TrackerNeil, on 16 April 2012 - 09:53 AM, said:
In my view, good characters make meaningful choices
, which I define as
- Decisions made of their own free will
- That affect the world in which they live
Magic can compel a character to act in ways completely at odds with their nature, which is equivalent to having them act with a gun pointed at their heads.
*de-lurk* I have to disagree with a lot of this. I don't see how this is specific to magic, and I don't see how duress is equivalent to powerlessness or loss of free will.
In order to have a story, characters need to make choices, of course. The kinds of choice that make a strong story are usually:
Placing a character under duress - a gun to the head, a child kidnapped, threatened with compromising photos - is far from removing a character's free will; it's placing them in a situation where a non-choice (give money to terrorists? no!) is turned into a choice (give money to terrorists? let son die? go to police? don't go to police?). And since the choice is difficult enough, it is very believable for someone to make the wrong choice (go to police? no, they said they'd kill him if I do! I will have to go after them MYSELF) so that their character can grow and learn the lessons of the story (it's okay to ask for help) as well as so that the conflict can escalate (I got shot and now the police think I was there to rob a bank).
There are two key differences I see with magical duress:
- If it's unsubtle enough it can be the equivalent not of a gun to the head, but being locked in a box welded shut. I don't see either of these situations come up much in fiction, and when they do they're usually brief and ended with a little help from a friend, or in the magical case, take the form of a dark moment that is 'easily' countered with application of willpower and theme.
- If it's the more subtle kind, where a person's priorities are slightly re-jiggered, or a person is made to believe a falsehood (e.g. that they love character X), then the character's free will is completely intact - their choices are just at odds with what we believe they should be.
Again, this situation doesn't require magic - it's attainable entirely through mundane deceptions. Creepy guy frames Bob for theft from Bob's girlfriend Amanda; C then puts on non-creepy act and manipulates A into marrying him. A then finds something 'off' in C's finances or overhears a 'business' meeting and sets off to figure out what's going on (the goal of the story). Now, in the magical version of that story, it's conceivable that A would be mentally blocked from noticing anything is wrong - but then there would be no decision to have a story, no Act 1 turning point. So this is the point where you just say, "In this magic system, you can change memories, but you can't put that kind of mental block."
I admit that there is a character development concern here: firstly, that their character has changed for externally imposed reasons when it could have changed due to internal decisions; secondly, that they get a convenient excuse for why they make any bad decisions they do while mind-controlled, so there is not as much opportunity for character growth. Nevertheless, the character is hardly powerless, and the tension created by this situation can be powerful enough to outweigh the downsides. The way to do it right, I think, is to either frame it in the Buffy style, such that the magic is a metaphorical stand-in for a non-magical thing like addiction or a 'cool' new friend; or to make sure that the character's growth arc is stable, either by making it tangential (the mind control is about the husband, but the growth is about the kids) or by brute force (she keeps trusting the guy then finding that her journal doesn't match what she remembers - until she learns her lesson: trust NO ONE, ignore that nagging voice saying that it's okay.)
Also, why is it so important that the choices affect the world? In my example, Amanda makes a choice to spy on her husband. It is a difficult choice with several possible alternatives (go to the police, just run away, or pretend the evidence is just her imagination). But outside of her head, outside of the subtle decisions she will make to linger a bit longer in doorways or what have you, outside of the horrible anxiety she will feel, this decision doesn't really affect the world. Nobody else will notice (until she screws up). I can't see why this wouldn't be a perfectly fine decision point to launch an Act 2.
Or do you mean 'the world in which they live' to include their own head, and only exclude, e.g., starving children in Uganda that the characters do not spend one moment of time considering?
Magic can also remove the consequences of a character's choices, by "fixing" the problems that inevitably result.
Again, I don't see it in this way.
A dramatic story is an escalation of problems.
1: Oh no, there is a Dark Lord! Help us, Chosen One!
2: Oh no! We need the Magic Mcguffin, but there are too many Dark Forces in the way!
3: Oh no! On the way to the Magic Mcguffin, the Chosen One has been slain!
4: We cannot win without the Chosen One! So we must scour the ancient texts in the ruin of Dangeresque to find the ancient spell of resurrection!
5: Oh no! The ancient spell of resurrection requires us to destroy the Magic Mcguffin! How will our hero have enough power to beat the Dark Lord without the Magic Mcguffin? Do we want the Chosen One or the Magic Mcguffin? Is it even ethical to keep the Magic Mcguffin, our best hope for victory, instead of using it to revive the Chosen One, even if he is doomed without the Mcguffin?
Ignore for a moment that it's totally lame, because well-trod tropes are good shorthand. The point is that fixing the problems that result from a character's choices is part of the basic structure of stories
. Inevitably, in a novel-length story, the protagonist will make some dumb decisions and someone will have to clean up the mess. What's important is that the mess exist, that it be real. What's important is not that everyone who dies stays dead, but that when someone dies, getting them back, if possible, is itself a serious problem that involves serious choices.
ETA: Not defending Gandalf here. Screw Gandalf.
Edited by kurokaze, 17 April 2012 - 09:13 AM.