I’ve always been a rebel. When I was a kid and my mother wanted me to wear pretty dresses, I only wanted to wear my older brothers’ hand-me-downs. When I was in high school and preppy (button-down oxford shirts, khaki pants or straight skirts) was in, I wore ratty, torn jeans and t-shirts. If someone tells me not to do something, you can be certain I’ll consider doing it (at least I’ve learned enough to try to figure out why I’ve been told not to do something before I just go ahead and do it anyway—I have matured, somewhat). 🙂
But, now, magic, magic has to have rules and they are rules that must be followed. I just hate that, rule breaker that I am, but there it is. So, try to be a little mature with me for just a moment and lets explore the reason for this.
First of all, and mostly, it’s because magic exists in fiction (yeah, I know, I really, really want to believe it’s real too, but, well… you know) and fiction can’t exist without conflict.
Conflict is the life-blood of fiction. Without it we don’t have a story. Having rules creates conflict. The example I always give my writing students is that of a guy who miraculously gets three wishes (I dunno, maybe he rubs an old lamp or something weird like that). 😉 But with his three wishes he manages to get himself manacled to a stone wall in a deep, dark, smelly dungeon. He can’t suddenly get a fourth wish to get him out of this horrible situation. If he did, the writer would be breaking the rules and throwing all conflict out the window (making everything too easy for our idiot hero who got himself into that situation in the first place). Where would the fun be in that? No, we’ve got to see our hero rise above his three wishes (which potentially could make everything too easy) and do something above and beyond his ordinary abilities. In short, our hero needs to act heroically and get himself out of there without the use of magic. By doing that, we’ve got a great story. Without it, we’ve got a dud.
Secondly, magic has to have rules because without rules we won’t be able to understand our fictional world and how it works—readers will be confused. Rules define society. They tell us what we can do and what we can’t. If our rules state that magic can only be attained by pulling teeth from a frog, then our hero must try to find a frog with teeth—and just think about how rare that sort of magic would be! How special! How amazing! Possibly even wonderful. So if we break those rules and suddenly give our hero magic without the toothy frog, that wouldn’t be fair or interesting. We need these rules so that we can understand the world of the story.
And finally, we need rules for magic because without them you can’t break them. Yeah, I know I said that a writer cannot break their own rules of magic, but every now and then, once in a very great while, rules are broken. Doing that knocks everything on its head and you’d better have a damned good reason for breaking the rules and be able to explain that you have broken them, how and why. So have to have them there in the first place so that you can break them if necessary.
Rules can be exceedingly boring. But also extremely important—especially when it comes to magic and fiction. So learn the rules. Enjoy them. And enjoy the magic they create!