Breaking the Laws of Physics

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Susan Quinn
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Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by Susan Quinn » October 5th, 2010, 4:09 pm

Being a scientist, you would think the laws of physics would be imprinted in my brain. And they are, at least when the brain is fully wakened by sufficient caffeine injection. Yet, I recently found myself longing to break the laws of physics in favor of fashion.

Bad scientist! I know.

Every genre has its rules, or conventions, that can be broken or bent, given enough writerly talent. But whether you’re writing high fantasy or hard science fiction or contemporary romance, there are certain rules governing your (fictional) world that must be obeyed.

The good news: You get to make up the rules!
The bad news: You have to follow them all the time.

In one of my stories, the opening scene has my steampunkerish protagonist running through a dark forest. Naturally, we need gear for such a thing, and I originally dreamed up some gorgeous bug-eyed light gathering goggles (let's call them goggicals), complete with leather straps and lots of bolts to hold some awesome hand-ground objective lenses. The only problem was some persnickety laws about the conservation of light and the field of view during magnification. Unless I was willing to break the laws of physics, my goggicals would have looked like binoculars and wouldn't do much for running through brambles in low-light conditions.

But they looked so cool! Well, in my head, anyway.

The laws of physics get broken all the time in fiction, but you must either 1) have plausible reasons for it (gravity in space? Sure, with my special gravity boots) and/or 2) consistently apply said broken rule throughout your story, which can have effects beyond the simple device you’ve dreamed up.

Example: Your protagonist has the ability to turn lead into gold. Useful, but how did this ability come about? Is this person a King Midas with no control over their touch or can they stop when they want? Will they inadvertently turn the trace amounts of lead in a house/toy/person into gold as well, or only solid nuggets of a certain size? Why can they do it, but no one else can? Or does everyone have this latent ability, just waiting to be expressed?

Answering these questions will help build your world and make sure you keep consistent in applying your broken rule throughout your story.

In the case of my protagonist’s goggicals, having light magically multiply itself was a broken law with far-reaching consequences, too painful to explore for my purposes. Much easier to bring a lamp.

You can break the laws of physics all you like, and with the craziness of quantum mechanics to play with, there’s lots of room for conjecture and outright hookum that may not be breaking any laws at all (alternate worlds! Dark matter!). Just make sure you fully explore the impact on your world before you build a story around it.

Once you break a law, are you careful to explore the consequences? Or do you stick to realistic worlds where normal laws of physics apply?
Susan Kaye Quinn (young adult and middle grade author)
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Mira
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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by Mira » October 7th, 2010, 3:42 pm

Susan - I like this. I think it holds true not just for physics within Sci Fi, but for magic in Fantasy and characterization in general. This is what can make characterization so hard, actually, once you set up a 'rule' for your character, you really have to stay true to it, or the reader will start questioning believability.
Consistency within your world and your characters - Interesting topic - often overlooked. Thanks.

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Evelyn
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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by Evelyn » October 16th, 2010, 1:40 pm

Good one, Susan! Bravo. I liked your essay a lot.

(Whine: But those rules are so pesky! Do I reeeeeally have to follow them?)

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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by sbs_mjc1 » October 17th, 2010, 10:23 am

Evelyn wrote:Good one, Susan! Bravo. I liked your essay a lot.
(Whine: But those rules are so pesky! Do I reeeeeally have to follow them?)
I actually love having the rules of my/my co-author's fantasy universe set out firmly set out. It makes plotting much easier, as there is it 1) reduces "choice overload", and 2) forces the characters to actually resolve problems instead of just getting someone to use magic and fix it for them.
Susan Quinn-- it's funny you mention you're a scientist as well. I'm a marine biologist, and my co-author Michael is a particle physicist. So he worked out a whole theory for how the magic in our world works that makes sense and doesn't violate the rules of physics (not that I would know... I only took the most basic mechanics course).
So yes, we really chase down the consequences of our rules, which has actually been quite fun.
http://sb-writingtheother.blogspot.com/
FORGOTTEN GODS is out September 17th 2011! Check the blog for details.

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Susan Quinn
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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by Susan Quinn » October 17th, 2010, 11:21 am

Hey SBS & MJC1! Nice to meet some fellow scientist/writers. I have Phd in Environmental Engineering, with degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace along the way. It's fun to play with the physics behind the magic, isn't it! I find myself doing that, whether I want to or not - can't help it. ;)
Susan Kaye Quinn (young adult and middle grade author)
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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by sbs_mjc1 » October 17th, 2010, 6:16 pm

Impressive! I (S.B.) just play with things like fish and plankton in the North Sea.

In our novel, Michael worked out that the magic-using creatures can manipulate energy, meaning they can create matter, or turn it back into energy (how exactly they do this is the "magic" bit, along with some limitations on what they can do). It was actually pretty fun thinking about the logical consequences of that.

What are you doing for your story, Susan?
http://sb-writingtheother.blogspot.com/
FORGOTTEN GODS is out September 17th 2011! Check the blog for details.

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Susan Quinn
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Re: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Post by Susan Quinn » October 17th, 2010, 6:26 pm

My MG novel that I'm querying has everything from anti-matter engines to dark energy collectors to prop open wormholes. And cool hover scooters and a lot of genetic engineering. Inventing stuff for that story was all kinds of fun.

My current WiP is a YA novel that is mostly paranormal, but has a scientific basis for the mind-reading, as well as a few tech gadgets for the future.

I like the energy-conversion creatures! Cool. I'd love to see more science-based stuff in kids books - hook 'em early! :)
Susan Kaye Quinn (young adult and middle grade author)
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