The mage education rant, once again focused on training a protagonist in ways that will not trigger my automatic KILL reaction.
1) Have a setting and teachers that can physically stand up to the abuse.
I’ve read many stories of magical education where the protagonist makes some mistake in working with a water spell that then floods her school, or starts a forest fire in the lonely wood where she’s training, or transforms her teacher into a donkey. This is apparently supposed to be funny.
This is one of those things that triggers the KILL reaction! (Along with clumsy mage heroes).
Magic like that is dangerous. It’s rarely actually presented that way, even when the forest fire destroys hundreds of trees or the water damages priceless spellbooks. Instead, the audience is invited to laugh along with and at the protagonist, and I am invited to suffer in the sure and certain knowledge that later in the story, when the protagonist has to perform the spell again, it will either work perfectly or malfunction in precisely the way she needs it to to defeat her enemies.
I don’t see the funny side to this, really. Most of the time it’s simply the author’s skewed view of the protagonist. Any harm she causes is automatically Not Her Fault, because She’s A Good Person. Everybody brushes off the consequences. If someone dies, it’s always because He Should Have Known Better. The protagonist’s sheer quantity of power is extolled, as though being able to fling a fireball big enough to flatten a forest is some indication of heroic character. (See point 2 for a nifty little solution to that).
Wouldn’t it make more sense for the teachers to have prepared defenses against the malfunctioning of her power? Wise old mentor figures in fantasy are always warning the protagonists, gravely, about the dangers of misusing their magic and losing control. (I cannot remember one fantasy novel where the protagonist actually lost control and was held responsible for it). Yet they take no precautions against that danger that’s always occupying their minds—no shields to contain the spells, no water-proofing of the rooms, no rainclouds standing ready to cast down water on the fire. What the fuckity?
Once again, you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re writing a fantasy where the malfunctioning of untrained magic is humorous, in which case you’ll have a hard time asking your reader to take it seriously at the climax, or you’re writing one where it’s dangerous, so the teachers should treat it that way. Make up your freaking mind.
2) Some instruction in limitations and finesse would be nice for variety.
Most fantasy authors will nod and say that of course there are limitations to the magic in their worlds, things no one can do, absolute borders that no character can break. There have to be. “If everything is possible, nothing is interesting.” (I am already thinking of doing a rant in the next poll suggesting ideas for those limitations).
I will nod along with them until I get to the part where they break the rules for their protagonist and let her use power that, by their own absolute rules, she should not have been able to use.
The reason this particular shit-bit happens, I think, is because fantasists get obsessed with quantity, raw power. They want characters who are the strongest mages in the world. They go to the big end of the spectrum. A protagonist who absolutely must be trained, regardless of her wishes in the matter, will have enough power, in the climax, to call down a firestorm on the Dark Lord’s troops. That firestorms have been done, and done, and done, doesn’t matter. That “thousands of people,” in the authors’ own words, are dying, doesn’t matter; after all, they work for the evil guy, and that’s enough to condemn them. All that matters is the protagonist getting to hurl mountains or fireballs or worlds around. And their instructors focus solely on teaching them to do that.
I would like to see some instruction on limitations worked into the training, please. I would like to see some protagonists who actually can’t do everything, and get tugged up by those limits like a leash around their throats. I would like to see a wise old mentor say not, “Your power is dangerous because it could destroy everything,” but “Your power is dangerous because it could kill somebody,” implying that losses which are not losses of the entire world are still worth paying attention to. I would like to see some wise old mentors coping with youthful inexperience and enthusiasm about their power by teaching the protagonists to work under and with the limits. Quality, not quantity.
Even better, I’d like to see protagonists and mentors going in the opposite direction. No, learning how to reach out from a dozen miles away and cause the Dark Lord to die by restricting the flow of blood to his brain isn’t as impressive as reaching out from a dozen miles away and making his fortress fall on his head. But I bet you it would involve more finesse, and more control—and not just on the protagonist’s part, either. Fantasy authors are often skilled at the grand and sweeping, and utterly unable to convey the delicate (which I think is one reason so many romantic fantasy novels don’t work for me). They want to hit their audiences over the head or stun their eyes, rather than turning a key in their brains over a long period of time and going click at the right moment. Really, working with both ends of the spectrum is more interesting.
Have the mentors teach this, too. A protagonist who knows what she can and can’t do, and tries the small techniques as well as the large, would, I think, win far more than half the battle, and be far more likely to aim for some hole in the Dark Lord’s defenses that he hasn’t bothered to patch because it’s too small.
3) Keep the details as original and free of fluff as you can.
I like to read details of magical training. I like to know how one author’s fantasy world differs from another’s. I like the feeling that I’m exploring something unique, not yet another “the Goddess gives good people magic” or “people born in the right family can fling fireballs” world. (I think I will also do a rant on ten alternatives of linking magic to genetics).
However, when an author goes into detail, there is sometimes a smell. I walk around for a bit, smelling the smell as I read, hoping it’s not what I think it is. And then I stumble on the one telltale page the author’s written, and there is the source of the stink.
It’s Care Bears.
Well, not just Care Bears. It’s also crystals, and flowers, and unicorns, and “power from the heart.” It’s fluff. It’s New Age seeping into my fantasy, and all the while the author is trying to assure me that she’s created something new, something that can actually be dangerous. It’s hard to think of “power from the heart” as being dangerous, believe you me. It’s also hard to think of it as new.
Look. There are other methods of visualization besides flowers and hearts. There are other objects capable of conveying magic than crystals. There are other companions that can help the heroine beside unicorns. People who are not perfectly “good” and “pure of heart” and (yuck, hold your noses, here it comes!) “innocent” can still have magic. In fact, I prefer it when they do.
Not much to say on this one, really. Just, please, remember that your world is not and does not have to be New Age Central, and if you set yourself to work with these symbols, you’re going to have to work harder to convince your audience to take you seriously.
4) Consider the changes that magical education will make in the protagonist’s life and relationships with others.
It doesn’t seem to make much, most of the time. The protagonist still has the exact same revelations that she would have on any other quest fantasy, she still knows more than her teachers, she still “learns” more by accident and breaking all the author’s stated rules than by going through the actual training, she still ends up falling in love with the boy she hated at first sight, and she still winds up as the darling of a nation and/or groveled to by the people who made her childhood hell. If the training takes place in an academy, there may be other students jealous of her talent to spice things up, in the same way that spinach spices up a rainy day. It is all so very predictable.
Do you know, I have not known anyone—not in college or graduate school, not anyone who dropped out of either, or left for a time and then came back—who went away that unmarked by the academic environment? It’s astonishing, but apparently education, and being with teachers and in school, can do more to change, broaden, or embitter your mind than just giving you some handy-dandy knowledge that you use to impress people at parties. And this even happens in schools without magic!
No, the experience doesn’t have to be 100% positive. But please, don’t make your magic school or your magic training camp or your magic hidden place where the wise old mentor works one-on-one with the protagonist into just a setting. It’s stupid. If the protagonist is going to change only along forced patterns and only in ways that have nothing to do with her schooling, why couldn’t she just have remained in her village or with her family while she was trained? Add to it that she isn’t learning purely physical skills, but magic that the author insists is wild and unpredictable (oh, stop! Ha-ha! Ouch! My sides!), and I would expect the training to mark her even more intimately. Many authors write about the training process from the protagonist’s first awakening to magic to her “mastery” of it—“mastery” is in quotation marks because of all the times it actually results from luck or authorial manipulation instead—such that she hasn’t had experience of her full magic before the book begins. It may even come as a complete surprise to her that she has it. So show the experience being surprising, yes?
It’s going to change her. Show it changing her. Show her perceptions of the world altering, in more than the tiresome “This is so different from home!” or “I’m in love with that boy after all!” way. Show her interacting with people who have different goals in mind for her than her parents or siblings or the bullies at home did. Show her having to engage with people who have more experience, more knowledge, more talent, and more background than she does. Show how her family regards her if she comes back from training to hob-nob with them a while. It’s very, very easy for an “educated” person to act arrogant or snobbish to those whom she considers aren’t as intelligent as her, often without even realizing it. If you add the magical talent dimension, in a world where magical talent is rare, try squaring that.
This could be interesting. It so rarely is. Make it interesting. *pokes*
5) Why aim for academy training?
There are magical academies and universities in a lot of fantasy worlds.
Why? What do they do?
A large proportion of academia in our own world exists to perpetuate itself. Those who go on to advanced training—which many wizards in fantasy worlds do—are often aiming for a job in academia, whether it’s teaching, running a department, researching, or going on field expeditions. Not many people go through all that time and trouble with the thought of, “Knowing Russian literature will be valuable to me when I am checking cars for engine trouble.” Their dreams may not work out the way they want, but it’s rare for someone to go inknowing they won’t.
Given that, why are there so many wizards in fantasy universities? We have it on authorial word that they hate teaching, because they are so mean to the protagonist. We have it on authorial word that they are doing research, but that they’re also so hidebound that they’ve discovered nothing new in hundreds of years. And we have it on authorial word that they’re the guardians of something ancient and secret, but there are many better ways to guard something ancient and secret than inventing a university or academy that will draw attention to itself, and anyway, the guardians turn out to be incompetent and the secret gets out anyway. They can’t all be training to save the world, either, since only one person is born to do that. *Limyaael bops authors over the head for fate and destiny and making a person ‘born’ to do anything*
I want a reason that students, including the protagonist, want to train in the academy. Show what lessons are offered there that aren’t offered elsewhere. Show what knowledge is gathered there that the protagonist couldn’t learn just tramping down the street. (I would chuckle at the irony that so many times, the author sends the protagonist to a library or university and then has her learn the answer by chance outside the library or university, but I don’t think it’s purposely ironic, which hurts me). Show, in short, why the story is set there at all. The academy might exist to perpetuate itself, but a story that exists to perpetuate itself in an academy for no plot reason is slow torture.
“Magical training” really should be magical training as often as possible, not just an excuse for random episodes of platitude prattle in between the protagonist flinging fireballs, meeting her one true love, and saving the world from the Dark Lord. *pokes books like that*