Capitalism and Individualism in Magic Systems

Capitalism and Individualism in Magic Systems

Why is magic so focused on the individual?

This article was recently featured in The Aramchek Dispatch, a zine put together by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Club and Creative Writing Club at Cal State Fullerton. Unfortunately the block quotes around quoted material were omitted in that edition. Please note that full attribution of sources appears in the text below. 

The cover of The Aramchek Dispatch.
The cover of The Aramchek Dispatch.

Magic systems vary widely across the literary world, but almost all works of fiction that include magic have certain things in common. Usually, a character discovers that they have an innate ability to do magic, whether it’s through using wands or speaking words or some other method (or multiple methods). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, not anyone can be chosen to go to Hogwarts–they are selected based on an inherent ability that exists within them and is detectable by the Ministry of Magic. In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, magic users begin to learn their affinity for a certain type of magic by use of an elemental game board at a young age. In both of these worlds, and in many others besides, there are characters that are extremely skilled at magic–and some that have no magic at all. Even in worlds where magic is treated like a natural resource, such as the ley lines in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, the method used to tap into that source varies widely from character to character. Magic in these instances is inextricably tied to the individual and their own skills and abilities.

Why is magic so focused on the individual? First, let’s define magic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

magic, n.

The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft. Also: this practice as a subject of study.

Illustration by Evan Green opposite my article.
Illustration by Evan Green opposite my article.

In terms of fictional magic systems I would argue that this definition is incomplete. When magic is included in the world of a story it is used as a plot device–it will serve as a method to propel the characters forward in their goals or hold the characters back. It is the means by which the characters function in order to get what they want, whether it is used by the protagonist or the antagonist. Magic is a tool, often used in lieu of technology available to those in the real world, or as a way to supplement it. Think of Arthur Weasley from Harry Potter, a blustering wizard enamored with “Muggle” technology that was unnecessary for wizards, such as telephones and cars. In this sense, magic and technology are interchangeable–both are used as a means for humans to achieve their goals, whether they be small, mundane tasks or world-saving objectives.

Thinking of magic like a as a technological endeavor is not a new concept. Some scholars argue that magic was a precursor to modern scientific and technological thought, and that the reason was capitalism. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.” Greed and desire for profit, wealth, and control are what drove the industrial revolution, and so, too, drove the desire for magic. Magic was the bridge between desire and execution of achieving that desire. In his book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford argues that “It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” Think of the alchemists and the occultists of the 15th and 16th centuries that aimed to turn lead into gold–to use magic for material and capitalistic means.

C.S. Lewis, writing in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, argues that magic was not a precursor to science, but rather a concurrent practice.

There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak … There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages … For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

When we think of magic like a machine, or as a tool for humanity to use to bend reality to their own wishes, it is impossible to separate it from the world of economics. Magic was born from capitalist desires and is still inextricably caught up in it in modern fantasy fiction. It makes sense, then, why so much fiction involving magic is based on individualistic ideals. If magic is predicated by a capitalist desire to acquire wealth and power for an individual, an individual’s skill and ability to do such things are valued above all else. Characters with better magical ability are seen as competitors, not co-conspirators. And those with no magical ability, like Mr. Filch from Harry Potter, fall into the cracks of the magical society. As readers we accept this. In fact, we almost applaud the way that he is allowed to remain at Hogwarts and at least hang out with the wizards we admire, even if he’ll never be one of them. His identity is synonymous with his individual ability to do magic, a handicap of which there is no way to overcome.

The pervasive characteristics of individuality and capitalism within fantasy fiction is extremely problematic. These values that are intrinsic to our society find their way into worlds that are supposed to be drastically different than our own. Even in dystopian novels and end-of-civilization zombie movies, capitalism persists despite irreversible global changes. In the 2005 documentary Zizek! about Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Zizek states that “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” Capitalism is inevitably laced through our fiction, even in worlds that are supposed to be decidedly not our contemporary society.

This dependence on individualism and capitalism is stunting the growth of fantasy as a genre. Of course most magic systems are bound by certain rules in order to maintain suspension of belief–but what if those rules were different than the rules of capitalism? Magic would be a very different thing if it was imagined outside the scope of greed and wealth accumulation, outside the ways that it can benefit the individual. Magic could take many new forms–like social magic, coming from a collective rather than one individual source. Magic could work like a choir, a melding of voices of all types, not just a solo. In its current form, assumptions about its purpose and usefulness are placed upon magic without regard to why it exists, only what we can do with it. To reimagine magic outside the constraints of individualism would be to reimagine fantasy fiction as a genre.

Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers

AWP16ThumbnailTwo weeks ago I attended AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. This three day conference features panels, lectures, discussions, readings, and a huge exhibit hall filled with small presses and lit mags. I felt like a kid in a candy store, ready to gobble up as much delicious writing wisdom as I could fit in my mouth. I went to roughly a dozen panels and filled an entire notebook with notes. I can’t recapture the magic or the energy of the conference in a single blog post, but I will try to recount some of the wisdom I acquired. This will likely be the first in a series of posts, each one recounting a specific aspect of the conference.

This first post is about an amazing panel I attended on the second day called, “Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers,” featuring authors Cori McCarthy, Ingrid Sundberg, Jennifer Bosworth, and Amy Rose Capetta. This captivating panel discussed using screenwriting techniques in order to create a tight, engaging work of fiction, especially in the realm of YA. Of all the panels I attended, this one featured the most thorough and in-depth craft talk and left me feeling like I had tangible, concrete tools to make my writing better. I couldn’t help but start scribbling down my new ideas while simultaneously trying to take detailed notes–it was that inspiring! Here are a few of the main points touched on in the panel and my major takeaways.

Don’t Be Afraid of Structure12417794_10207689812656583_6309576477689884822_n

A lot of writers are afraid that they are stifling their creativity or making a “cookie cutter” plot if they use traditional story structure. However, the rigid structure of screenplays can actually create a tighter novel–one where your audience anticipates the story in an engaging way. It’s not cheating on “falling back” on a cheap trick when you use structure, either. The panelists quoted the wise Joss Whedon on the issue of structure: “Anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.” Structure is a framework for keeping your writing–and yourself–under control.

Ingrid Sundberg noted in the importance of of “The Midpoint.” When we think of plot in the typical 3-act structure, most writers focus on the inciting incident and the climax as the most important plot points of the story. However, the midpoint–which serves as its own de facto act break in the middle of Act II–can be just as important.

Ingrid used a lot of famous movie examples to push this point: In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape at the midpoint; in The Hunger Games, the actual games start at the midpoint; in Back to the Future, Marty McFly ruins his parents’ relationship at the midpoint; in Toy Story, Buzz realizes that he’s a toy at the midpoint.

You get the idea. The midpoint is important. Ingrid says that by moving a major emotional revelation to the middle, you energize the rest of your novel. This is a great tip for avoiding the dreaded “murky middle.”

quote1Cinematic Motifs and Visual Imagery

While movies are very visual, it seems counterintuitive that books would be as well considering they’re just text. But there are actually a lot of cinematic techniques you can use in order to add important visual representation to your novel. Jennifer Bosworth suggested creating elaborate Pinterest boards for everything; adding concrete and specific details to your writing helps the reader visualize and fill in the blanks.

When we think of cinema we often think of action movies–big elaborate fight scenes and Michael Bay-level explosions. But the panelists urged writers to find the cinematic nature of the story beyond fights. Cori gave the example of using metaphors as emotional language–for example, in her novel Breaking Sky, she would describe the characters’ emotions as being “revved up” or “stalled out,” which fit in thematically with the novel’s overall theme (it’s a school for elite fighter pilots).

Another good tip is to use film cuts in your writing. This is knowing where to clip off emotional scenes in order to preserve tension. For example, instead of resolving a fight, clip off the scene before it’s finished. Leave bits and pieces in the subsequent scenes so that readers don’t know exactly what happened.

And if you need to reveal major information, don’t do a “walk and talk”–where characters simply word vomit all over each other while walking down a hallway. Make it more active. Show the reader more and tell them less–use visual and physical cues as well as objects to show what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are trying to convey. And don’t resort to mundane actions, either: “shrugging” and “nodding” can almost always be cut because the actions are implied in the dialog.

Cinema in Genre and Contemporary Fiction

quote2When it comes to genre fiction, the panelists talked about the use of constraint and creative limitation. By limiting the magic, you carve the story. Don’t try to do everything at once. As Jennifer Bosworth suggests, don’t try to write, “Buffy meets The Ring meets the Bible meets Twilight.” Focusing in on one idea and confining yourself to its limitations will help create a stronger story.

But when it comes to contemporary, how do you make real life interesting? According to Cori, “Contemporary writing is cinematic in nature because memories are cinematic.” When we remember an important moment in our lives–our first boyfriend, senior prom–we remember very specific and vivid moments, not a play-by-play of everything that happened. Think about how the character will remember these moments fifteen years from now, and that should be the root of your scenes. And don’t forget that contemporary isn’t just straight real life–it can feel whimsical, too. “Fantasy has to be relatable, but contemporary can be fanciful.” (Cori’s one liners were totally on point during this panel.)

It’s hard to convey how amazing and informative this panel was, so I hope this post passes on some of the great tips I got from Cori, Ingrid, Jennifer, and Amy Rose. It was difficult trying to take detailed notes of everything they were saying while writing down all of the ideas for my own novel that were simultaneously whizzing through my head. Thank you so much to these amazing ladies for such a great panel!

On Meeting Authors

Melissa Meyer (right) and myself.
Marissa Meyer (right) and myself.

I’ve been very lucky in the past month or so to have the opportunity to meet with two authors that I admire: V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious and the A Darker Shade of Magic series, and Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles series. Meeting an author is more than simply an opportunity to get your books signed and pose for a photo–which I definitely do, but these things don’t represent the total value.

To me, the most valuable thing about meeting authors I admire is perspective. Even if you interact with an author online, getting to meet them in person confirms that they are a flesh-and-blood person and not a magical-goddess-robot-writing machine (though they may also be that. Who knows.).

But seriously: meeting an author not only puts their writing into perspective, but also your own. Every time I meet an author I go home feeling inspired and reinvigorated to keep writing.

For one thing, authors often talk about their origin stories–at V.E. Schwab’s signing in Huntington Beach last month, with Gretchen McNeil and Marie Lu, the three authors dedicated an entire segment of the panel to their origin story. They discussed not only the origins of their characters and stories but also their publishing journeys, and all the sweat and blood and tears that go into the arduous, lengthy process. This is all about perspective–it gives context to the wonderful book you hold in your hands, and it reminds you that one day your random word vomit might also be a wonderful book.

V.E. Schwab (left) and myself.
V.E. Schwab (left) and myself.

I always leave author events running through all the imaginary panels I might one day be on through my head. What will I tell budding writers about the writing process? About the misery and pain it takes to create long form fiction? What will my signature look like? What will my origin story be?

With the internet, published and aspiring writers can interact easier than ever. I follow most of my favorite writers on Twitter, and often we might exchange a few words together. How invigorating it is! How amazing it feels when one of your favorite authors likes a tweet you sent them, or one that you simply mentioned them in. To put your heroes on a pedestal far above you, but to have them reach down and touch you in the smallest ways. It makes a difference.

I have a slew of events planned this spring where I will have the opportunity to meet many more authors and creative people. I’ll be attending the annual AWP conference, the LA Times Festival of Books, and YALLWEST. But no matter how many times I get to meet authors I’m still always excited about it. My pulse quickens and I can’t help but fangirl a little bit once I lay eyes on them in real life. When it comes to your heroes, you really can’t meet them enough.

At a recent signing I attended, I saw a girl bring a book up to Andrew Smith to get signed. He’d already signed it the last time she’d seen him, but she wanted him to sign it again. One signature is a stamp in time: it’s “that one time I met the author and it was awesome.” But two signatures creates a new temporality, one that’s a constant exchange between author and reader, one that says, “I care enough about you and your work to come back again and again.” I hope I have that experience myself someday.

REVIEW: THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME by Karen Rivers

51gubUXsmpL._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME by Karen Rivers
Release Date: March 15th, 2016
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Format: Ebook ARC from NetGalley
Purchase: Amazon

The Girl in the Well is Me is one of those books that has you laughing and crying at the same time. I absolutely adored Karen Rivers’ unique and funny voice, and her ability to really bring you in to Kammie’s head even as she loses coherency.

Kammie is smart and funny, if a bit naïve about certain things. It seems at first that she is just an average girl subjected to bullying while trying to fit in at her new school. But as the novel goes on it’s revealed that Kammie is anything but average; and discovering (as she suffers in a claustrophobic abandoned well) her troubled past is half the fun.

I really enjoy Kammie’s character because she seems like the type of character that’s usually on the other side of the coin. Wealthy, smart, good at ice skating and horseback riding—she is the kind of girl that might be the antagonist of the story, not usually the on you root for. And in a lot of ways, I did dislike her–but her self-realization that she was not the best person is part of why I like her. She starts to realize that personal identity is not linked to personal wealth, and that she can be who she wants to be without being a wealthy, popular girl.

While the voice of this novel is definitely where it shines most, I’m also really fond of the overall structure of how the story is told. Kammie spends most of the book inside a well. The action comes from the things she hallucinates, her interactions with the people outside of the well, and the slow revelations of her past. Despite the main character’s relative immobility, this book is still a page-turner. I found myself desperate to learn more about Kammie and her past life, but also anxious for her to escape her current predicament. Rivers is good at creating atmosphere and really making me feel claustrophobic right alongside Kammie. The unique voice and premise of this novel make it a winner for me.

five-star