Editorial | Inconsistencies, Deus Ex Machina, and the Modern Fantasy Reader

If there is one thing that I abhor in literature and in real life, it is inconsistency.  I also despise inefficiency and incompetency, but those usually apply to the workplace more than to the bookshelf.  Still, inconsistency stands out as a peeve that has grown from a cute, cuddly pet—an endearing idiosyncrasy—to an enormous, vehement monster, which is ready to jump out and rant away at any time.  Usually this happens when I am alone in my room, but occasionally bursts out during conversations with people who always like me just a little bit less after the fact.

My friends would have me believe—and in fact I actually did believe for quite a while—that I am alone in these crazy tirades, but I have recently learned that I am not.  Indeed an entire generation of readers now thinks the way that I do, and our prayers have been heard by the gods of our beloved genres:  the Authors themselves.

You’re telling me no one knew how to make a new one of these?

It is frustrating, as I read a book, to discover that the plot creates seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the protagonist, only for the author to swoop in with a magical solution–the deplorable deus ex machina–that had appeared nowhere in the previous pages.  One brilliant example of this is the oft-maligned giant eagles in Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings.  The question every reader has after closing The Return of the King is:  “Why couldn’t the eagles have just picked up the hobbits at Rivendell and taken them on a leisurely three day flight to Mount Doom?”  Another interesting but rhetorical question, this time regarding the Harry Potter series, is, “If the Marauder’s Map was able to show Harry the location of anyone in Hogwarts, why couldn’t Voldemort make one to locate the broadcasters of Potterwatch in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or one to find Harry himself?  Was there no possible way for additional Time Turners to be made to aid in the war against Voldemort?”

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for a reader is a magical means to an end used at one point in a story–be it a spell or a magical item–that is conveniently forgotten later when the protagonist is in a similar situation, but the author needs the plot to move in a different direction.  The Dresden Files seem to lean on this quite heavily.  When all hope seems lost, Harry Dresden suddenly remembers an all-powerful spell that he has known about all along and uses that to save the day.  What I am trying to say, and I think fans agree with me, is that magic in any world should have some limits, just like technology does in ours.  Shawn Faust of Somofos puts it beautifully:

For me, immersion is the product of a cohesive environment that makes effective use of boundaries and expectations to define the experience. I’m willing to accept fantastic situations, but these situations need to be ground in an understandable framework [sic].

Fortunately, the bitching of the fans has finally ascended Mt. Olympus, or wherever authors are hiding out these days.  Creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski commented on a popular consistency complaint about the speed of the White Star ships–space ships that seem to arrive at their destinations when it is most beneficial to the storyline.  “They travel at the speed of plot.”

Brandon Sanderson, one of the most respected and beloved new(ish) fantasy authors, is writing for the fantasy reader that requires more than just a cursory acknowledgement of the rules behind magic.  As columnist Annie Jackson writes:

Literature has a history of ignoring rules when it comes to magic—it is magic, after all. But the 21st century is cultivating a new breed of reader who doesn’t take magic for granted. Sanderson’s laws appeal to their desire to understand how Dorothy’s ruby slippers transport her between worlds and why the Phial of Galadriel shines brighter when used by Sam vs. Frodo. From allomancy to surgebinding, the magic systems in Sanderson’s novels are both incredibly original and comprehensively detailed.

Inconsistency in magic rules, world-building, and even descriptive details is something that authors are beginning to acknowledge and work to change.  Both Stephen King and George R. R. Martin have admitted to using fans of their work to read and “fact check” for contradictions and mistakes in the books they are working on.  As a fan of good writing (and a huge fan of good editing/wink) I hope to see more authors take on the challenge to make a better pretend world for the discerning reader of fantasy.

Have you found a major inconsistency, deus ex machina, or minor flub that just drives you crazy?  Whether it’s in fantasy, science fiction, or muggle literature, leave a comment below and let us know so we can commiserate!


Filed under Books, Editorial, Tracy Gronewold

5 responses to “Editorial | Inconsistencies, Deus Ex Machina, and the Modern Fantasy Reader

  1. When Russell T. Davies was showrunner on Doctor Who, he used Deus Ex Machina in what seemed like every other episode! The tension built, almost too tightly, before unleashing some explanation – which didn’t even make any sense science fiction wise – to undo all the bad stuff.

    In one episode, Martha Jones saves the Doctor by having everyone on Earth basically sending good vibes to him so that he can reassume his powerful form. I don’t even…just…eh?

    (And that’s on top of Rose Tyler and Donna Noble literally gaining magic powers to save the world on other occasions. GAH!)

  2. I like your article and it made me think of how I view magic. I was going to post a reply, but it became article-length itself, so I think instead I’m going to write an article about the same topic, but from the opposing view. I hope you don’t mind, but you got me thinking and nerding out.

  3. Pingback: Will’s Summer Reading Recommendations | Sourcerer

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