Causality in Fantasy Story-building

Dresden Files: You dipped your fantasy story in my mystery story… and man was it awesome!

I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. Not exactly a risky opinion these days, I know. However is an excellent illustration of my topic, partly because it acts as a bridge between Fantasy and that most causal of genres: the detective story. Jim Butcher is essentially a magical crime solver. His magic, the l world he lives in, and the situations  he finds himself in are based in fancy and myth and yet the way that the protagonist works his way through the story is reminiscent of a classic police or detective procedural. Harry Dresden may be a powerful wizard, but his main weapon is his brain, his ability to follow clues, and when all else fails — his stubborn insistence on following chain of causality no matter how brutal the path it leads him down.

Procedurals, detective stories, mysteries, and many other great novels of the modern era are all about linking that chain of events that leads the protagonist to the killer, helps solve a great mystery, or exposes a great wrong to the harsh light of reason. Part of the satisfaction of watching shows like Law and Order or CSI is in watching those links get made, bit by bit, even if we already know who perpetrated the crime. It is formulaic, but endlessly effective. Even subverting  this idea is exceptionally effective; one could argue that the story of Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones is partly that of a man of reason in a time when reason is vastly less important than position. In this fashion George RR Martin neatly subverts not only the idea of the Chosen one, but also the idea of the detective story, all in one go. Tough act to follow.

The protagonist does not have to be rational. In fact, lately we seem to prefer irrational, or deeply flawed crime solvers as a way of breaking the old formula of tough hard-bitten detectives with a soft spot for the dames. The chain of causality in this type of story does have to be rational, however, or it breaks the enjoyment of the reader far beyond simply subverting expectations. I’m sure a master writer can pull it off, but that is beside the point.

The basic narrative drivers of Fantasy have generally been quests, prophecies, great cycles, tragedy, Chosen Ones, or even just a desire for adventure. The causality driven narrative, be it a mystery, an investigation, or even a revealing glimpse at the grim mechanics of power that underlie an epic conflict, offer new possibilities for authors to exploit. The success of a causal narrative is in each link in the chain of events being logically satisfying and in the trials and revelations that the protagonist goes through to make the link. Naturally when the final link is made, something big should happen. Here are a few examples of archetypal Fantasy tales done up as causal narratives.

1) The Necromancer’s Bane: An unkillable necromancer has arisen to terrorize the kingdom. In most fantasy stories this would require that the heroes find some wise guide figure who can tell them how to kill the necromancer and then go on a quest to acquire the item, spell, or person than they need. The action is in the journey. In a more causal version of the tale, the heroes would have to study the black arts themselves and attempt to understand the necromancer’s powers. Once they reach an understanding of how to achieve the same unkillable state, which pretty much writes an interesting book in itself if your characters are fun, they can then move on to studying and understanding the necromancer and finally confronting him. A less grim version of the tale could be a military procedural wherein the heroes use their tactical acumen to analyze the necromancers capabilities, neutralize his forces, and then come up with a plan to defeat him without killing him. This sort of story presents a problem to be solved, generally a Fantastic/Magical problem and then follows the characters on the step by step solution.

2) Who Murdered the King?: A Fantasy world provides just as much fodder for a classic murder mystery as any other setting. In this case an important personage has been found dead and the protagonist has been called forth to solve the crime or is the only person who realizes that the wrong person has been accused. Magic provides plenty of opportunities and plenty of pitfalls in a murder mystery. Spells and magical abilities can lead to some creative capers, but the author must be very careful to use magic consistently and in such a way that the reader can guess how it has been used in the murder without prompting. This often requires a very detailed or familiar magic system with set rules, or a priori exposure to magic in the narrative. It is important not to make magic so powerful that it allows the protagonist to skip links in the chain of events. A spell that allowed the detective to speak to the dead and get a description of the murderer would make for a rather short mystery, for example.

3) The Mystery of the Fantastic: By far my favorite Fantasy twist on procedural narratives of any kind is the old x-files style formula of supernatural beings who have disguised their predations as normal seeming crimes. In this case the protagonists are people with special knowledge or dogged curiosity who see through the clever disguise and go about uncovering what sort of monsters are at work and exposing or confronting them. This can further feed into either #1 or #2 for a longer procedural. The Witcher games are an excellent example of this with the protagonist uncovering what sort of monster did what, and then researching how to kill said beast.


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