Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Magical artifacts


I just realized that there’s one fantasy element which never shows up in my current stories. That’s the magical artifact.

Most of the role-playing gamebooks I’ve read (and loved) had magical artifacts. In fact, one of my favorite series, Blood Sword, is even named after the Quest Object. There are thousands of fantasies out there with plots about finding some kind of powerful item which will tilt the scales in the protagonist’s favor. And that’s the first problem…

1. The story revolves around the artifact.

If there’s more focus on the artifact (or the search for the artifact) than on the characters, this can make the fantasy come off as flat. It’s also easier to make readers care and worry over people than over Quest Objects. Swords are cool, but I’ll bet readers were more upset over what happened to Ned Stark than over what happened to Ice.

One reason I like Lawrence Watt-Evans’s The Misenchanted Sword is because the story isn’t about a hero and Dark Lord both hunting down an ancient artifact… with the hero getting there first, of course (some day I’d love to read a story where the Dark Lord reaches and uses or destroys the artifact first). Instead, the story begins when a hermit undertakes the haphazard creation of a magical sword to help a protagonist pursued by enemies, and the sword is definitely not the fantasy version of the AK-47 or the nuclear warhead.

The story is always about the protagonist trying to survive the war and build a future for himself in peacetime, not about the sword.

2. The artifact is too powerful.

Some magical items are so +∞ to Everything Destruction that I wonder why the story doesn’t come to an end shortly after they’re found. Even objects that don’t directly destroy anything can be used to defeat the opposition speedily – orbs that see everything or see into the future, for instance, could always be used to keep track of an enemy’s movement or whereabouts.

One way to get around that is to make sure that “with great power comes greater peril”. Tolkien’s One Ring is a superb example, but unfortunately, a lot of artifacts in fantasy aren’t like this. Either they simply supply the great power, like medieval batteries. Or they’re evil unless they’re in the hands of the right person (i.e. the protagonist), at which point they’re batteries again.

Fred Saberhagen’s Twelve Swords of Power are immensely powerful weapons, but nearly all have disadvantages. One of them, the Sword of Despair, induces a state of deep and instant apathy and depression in an area the size of a battlefield around it when it’s drawn. This would be enough for one wielder to win a battle, right? Nope, because whoever draws the sword is subject to this effect as well, and can’t summon up the willpower required to sheath it afterwards.

3. The artifact exists for the sake of the story

With the most realistic characters, I feel that they have lives and histories beyond the printed pages. I’m privileged to see some part of what they think and feel and do, but there’s much more about them that I’ll never know.

The best artifacts give me this impression as well. They weren’t just created for the purpose of being Quest Objects; they have a history that explains why there’s only one or a few of them. They may have personalities and memories as well. I’d love to see a crown which would reflect morosely on the far better rulers whom it had sat upon, or a sword which had its own, very decided ideas on who its wielder would fight.

4. There’s more than one artifact.

Back in the late nineties, I started reading a series called The Twelve Treasures, and yes, there were supposed to be twelve books in it, dealing with the recovery of the twelve magical objects. Except only three novels were ever published.

Most unpublished fantasy writers won’t be able to count on getting a long series in which to detail the search for multiple magical artifacts. Shoehorning them all into a single novel may not work either. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could do this not just because of its length but because there were six other books which also fleshed out Rowling’s world and characters.

5. There’s only one artifact.

If a wizard is able to make one magic sword – and is rewarded for doing so – I wonder why he doesn’t make another. In The Misenchanted Sword, the reason was clear: the hermit had such limited supplies that some of the spells he put on the sword were makeshift. There was no way he could create another such sword, and no reason for him to try.

But under other circumstances, why doesn’t the wizard carry out more enchantments? This is what I find sad about magical objects, by the way. They’re too often big flashy portentous MAGICAL ARTIFACTS, so the subtlety and charm of the smaller things is lost. Imagine a Lord of the Rings with just the Rings. No Sting glowing to warn of orcs nearby, no phial lighting up in Shelob’s lair.

Why not have more of the smaller items? Wind chimes that ring out to announce a visitor’s presence, blank slates on which maps of the immediate surroundings appear… anything is possible. One thing I enjoyed about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the sheer scope of magic, how it was everywhere and influenced nearly everything in the wizarding world. That was partly because Rowling didn’t save magic for the large, grand objects; she let wizards use it as humans would use technology.

And it was a great read.

8 comments:

GunnerJ said...

Swords are cool, but I’ll bet readers were more upset over what happened to Ned Stark than over what happened to Ice.

Well yeah... but still, what happened to Ice was basically like mixing salt into warm lemon juice and then splashing it onto a wound and rubbing.

That was partly because Rowling didn’t save magic for the large, grand objects; she let wizards use it as humans would use technology.

This is something I have personally always hated in fantasy. If magic is treated like technology then, IMO, it's not magical. However, I think it's possible to have common, minor magic items without going all magitech.

In the Exalted RPG, the world is saturated with magic, and alchemal reagents or minor talismans can be bought in the market on a middle-class salary. But in spite of the almost commonplace way in which these items are treated, they still feel magical because they often have idiosyncratic disadvantages, require the consent (and thus haggling with) magical beings, have a religious component, or are just stylistically described in such a way that they never "feel" like technology. There is also actual magictech, but the best and most impressive examples are poorly understood and possibly illicit relics of a lost age, so that they feel like "technology so advanced it's magical" rather than "magic so routine it's industrial." For some reason I always prefer the former to the latter.

Luc2 said...

Excellent post.
I just got depressed by what you told about Saberhagen, because one of the artifacts in my novel has a disadvantage similar to his Sword of Despair. Is everything original all used up?

I always wondered about 4) too. Why always stop at one powerful artifact? How about some Arms Race?

GunnerJ said...

Is everything original all used up?

This is something I have often wondered, and I came to two conclusions: one, that I will never run out of new ideas, and two, that part of creativity means being able to use an old idea in a new and interesting way. The idea of " magic doodad that makes lots of people depressed" has so many potential interpretations and uses that I personally wouldn't worry about the similarity.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very good thoughts about magical artifacts. When they become MacGuffins or obvious plot devices without other ties to the story, you can have the sense that someone's old shoe might just have well been used instead of the magic sword. And when the thing is All Powerful it seems too easy.

Magic should always have a cost. Magical devices shouldn't be "batteries" as you say (I like that analogy!) and they shouldn't be the main character, either.

Marian said...

Hey Luc,

There's a Deep Space Nine episode called "The Sword of Kahless", where Worf and an old Klingon warrior set out to find a legendary weapon. They do, but as they're making their way back to safety, each of them becomes possessive of the sword.

Hostility grows between them; they start taunting each other and finally Worf tries to kill the old guy. That's when they realize the sword has had this effect on them. That's also when I realized the sword was the Klingon version of the One Ring.

But the episode was still enjoyable. And the Sword of Despair is much less well-known than the Ring. So even if there's a similarity between your artifact and the Sword, I wouldn't worry about it. As GunnerJ said, it's about how you use the idea.

Luc2 said...

Yeah, I vaguely remember that episode. I'll have to look it up again.

It really discourages me, when I think I have a "fresh"idea, only to find out it has been written ages ago, and multiple times. But you're right, it also depends on how it's done. Thanks, GunnerJ and Marian.

Marian said...

It really discourages me, when I think I have a "fresh"idea, only to find out it has been written ages ago, and multiple times.

This makes me want to write another post on just how much inspiration, homage or similarity authors have gotten away with (with references to Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds).

Maybe even Eragon.

For me, it has a lot to do with what else the author brings to the story. If you write a version of Romeo and Juliet where he's a member of a human colony on Mars and she's an alien, the novelty of the setting (and possibly the biology) will make this a different story from one which is set in Venice. For me, anyway.

So don't worry about what's similar ; focus on what's different, what you and you alone can show your readers.

Marian said...

When they become MacGuffins or obvious plot devices without other ties to the story, you can have the sense that someone's old shoe might just have well been used instead of the magic sword.

Hi Writtenwyrdd,

I tried to come up with some magical artifact that was more original than a sword, and I thought of gloves that change depending on the situation - e.g. turn metal, sprout tentacles from the fingers, that kind of thing.

It was workable, but somehow it didn't have the cachet of the sword. I think magical swords are to the genre what elves are: they might be overused, but they still have the power of myth and association behind them (as GunnerJ put it).

Definitely agree about magic having a cost. Either a price to be paid for spells, or if a race/species is inherently magical and can perform spells the way we would pick up objects, they should have disadvantages to compensate for their skills.