excellent writers practice their craft, yes, but ultimately they’re still just people who write. If you are in any way committed to writing, then I hereby acknowledge and publicly confess (for better or worse) that you are a real writer.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Spotlight: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

SoldierSummoner. Saint. Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold – a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed.

Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite – and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift.

As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation.

Welcome to Ravka… a world of science and superstition where nothing is what it seems.

Praise for Shadow and Bone

The Grishaverse has the most stunning world building I have come across in  the YA fantasy genre in quite some time…. it has restored some of my faith in the fantasy genre…

J, ‘Book Review: Shadow and Bone’, Midnight Book Blog, 30/07/2020


Leigh Bardugo weaves a tale of magic, power, and definitely intrigue and wonder in the first brilliant instalment of her Grisha trilogy.

Brooklyn Saliba, ‘Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo’, The Nerd Daily, 17/02/2019

No matter how many times I read this book I never tire of it, it’s a beautiful book that I want to make everyone I know read.

Nicole Sweeney, ‘Book Review: Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo’, The Bibliophile Chronicles, 13/09/2018


I finished it in one feverish sitting and immediately bought the next book.

Kitty Marie, ‘Book Review : Shadow and Bone (#1 in the Grisha trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo’, Kitty Marie’s Reading Corner, 07/09/2019

Have you read Shadow and Bone? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Click here to buy Shadow and Bone on Amazon.

Click here to check out Leigh Bardugo’s website.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

5 Great Blog Posts About Writing Fiction

It’s time, once again, for me to step aside for one week and shine the spotlight on some of my fellow fiction bloggers. As ever, the posts I’ve chosen represent just a small selection of the best writing blog posts I’ve come across in recent days and are listed in no particular order. So without further ado:

‘YouTube: Is it worth going to uni to study creative writing?’ by Dewi

‘Creative Writing Project: Write The Story’ by Elena Goodson

‘What Is Your Creative Writing Process, Writer?’ by Ana P. Rose

‘Beginners rules for writing fiction’ by Creabeaatje34

‘Fictional Advice on Writing Fiction’ by Jane Downing


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Using Magic in Fiction

Originally published 12/03/2017 under the title ‘A Few Words About Using Magic in Fiction’

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.


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