Magic as plot and magic as system
Whenever a work of fiction creates a world that doesn’t abide by our familiar rules, there’s a choice: how much do the creators constrain themselves by writing the new rules?
I used the term “magic” here, but the force that changes the normal rules can just as easily be advanced technology (or something else) as the supernatural. This can apply whether the use of magical elements are subtle or pervasive.
There’s two approaches creators can take.
The first is to treat magic as a plot device. This means you don’t define its powers and limits, but simply use it to let characters do things the plot requires — exactly how the plot requires them. If there’s an obstacle to overcome, you just make up a spell or piece of technology or something else that can do the trick. You can make it take the characters as long as necessary to complete it, and make it require as many parts or ingredients as you want the characters to have to track down.
The other approach is magic as a system. Here, the rules of the alternate world are explicitly defined. So instead of a magic-using character being able to cast any spell they dig out of an old book, people know that the magic-user is limited to conjuring firebolts, healing wounds, and creating forcewalls. Or whatever.
Obviously most works of fiction use some of both approaches. If you define nothing and change and make up rules willy-nilly to satisfy your plot, continuity breaks down, along with the ability to treat the system seriously. If you define everything, you have way too much time on your hands and will bore readers or viewers with too much information.
An example, from a show I’m currently watching, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In that series, creator Joss Whedon explicitly defines the rules of vampires. They have superhuman strength, don’t breathe, can’t enter a home without an invitation, are burned by sunlight, and can only be killed by the sun, fire, decapitation and the old standby, a stake through the heart. Throughout a combined 12 television seasons in the Buffyverse, Whedon never changes those rules — except in rare cases with explanations provided. That’s magic as a system.
Contrast that with this clip from Max Landis, son of director John Landis and the writer of the recent movie Chronicle, from his great 17-minute short about storytelling in comics, “The Death and Return of Superman”:
That’s the fundamental argument behind magic as plot device. In the Buffy example, Whedon uses magic as a plot device for most other uses of magic in his show. The plot calls for something to be done, so Whedon invents a spell to do it, and another spell to reverse it. Similarly, he invents a new species of demon what whatever’s required. A more systematic approach would have defined a finite number of types of demons and stuck to that finite list.
In science fiction, “Doctor Who” is very much a magic-as-plot-device show. Rules are written and rewritten all the time, with new races and abilities and technologies invented as needed. Only a few facts remain fixed.
On the other extreme, video games are some of the rare examples of entirely systematic worlds. That’s because everything has to be programmed in advance. So in a game like “World of Warcraft,” a certain type of character has a fixed progression of abilities.
Pen-and-paper roleplaying games, like “Dungeons & Dragons,” are mostly systematic, but through creativity on the part of the gamemaster and players allow for some rule-breaking. Generally speaking, though, in a game like D&D the player characters and monsters are drawing from the same list of powers and abilities.
Those are interactive fiction, however, which can demand a more systematic approach to provide structure and keep all participants on an even footing. Authorial fiction doesn’t need that, because there’s one (or several, working in concert) guiding voice creating the world. These works can veer from very systematic to very loosey-goosey in their treatment of their alternate worlds.
Different people have different preferences here. Personally, I enjoy a more systematic world. I find it makes the world more immersive and interesting. It also requires more work from the viewer or reader, which doesn’t bother me because I tend to either consume media enthusiastically or not at all. I’m never really a casual consumer of media.
That said, I understand that the focus of any work of fiction has to be the stories, not the world. I get why many writers aren’t interested in building elaborate worlds when all they want to focus on is telling stories without binding themselves with an encyclopedia of rules. But I think many of them underestimate the creative freedom you can still have within a fixed set of rules, and that especially on TV, many genre shows could be improved by a greater use of systematic magic.