Why I’m Happy to Suspend My Disbelief for Fantasy

Magic systems seem to be a big deal to a lot of fantasy fans and for many a well explained system can make or break a book. Now, this may shock some people, but it really isn’t a big deal for me. Naturally, I appreciate the beauty of an intricate magic system (who doesn’t have infinite admiration for Sanderson’s allomancy for instance) but if something is left in broad terms or defined simply as *magic* I genuinely won’t care and here’s why:

confessionsIt is the genre of the unexplainable– *crazy* idea BUT there is a reason why many supernatural forces are left unexplained in fantasy. It creates an atmosphere of mystique, eeriness and unfathomability. Here is where fantasy is haunted by the hallmarks of gothic literature. Feeding into the uncanny plays with the unwritten rules of the universe and allows the writer to explore hidden corners of the human psyche. And isn’t exploring *what we don’t know* what fantasy is often all about? Obscuring the logic of a world is valuable in its own way.

simarillionSometimes, however, there is a hidden explanation, even if we don’t know it– I know I’ve seen *loads* of people criticising Lord of the Rings for its “lack” of magical explanations. My answer to those people is that there are plenty of Tolkien’s notes you can look into if you’re unsatisfied with the reasoning behind his world building. Which goes to show, just because you don’t know the reason for something, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Plus, if you need an origin story, look no further than The Simarillion. But really, ultimately, it’s important to note where Tolkien got his ideas from…

grimmsBorrowing from literary predecessors deserves praise not censor. Personally, I value stories that are self-aware and acknowledge where they’ve come from- for a story to revive its forefather’s memory and offer us something new is a very special thing. When it comes to fantasy, I’ve already mentioned fantasy’s connection with gothic literature, yet the modern genre has more than one forefather. It is very much rooted, thanks to Tolkien, in the oral tradition and fairy tales. There is a lot of borrowing going on between these genres, including the educational element. Following in the steps of fairy tales, supernaturalism is often far from the main message of the story. In reality…

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverMagic is often a tool to get us from a to b. A very beautiful, interesting tool- but a tool nonetheless. That’s why, there really is nothing wrong with the *because it’s magic* explanation. I know, I know, that’s an extremely unpopular opinion in the fantasy world and I will probably have my fantasy fangirl status revoked for saying it, but hear me out. The truth is, no matter how far you get under the skin of any given magic system, the answer at some point will always be *because it’s magic*. Most of the time, we see an elaborate system on the surface and do not question why it works. Yes, I know there are some people who are not satisfied with the Harry Potter world building, for all its wonder and intricacies, but really do those people seriously think that diverting the plot for a “scientific” explanation of witchcraft and wizardry would have made those books better? (I will stupefy! anyone whose answer is yes to that) We have the surface details and that’s all we need!

the martianAt the end of the day scientific discussions mean nothing to me. Yeahhh in case it isn’t obvious I am not a scientist and the mechanics of how things work rarely holds my attention. I did love the Martian, but that was in spite of the explanations (where, let’s be honest, my attention glazed over) not because of them. So if an author is going to go into a huge amount of detail about how their world works, it’s not going to light my fire, in fact…

The_Eye_of_the_World_UKI find overlong explanations or infodumps boring. There I said it. If a book goes on a long tangent explaining something *made up* to me that I really don’t need to know, I’m gonna get bored fast. Everyone that’s read my review of Eye of the World can’t be surprised by this- cos that’s the perfect example of exposition getting out of hand (no Robert Jordan, I don’t care if you came up with a really interesting backstory to some backwater village, if it’s not plot relevant now, I don’t need 5 pages of explanation).

question mark bookAnd finally… it would make me a hypocrite. Okay, so I don’t normally refer to my own writing, but I hope you don’t mind my self-indulgence here, cos it’s relevant. I try to write things I’d like to read- so a lot of the reasons I do not often include explanations is because of a combination of the above (ie it’s not always relevant in the moment, I hate infodumps and I like to borrow from other genres). But to give a more concrete example to how important hidden explanations are, I’m currently working on a trilogy where in book 1 magic is more of a blunt tool (because, bless their little hearts they don’t know any better), book 2 explores some of the costs, and book 3 (which I’ve started working on now) is all about the big reveals. It would fundamentally destroy the setup of the story if I’d just given everything away in book 1.

So those are my reasons for why I don’t get too bogged down with magic systems. I know this will divide readers- and that’s a-okay- different opinions are the spice of life! Let me know which you prefer!

71 thoughts on “Why I’m Happy to Suspend My Disbelief for Fantasy

  1. I don’t think all magic needs to be elaborately explained. What matters to me is whether the magic is logically consistent. For instance, if one character says you can’t magic plants and then someone magics a daisy later on, I’m going to be confused. Or if they can magic fungi but not daisies and someone says, “Well, that fungus is not really a plant so it doesn’t follow the rules” maybe that will make sense or maybe I’ll feel like that’s not in the spirit of everything else we have learned about magic throughout the book. I just want the fungi thing to seem like it could happen, not like it happened because the author couldn’t figure out how to get the characters out of a situation, short of suddenly introducing the fungi exception.

    WHY can’t you magic plants? I don’t know if that’s so important for readers to know. Maybe it’s something they haven’t discovered yet, kind of like there are tons of things science is still in the process of explaining for us! Plus, all of us use science every day and I’m sure most of us couldn’t explain how it works. I just push buttons on the microwave or on my computer or whatever and stuff happens. I think that’s kind of where a lot of fantasy characters are in terms of their magic usage. They learned how to use it and it works. And that’s good enough for them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes- totally get that and agree!! Obeying your own rules is so important!! hehehehe yes!!! (also I *love* your example- made me laugh 😂)

      Yes for sure- if there’s a rule then it’s good if it gets explained over the course of the book- even if that explanation is simply “we don’t know” or “cos magic”. I guess that’s more if the book brings something to my attention then I’m more likely to question it. So yes, definitely agree to an element of logical consistency. hahahaha I know right- one of the main reasons I don’t think about this stuff is cos I don’t think about science in real life. I’m a-okay with just accepting that something works. 😉

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  2. Wait, you’re writing your own trilogy?

    And I tend to be with you in regards to specific magical systems. Even Sanderson I just glazed over and filled his paragraphs, in my head, with “it’s magic”. Indepth explanations are just wasted on me…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hehe yes, turns out any fool with a pen can write a book (or any monkey with a laptop 😉 😂)

      Thank you! I’m glad you agree- I did think “oh that’s cool with Sanderson” but I think I must have done the same cos if you ask me to recall any of it, I can’t. So yeah wasted on me too 😉

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    1. Thank you!! Ah yes that makes sense- in a way it really depends on the world the author’s setup on how easy it is to accept. So I guess in magical realism there’s that element where they’re trying to make it a little more realistic, so if they fail to do that it kinda shows up more.

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  3. Eurgh, Sanderson though from the one book of his I’ve read he does have a good magic system.

    Being a fan of Grimdark and darker fantasy I don’t like it when people can wield magic without any repercussions. There needs to be a cost to the user to counter the magical abilities. Otherwise, it’d just be magic v magic and with no cost no one would care or stop using it. It’d be mage v mage with no need for any other fighting.

    For magic. I like magic systems and think they add to books but I’m also not bothered if they are just glossed over with the bare minimum of explanation. Which sounds like I’m contradicting myself! But I’m not!😂 For some books having magic explained fits with the slower, deeper tone of the book and writing and works well. But for other books you don’t need or want elaborate explanations of magic, etc if they are a more fast paced read.

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    1. hehehe yes he does and fair enough!!

      Yeah I get that- I do like other genres as fantasy as well, which maybe explains why it doesn’t bother me all the time- I guess in some books the limit is how powerful you are, like in HP (although I do like and appreciate when there are costs- I just won’t hold it against the book if there aren’t). And that’s true- there usually needs to be some kind of limit or rules- even if they’re unwritten (like in LOTR- you can’t just do anything in that universe- not even get the eagles to give you a lift to Mordor 😂)

      heheheeh I get what you mean!! I probably sound like I’ve contradicted myself in this comment 😂😂 Yes for sure!! Also, I put more symbolic books (like Narnia) into that category (excluding one brief explanation of “deep magic”- I don’t question the talking lion if that makes sense)

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  4. I totally agree. The whole point of magic is that it’s magic, isn’t it? Sure, some systems are better when you understand how they worked, but they don’t need to do that. Especially if the society in the book wouldn’t be the type to research into the system of magic they have. How language develops in the brain is fascinating, but most people don’t understand it beyond how we use it to communicate. So why can’t magic be the same?

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  5. This is such an interesting discussion! I had never thought about it really – but I tend to like more detailed explanations of magic systems although, as you said, it can get a bit info-dumpy.

    Also I’m so curious about your trilogy now 👀👀

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  6. I’m pretty much of the exact same view. Magic needs to have some kind of rules or limitations, otherwise it’s all too easy but other than that who cares, it’s magic.

    If I’m honest I kind of feel the same about sci fi. I don’t care and probably wouldn’t understand the technology (as far as I’m concerned computers and the internet are magic) so tend to skim over. I just need to get the impression that the author has something behind it and isn’t just making it up as they go to force the story where they want it to.

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    1. I’m glad you agree! Yes for sure- it’s too boring otherwise (I was just saying to someone else, Superman was given his krypotonite weakness because he just became too much like god, saving the day without any trouble).

      And yes that’s true- I’m the same there too, though I do read less of it. But I think I often use the same fantasy rules (which I know has made my more sci fi friends mad, if I just say “who cares?”) Very true! My most important thing is not to break the rules the author’s created for themselves, cos that’ll make a logical inconsistency, but other than that I think most things are fine.

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  7. I think that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld wizards make fun of overcomplicated magic sometimes with their magic being so complex (and sometimes them making it more complex than it needs to be) that it’s barely worth doing most of the time.

    I usually prefer only light explanation of a magic system, but I do like some it to have some sort of limits and consistency so that Magee characters aren’t so obscenely overpowered that it doesn’t much matter what anyone else does and/or when they unleash their magic you’re left wondering “why didn’t you just do that to begin with?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes that’s right!! I love that about Pratchett 😀 I love how he’s able to make fun of things and simultaneously make them sort of lovable (if that makes sense)

      I agree! And yes, I do agree, it’s no fun if a character in a story can just do anything and save the day all the time (I heard a psychology lecturer talking about how Superman was given the weakness of Kryptonite because otherwise the stories just made him too much like god, where it would just be “something went wrong and superman saved the day again…” So yeah completely agree).

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  8. I totally agree Orangutan Librarian! Well about everything but especially that magic is a tool that I want to see the outcome of… there are many other ways to do the same things magic does but magic makes it fun and mysterious! I do think some kind of explanation is needed but like in the example of HP really all we needed to know is that there is a hidden world of magic running right alongside our own. We don’t need to know WHY and HOW its there just that it is, that’s plenty of explanation!

    But REALLY I LOVE the sound of your books!! Sounds like you thought it out, thanks for sharing! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think this is a perfect perspective. Give me the Harry Potter style of magical world-building any day — I’ve completely given up on high fantasy with massive infodumps. I have better ways to spend my time. (Just my opinion.) I was pleasantly surprised by how little infodumping there was in Game of Thrones — most of the inner monologues between action/dialogue advancement were totally relevant to the moment, or to building the backstory of the world or a particular character. So 6 or 7 paragraphs of that at a time I could definitely deal with.

    And you’re right — we can only take “but there has to be an explanation” to a certain point. If we’re going to have everything explained for us, then we are going to rob ourselves of the joy and excitement of the unknown and the mysterious. And if we truly *want* to do this, then, I’m sorry-not-sorry, but WHAT IS WRONG WITH US?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! Yes exactly- I really agree! I have forced myself over that hurdle a few times and found something great at the end of it (the first Canavan book, or Feist) but I’ve also just found some authors too long winded and never been able to get into them cos I can’t move for infodumps (Robert Jordan). Definitely agree with you about Game of Thrones!!

      Yes- exactly! hahahaha so true!!

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  10. First of all, thank you for reminding me about Sanderson! I have been meaning to read Mistborn for years now and now thanks to your reminder, I just put myself on the wait list to check it out from my library. Secondly, fantasy is my favorite genre and I definitely don’t try to pick apart the magic systems etc, that are huge parts of so many stories. I love being able to immerse myself in a different world that is nothing like reality so I have no reason to ground what I am reading in some kind of logic.

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  11. I totally agree with everything you mentioned in this post. I am reading the Wheel of Time series (I have been for the last 2 years) and whilst I love it, I find I need to take breaks because of exactly what you said. RJ goes too in depth on the magic systems (and everything else for that matter). For me, I actually really love the mystery behind the magic. I don’t like it being scientific (like in Star Wars episode 1 how they go on about midichlorians – just NO. The force is just that…the force!!). As usual this is a brilliant post 🙂

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    1. Thank you!! Yeah I’m not gonna lie that series wasn’t for me- I gave it my best shot- maybe I’ll try again later cos there were certain parts that piqued my interest. But overall, I also love the mystery about magic. hahahaha oh gosh you’re so right about that in Star Wars- and *that* is one of the many, many reasons I only like the original trilogy 😉 Thank you so much!! 😀

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      1. Hahaha same here, the original Star Wars trilogy is just…there is NO comparison. I love, love, love Rogue One and Force Awakens though. It’s just such a shame episodes 1-3 are very questionable (except for Ewan McGregor, he was awesome of course). Anyway I realise I have totally diverted from the original topic, I just like fangirling about Star Wars with people hahaha.

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  12. I don’t think how a magic system works need to be explained intricately. It kind of takes the… well the magic out of it all.
    I do like a basic explanation of what the magic is and what it can do but nothing more. It’s more magical that way. 😊

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  13. I really don’t care much about how or why Magic works in a fantasy setting either. Honestly I have always accepted it as being a part of pretty much any fantasy world. It’s ofcourse fun if an author takes the time to explain some things, but even it this is not done, it would not rob me of any pleasure in reading the novel 😊

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  14. Great post! I prefer less infodump and more explanation as I go. I hate to be bogged down focusing on one aspect of the system when there’s so much more going on to the bigger picture. I think a lot of it comes from me wanting to guess what’s going to happen or why something is the way it is versus someone just telling me. That really does take the fun out of reading the book like others said.

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  15. Fab post! I love fantasy and magic. No one can explain everything about magic or it won’t be a fantasy or imagination. As for detailed information it varies from plot to plot. In some books I enjoy reading all details/lengthy explanations and in some I don’t. So, I don’t think it matters to me much. Story is story, magic is magic. It’s good as long as I enjoy it. 🙂

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  16. Sci-fi\fantasy are my least-read genres. And I loved The Martian exactly for those beautiful scientific explanations. But what matters most is great writing. I’ll for sure suspend my disbelief if you’ve motivated me to. Great food for thought.

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  17. Fantastic post here! I never thought about this before so…well, now I’m thinking about it 😂 I have to admit that I’m not a fan of info dumping, I love finding out the world and how everything works slowly, as the story goes on. And if there are a couple of mysterious things that remain…well, it’s okay for me, I’m just a newbie in fantasy anyway 😂 I think it’s also so much better to try and somehow…make it all up in our heads, instead of being told every single detail? If that makes sense?!

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  18. I agree with you completely and I also think that going into too much detail in any genre makes the reading less enjoyable. I don’t want to know every single detail because the story loses it mystique. It’s not important for the reader and it comes across as the writer wanting to let everyone in on their “brilliance”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I agree! Definitely- I have found some fantasy writers want to prove they’ve done all the world building and have complex reasons for doing things… when really it would work better for the plot to just leave it out. Sometimes I think it’s better to be ruthless about what is and isn’t included. I get the temptation, but it doesn’t improve the reading experience, so I’d say leave it out. Thanks for your comment! 😀

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  19. ❤ this post! I didn't expect it, because majority of the time I read people 'giving out' about the explanation not being there so the fact that you've written this post from this viewpoint with some seriously valid backup is fantastic!
    Personally, I never want too much either.. just enough to make the story flow from scene a to b… it may be a personal preference thing most of the time, but it depends on the book as well… what it tries to achieve…
    I truly love your point about finding background info outside of the book itself or trying to notice the hidden meanings… I remember reading a book and I'd say about 40% of the things while readable and enjoyable, didn't add up to that 100%… when i had a conversation about that with the author, well, blimey- I got about 5 LONG emails about the background… classic case of when building your world/characters- how much to put into the story? what to leave out that helps the author stay consistent… but the line in some places is very fuzzy and some hard decisions need to be made.. in that particular case I would have liked the background information to be in the book (esp because it was a rather short one)… but by the author's words- they felt they needed to leave something out for fear of overloading the reader… it stabbed me in the heart though, because some of that background information in bits and pieces was more interesting than the whole book itself! … odd…

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    1. Aww thank you!! ❤ I’m so glad you liked it!! 😀
      Yes I agree for sure!! And yes I agree- some books set up a system that makes me wonder about the rules, but usually if an author doesn’t go into any of things I won’t worry about it.
      Ahh yes I totally get that, and I respect the author’s decision to leave it out, cos a lot of the time I’ve thought it *could* have been left out and done no damage to the plot (sometimes leaving it out might even have helped) but that is a shame that it would have actually improved the reading experience to know that- like you said it’s a tough decision what to include and what to leave out!

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  20. Really agree with you on this!! Some fantasy readers want a super-intricate, explained and utterly logical magic system, and I do really like and appreciate those when they’re done well, but by the same token I don’t mind mysterious and more vague magic if it fits too. Ultimately, it’s all magic! As long as the story is good and not blatantly self-contradicting or illogical, I’m happy.

    And you’re right with those hidden reasons: if every fantasy author tried to explain every little bit of magic in their world and tie up every little possible magical contradiction someone might point to, you would probably have a lot more info dumping and less good storytelling. I sometimes have hold myself back from adding extraneous info in my own writing because I realise it is not always necessary or relevant, and I am only doing it for fear someone might point to it later and say ‘you didn’t explain how this works’ or ‘this contradicts this’! 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much!! Yes I definitely agree!! I can always appreciate a well thought out system,. but yes, at the end of the day it’s magic!! I completely agree with you there!

      Yes, so so true!! Ahh yes I know- I worry that writing what I am writing right now will have too much in the way of infodumps, so even as I give more extensive explanations, I realise I’m gonna have to leave a lot out.

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  21. ““Scientific” explanation of witchcraft and wizardry”! People should turn around and check out science fiction instead of fantasy if that’s what they want! Hahahah Love everything you had to say and completely agree (gosh… I feel like I only know how to agree with you… :D) Do you plan on releasing that trilogy for us to indulge some day???? I’m curious of what your mind can come up with!

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  22. Well, yes I do “think that diverting the plot for a “scientific” explanation of witchcraft and wizardry would have made the HP books better”. Lol j/k.
    Just saying so so you can attempt to stupefy me while I respond with a jelly-legs jinx n whaddya know, we have a wizard’s duel going.
    But for real though, sometimes I don’t mind a little explanation as long as it’s not too much.

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    1. Hahahaha omg not if I don’t use HP’s parlor trick and expelliarmus this thing 😉
      Hehe yeah fair! I do have books where I really like the intricate systems, just wanted to let all the other authors off the hook a little 😉

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