Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Lessons
At first I was a little embarrassed that I was going to write three entries to run a full analysis of lessons learned from Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians. I was able to contain a short review, analysis, and lessons learned of the short story discussed in my first “Interrogating the Text” series in a single post. And then I realized: waitaminit… a novel is a lot longer than a short story, and there’s a lot more depth to what’s going on in a novel. It only makes sense that a complete textual analysis for a novel is going to be longer than for a short story. Heck… I’m probably missing a lot even confining it to three overlong posts.
That said, to get the full benefit of this post, you’ll probably want to check out the prior two posts discussing my reading of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: here and here. The first is a relatively spoiler-free review that discusses my initial reactions to the book. The second is a deeper and more thorough (and far more spoilery) analysis of why I had the reaction I had. Now, I want to bring it all together to talk about the lessons I think I can take away from all of that.
The short version, then, is that I enjoyed reading the book. The reason I enjoyed it was, mostly, for the high-quality prose, style and voice of the book, first of all, and for the clever twists and tweaks on common and sometimes-cherished, sometimes-maligned fantasy (and YA fantasy, especially) tropes.
The lessons there, are pretty straightforward: first, write well. Pay attention to craft, and to detail. Develop a distinct and engaging voice. These are things that take a lot of practice, but I find it hard to pinpoint specifically what it is about a style or voice that appeals to me, except to say that I’m drawn to intelligent prose. The other lesson has to do with playing with genre tropes and conventions. Tropes and conventions are, academically speaking, what define a genre for what it is. But successful new entrants to a genre don’t just rehash old tropes. They provide some new insight or some fresh spin. Author Brandon Sanderson talks about this a lot (both on his own blog/in his own talks as well as on the writing podcast he does with several writers called “Writing Excuses): and he calls it “blending the familiar with the strange”. At a genre level, it means taking familiar genre tropes and blending them with an unusual perspective on them. And Grossman’s Magicians delivers on that front.
But on the flip side, I found the ending of the book highly problematic. So much so that by the end a book that I’d found compelling and engaging throughout had turned and left me feeling dissatisfied and unhappy. The reasons for this have to do with difficult, unlikable characters and a baffling series of implausibilities and plot holes in the novel’s climax and coda. The primary antagonist’s power level fluctuates with respect to the rest of the cast – growing stronger or weaker as the plot seems to demand. Elegantly loaded Chekov’s Guns go unfired. The protagonist’s power level likewise fluctuates with the plot. Characters make noble self-sacrifices because the plot demands it, even if the circumstances do not. And the protagonist mopes and angsts-out because that’s consistent with the author’s theme, and not because he’s acting in a way that’s consistent with the character we’ve been presented.
The lessons from this are a little harder, but if I can learn them I can hopefully avoid these mistakes.
First: you can’t force it. This is a tough pill for a “planner” like myself to swallow. But when all is said and done, the climax and ending of a novel have to flow naturally – organically – from the characters and from the events in the novel leading up to it. You can have an ending in mind, really, but you’ve got to make absolutely certain that everything feeds it organically. There’s a famous quote, typically attributed to Mark Twain, that says: “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” The real meaning of this quote, as a writer, is that what happens in a novel has to make sense within the context of the reality that novels presents. If it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter how realistic it is, it’s going to feel false and hollow to a reader.
So taking this lesson to heart means being very careful. In the revision and editing process, it means going through the novel with a fine-toothed comb to find loose threads and plot holes, and fixing them. And in the writing process itself… it can mean abandoning a cherished scene or ending if it’s not working.
This also means you need effective foreshadowing. When you place a Chekov’s gun on the mantle, you’ve got to pay it off with satisfying uses of the gun. As an example from The Magicians: if the author has gone through the trouble of revealing that Martin Chatwin fears the magic buttons because he doesn’t want to be dragged back to Earth, the characters should at least think of using that tool. It’s okay, then, to say that it doesn’t work for some reason – howbeit the reason itself ought also to be foreshadowed – but never even touching on it after making the point and putting the pieces in place just feels like the author wasn’t thorough in tying things together.
Secondly: your protagonist can be a real jerk, in many ways. He can be a tough guy, or a cynic, or a criminal, or whatever. But somehow, somewhere in there, there’s got to be something your readers can identify with. There’s got to be something the readers can empathize with. The reader has to be able to see him- or herself in the protagonist, at some level. And most readers: they probably don’t think of themselves as being like jerks. That means your protagonist needs some noticeable, genuinely positive traits just as much as they need character flaws. Ditto for most of your main cast. A character who is wholly unlikable without any redeeming qualities? That’s a flat, card-board characterization, and it’ll hurt the novel. Yes, this often extends even to villains and antagonists.
Thirdly: downbeat endings are okay. But readers typically enjoy a happy ending. Not much you can about it. Sometimes a downbeat ending is what the novel needs, and that’s okay. But for the most part… that’s not what makes for a satisfying story. So if you’re going to do a downbeat ending, you’ve got to bring your A-game to every other aspect of the book, because readers will nitpick a book with a downbeat ending. Which is to say, I admit that it’s likely I would’ve forgiven several of the mistakes this book made if it had had a happier ending (and especially if Alice had lived, in particular). But the unhappy ending forced me to look more critically at the book, and to pick at the loose threads and plot holes until the whole thing came unraveled. If the work you’re producing requires a downbeat ending, then tread very carefully, and make doubly sure you’ve checked the boxes on the other elements of a story that can satisfy a reader.
Fourth: Be very careful about what your characters know and what they don’t know, what they can do and what they can’t, which capabilities they possess, and which they don’t. One of the most problematic aspects of the ending of The Magicians was the wild changes in power levels and capabilities of the various characters. The villain went from a being of Lovecraftian-level unimaginable power to an easily-outmatched, scared and abused English schoolboy. Alice suddenly advanced from barely able to cast even simple spells while in Fillory to casting spells of immense, arcane power – even as her peer-in-magic-ability, Quentin, remained pitifully incapable of casting almost any spell at all. As the story reached its crescendo of climax, these sudden changes and discrepancies in the characters’ respective capabilities wasn’t given a satisfactory explanation. Any of these problems could’ve been dealt with if there was adequate foreshadowing or explanation in the story. For a writer of such obvious skill and facility with words as Lev Grossman has, these mistakes are quite surprising. They are mistakes I hope to avoid.
A corollary lesson to all this: some mistakes are structural, and theoretically those are easy to fix. The problem mentioned in the fourth lesson above is one easily solved through careful planning – or very careful review after writing. But you have to be looking for the problem to find it. Meanwhile, what Lev Grossman does well - namely, writing with a compelling, intelligent, and engaging prose style – is something that is less easily solved, per se. It’s something you either know how to do or you don’t, and it shows through in your work. I believe you can, over time and lots of practice, develop the skill to do this kind of prose and style well, but if your draft is lacking in this regard, you can’t go back and re-engineer it and restructure it to re-infuse it with style. You can fix many of these other problems in subsequent drafts. You can go back and add effective foreshadowing. You can go back and give your character some trait or aspect that is more positive and likeable. You can change your ending. And you can fix suddenly changing capability levels among your characters, or you can add good explanations for why these capability levels change. But if the quality of your prose, or your style, stinks throughout: you can’t as easily go back and change it. You’d have to rewrite the whole thing from scratch when your skill and style had sufficiently improved.
And that’s a pretty valuable lesson for me, as a writer, I think.
In fact, it’s that final lesson that I’ve put into practice on the novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever, “Project SOA”. After putting down some 140,000-ish words on the first book of a planned series, I realized I didn’t have the skill to tackle the project. Not only did the story suffer from similar structural problems to those illustrated here, and many others, but it suffered from a much-more fatal flaw: a sophomoric prose writing style. And so, I put the book back in the trunk until I had sufficient skill to address all of those problems. Granted, I did this long before I read Lev Grossman’s book, so it wasn’t a reaction to the lessons I learned here. But reading this book brought to mind the realization of why I did what I did with that beloved book project.
So, that’s what I learned from The Magicians.
Now… as to the sequel to that book: I’m torn. On one hand, I’m still curious as to whether Quentin will get off his lazy, mopey, spell-casting keister and start questing for some way to bring Alice back. And I’m already holding out hope that the second book addresses that question. On the other hand: I seriously doubt that the thought has even come close to entering into Mr. Grossman’s mind: it was clear that the point of The Magicians was largely that Alice die. Now that she’s dead, her role in Quentin’s story is over, and I suspect/fear Mr. Grossman hasn’t given any further thought to the ongoing role she might play in his story. Has anyone read The Magician King who might be able to disabuse me of that notion – without giving away any spoilers, of course, or not too many, at any rate – or settle the concern I have? If so… do share in the comments, so that I might know whether The Magician King is worth adding to my “to read” list.