Imaginary Imagery

Posted in Savor The Flavor on January 7, 2009

I've never run someone through with a broadsword, feeling their lifeblood pouring hot over the hand-guard.

Stick with me here.

I've never smelled the miasma of a dragon's sulfur-suffused, volcanic den, or felt my face crackle and blister in the heat of its breath.

I've never fallen screaming through the chaos of the Blind Eternities, the liquid rules of interplanar existence bending momentarily to the authority of my spark.

And yet it's my job to write convincingly about these things. It's my job to surround you, the reader, with concepts and imagery that help put you into Magic's fantasy worlds, despite never having directly experienced them myself. It's my job to put you into shoes I've never worn.

How does one do that?

    Extrapolate from the Known

We don't know what it's like to experience the more bizarre aspects of a fantasy setting—that is, in fact, the whole point. But in order to connect with these unreal realities, we need ways to bridge the gap between our mundane lives and the magic of fiction. But there's hope lodged deep in our brains. One way to build that bridge is to use the power of analogy.

We don't know what it's like to be crowned Lord of Benalia, be serenaded by the Siren's Call, or be assaulted by a lightning elemental. But we all know what it's like to get a good grade or promotion, to suffer the mind-invading insistence of a commercial jingle, or to get a static shock from a humming TV set. Those are experiences we've actually had, and the writer can extrapolate from our knowledge of those common experiences to draw correspondences in a fictional world.

Educators and physicians use analogy all the time to explain difficult technical concepts to their students or patients. They lean on our knowledge and our brains' natural tendency to perceive similarity to give us the power to make the leap to more abstract or complex ideas.

It's at this point that we play that favorite game of contemporary philosophers: the "Aristotle Already Said This Thousands of Years Ago" Game!

"By a 'sense' is meant what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter. This must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold; we say that what produces the impression is a signet of bronze or gold, but its particular metallic constitution makes no difference: in a similar way the sense is affected by what is coloured or flavoured or sounding, but it is indifferent what in each case the substance is; what alone matters is what quality it has, i.e. in what ratio its constituents are combined."
—Aristotle, De Anima, Book II

This is one of Aristotle's more famous analogies about the soul or the mind. What is the mind like? How does perception work? How is it possible for our minds to perceive the essence of external objects and abstract away the nonessential details? It's like pressing a signet-ring into wax, he says. The mind is like wax, in that it only retains the pattern or form of the ring, not the trivial details of the metal it's made of.

Aristotle used analogy all the time to explain philosophical concepts. He knew that one of the best ways to allow a mind to wrap around an esoteric idea was to relate it to more familiar ideas.

One problem with using this extrapolation-from-modern-life method in fantasy writing is the way anachronism hems in the range of possible analogies. I'd love to be able to compare the surface of a lightning elemental to the crackle of a just-activated cathode ray tube (which, among other things, was why it was so fun to write my article Spark. And science fiction stories have free reign to use analogy to modern-day technology and culture to extrapolate to their wild futures. But there aren't any TV sets in a strict fantasy universe (just like there aren't any modern-day swear words). So inside of a fantasy tale, you don't have access to modern-day material for metaphors.

Luckily, there are other methods of bringing the modern mind into the fantasy realm.

    Build on Precedent

If I told you that there was a trail of smoke emanating from the mouth of a large cave, the glimmer of a hoard of gold coins from inside, and a rash of reports of livestock disappearances from the surrounding farmlands, what would you guess is lurking in the cave? That's correct: Dick Cheney. But seriously folks...

Another way the writer can bring you into a fantasy world is to evoke a culture's shared tropes of fantasy literature. Magic's Lorwyn and Shadowmoor settings drew heavily from the folklore of the British Isles, and the plane of Kamigawa, itself a "land of a thousand stories," drew on legends from Japanese culture. To some degree, the author doesn't have to figure out how to describe a goblin or faerie to you—he or she can use the term, and you already have a set of expectations about how that little bugger is going to look and behave. You probably know more of these common themes in fantasy than you think, and not just easy stuff about dragon's lairs:

What kills a werewolf?
Which is bigger, a brownie or a leprechaun?
What kinds of things can a vampire turn into?
What do dwarves enjoy drinking?
What's your reward when you free a djinn from a lamp?
How do you make a giant sneeze?
What's a centaur's signature weapon?

Arguably, if you or I were thrust into a fantasy world—assuming it was a fairly classic world, where all the usual tropes applied—we'd actually fare pretty well. "You say your kingdom's under a curse, and the princess has fallen into suspended animation? Um, have you tried kissing her? Come on, people—this is preschool stuff." Imagine the amazed faces of a classic fantasy town's populace if they were stumped by a magically sealed door—and you just happened to know the magic words to open it. I'll bet you can think of three or four phrases to try right off the top of your head.

By utilizing (and then by slightly stretching) these accepted fantasy precedents, the fantasy author can bring you into the setting. Most readers come to the story already armed with a set of expectations and intuitions about a fantasy world, so the author merely has to pluck those chords within the reader for the world to feel as if it resonates.

    Just Make it Happen

But what if the fantasy concept you're trying to communicate is so outlandish that there's no conceptual safe ground from which to build an analogical bridge? What if the imagery you're trying to spin yarns around far outstrips the collective body of fantasy precedent?

Well, if you're an author in that predicament, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is, there is still hope. The bad news is, you're waaaay out in what I call "flavor country." You're trying to get hunks of English to stick to the slippery surface of this brilliant but fundamentally bizarre monolith of fantasy that's lodged in your head. So what do you do?

You work. This is what being a writer is about. You're in the deep end of imagery and description now, and you've got to flail those creative limbs of yours to make any kind of progress.

As an example, I feel like this whenever I'm describing the Blind Eternities—the whole idea is that the chaotic space between the planes is a description-defying nightmare, a black hole from which no eyewitness testimony can escape. And yet, that paragraph of Ajani on his first planeswalk (or whatever) really needs to be in that novel, and to understand what he's going through, you've got to try to describe it.

You edge your way in partly with analogy to common experience, and partly with references to known fantasy tropes, and then you just use wordcraft to move on from there. Sometimes you tell the reader what it's not like, what preconceived notions the reader should give up when trying to imagine the phenomenon at hand. Sometimes you can rely on the reactions of the characters there in the story to create a sense of the phenomenon—maybe they respond to the presence of an archangel with gasps and tears of joy; maybe they respond to the feeling of being targeted with a Cranial Extraction spell with tears of another kind, plus a bonus involuntary gurgling sound.

A writer has a lot of tools in his or her tool-fanny-pack (belts are not common author attire, see) to communicate the landscape of the fantasy world underneath the story. Describing the outlandish marvels of fantasy is not always an easy road, but that's exactly why we like to walk it.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Insights from the Inbox":

Hi Doug. I am curious about the flavour of the Bant creature Knight of the Skyward Eye. He is a 2/2 which is standard for a knight, but by investing 3G mana he can be made a 5/5 until the end of turn. This is very large for a single human knight, so I was wondering what the flavour of his pump ability is? Does he have a Wand of Giant Growth that he carries around with him?


When a creature has an off-color activated ability, I like to think of it as a spell that is always ready to be cast on him. In a way, he's a Bant knight who's trained at being the recipient of a typical, green Giant Growth-style spell. Now, it's not actually a spell, since it's an ability of the knight himself, so it's something like a magical knack or martial art that he's been trained with. Bant military forces are very adept at using blue, green, and white magic to supplement their combat abilities, so that seems pretty logical. But as a knight he's probably not the kind of guy who can tap into green mana himself. So he's a member of a frontline cavalry that gets into a fight with the enemy, and then receives a huge +3/+3 bonus to his size and strength, allowing him to punch through to victory. This is especially handy in Bant, where battles are often decided by single combat between the sigil-blessed champions of either side.

As a quick additional letter today, I'm responding to Jared's email, below, with this response: "I see what you did (or are about to do) there."

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Flavor of Zones":

If I respond via email, doesn't that mean that my email should resolve before you even post your article? What gives? If my email does in fact resolve (you may counter it) why does it resolve second even though it is on top of the stack? And then if my email does resolve first, how then do I know what you wrote about seeing as I did not see your article at the time I wrote my email?

Flavorfully yet subjectlessly yours,


The stack is now empty. Have a great week!

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