Fire Sale at the Magical Junkshop

It’s difficult to plot a fantasy novel without resorting to magical props to aid the hero. I’m not sure if this is a failure of imagination on my part, or just a reaction to the hundreds of fantasies I’ve read which require the hero/villain to find, lose, destroy, or give up the magical sword, ring, amulet, crown, locket, mirror, cup, diadem, or other miraculous tchotchke the author has built the story around. Sometimes I feel as if we’re all playing ‘button, button’.

About two-thirds of the way into The Bone Road I realized I’d fallen into this trap. I was so annoyed with myself I immediately had the hero toss the Miraculous Object off a cliff into the ocean. Then I spent several months figuring out how to end the story when there was no object to find anymore. I was pretty chuffed when I did, and I do think it’s a better story this way.

Of course I am not the first person to notice this. If you haven’t already, please visit TV Tropes and check out the pages on Chekhov’s Guns, MacGuffins, and other plot devices. Don’t plan on doing much else that day; it’s a very funny site and you can learn a lot.

If you don’t build your plot around magical bric-a-brac, you can build it around previously unknown inbred or acquired powers. (See Amplifier Artifact) I did this with Matcher Rules and it’s a lot more satisfying. For one thing, the hero doesn’t have to have extra large pockets for all the magical junk; it’s in his or her head. When I first read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I howled with glee about Rowling’s solution to the junkshop problem: Hermione’s beaded bag, not to mention Harry’s neck pouch. With an inbuilt ability, the hero needs to be breathing, period, although the world-building has to make the ability credible.This is a lot easier to talk about than to do successfully.

In both Dave Duncan’s Dodec series (Children of Chaos, Mother of Lies) and Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, the magical powers are bestowed by the gods for their own ends and the heros have to learn to use them and then figure out how to fulfill the god’s plan. Both plots are intricate beyond belief, and both come to satisfying conclusions. Go read these books! If you’re a writer, learn from the best. If you’re a reader, enjoy!