I used to think that my tendency to pick apart the mechanics of fantasy novels was a sign of weakness in the whole genre, but I’m slowly coming around to the idea that it’s actually a sign of strength.
I realize that it may come as a shock to some of you that I- the author of the supernatural vampire thriller- at one point in my life, played a lot of role-playing games. But yes, it’s true! Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade, Rifts, Paranoia, you name it.
Among the many little inside jokes (and by inside joke, I mean mostly within the gaming community) that my role-playing game friends and I engaged in during that time was the concept of “rules – lawyering”. In our case, a rules lawyer was someone who quibbled about the rules of the game, often trying to use loopholes in the instruction manuals to their advantage.
For example, say, having your elf use a mirror to effectively “throw” a medusa’s gaze into another room, thereby turning someone who’s not even in the area to stone.
Can you use a mirror image of a medusa’s face to turn someone stone, or do you have to be looking directly at her?
Can one of your three wishes be a wish for more wishes ?
What if my vampire character constantly wore a hydration backpack filled with extra blood?
These are the types of question a rules lawyer would ask.
Interestingly, the idea of rules lawyering, the picking apart of scenarios, of fantasy worlds, and of plot devices easily crosses over to the reading experience, especially when you are reading modern fantasy novels from which we have come to expect complicated frameworks involving magic, alternate rules of science, strange psychic powers, a myriad of fantastical races, and the kind of genre-mashing that would have been unthinkable about fifteen years ago (Zombie-SteamPunk-YA fiction, anyone?)
I might watch an episode of Dr. Who or Grimm, or read The Joe Pitt Case Files or the newest Dresden Files, and walk away disagreeing with some of the plot points. My internal critic might be thinking: “Well, that vampire would’ve never walked into that trap!” or “How come the author changed the rules of time travel on us?” I often go on about this a great lengths. In fact, my wife and I- who are big Dr. Who fans- will often follow up an episode by discussing how events in the episode either affirmed or broke the previously stated rules of time travel and related technologies.
I don’t think this is unusual at all. I think fans of genre fiction (I’m using the term “genre fiction” here to describe fiction that is plot focused, including romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and so on) in general, and fantasy fans specifically are prone to thinking in those terms: questioning the rules that the writer has set up, questioning character motivation, and just arguing for or against the way things might have happened. In fact, there’s a whole website dedicated to this idea in movies called “How It Should Have Ended”
I used to think that this was a sign of weakness; that the questioning showed inherent weakness of the story, but now I’m in the midst of revising my opinion on the matter. Because of its elastic nature, and because of its reliance on rules, taxonomy, and elaborate scenarios, genre fiction challenges us to chew over the plot and its underlying ideas. And fantasy fiction- created in plastic worlds – (and by plastic I mean worlds that can be shaped or molded by the imagination ) challenges even more to take a closer look at the subtle mechanics created by the author.
Of course, there is a lot of bad fantasy out there too, and we question that as well, but good smart fantasy fiction keeps us coming back for the right reasons, and I think part of that coming back involves being a rules lawyer, asking questions that are difficult to answer, and exploring the gray areas. This is part of the power of fantasy.