Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Magic, Characters and Technology, Part I

I was happily critiquing a new chapter from one of my online fantasy critique friends this morning. The story is quite good, and I was reminded of a phenomenon I often encounter when reading stories like this one or watching fantasy-based movies. The people in these stories, at least the main characters or heroes, seem highly intelligent and many of their needs are fulfilled in part by magic of some sort. So, how do the authors or screenwriters write in the magic parts? How do they decide what/who will be magical and what/who won’t? I’ll address the Who in this first part.
In my MG novel, Delores Fletcher, Cobweb Catcher, I allow Delores to use magic pretty liberally. After all, she’s a witch. She flies on a broomstick, uses a moonstone pendant to remove a giant spider’s web and create a moat around a forest. The magic fits her character and personality; she’s a bit impatient and impulsive (teenager), and she’s the heroine.
Although not specifically addressed, this story could be set in modern times, i.e., one character, the mayor, does use a fly swatter. According to Wikipedia, the flyswatter was invented in 1905 by Frank H. Rose. This fact, if we choose to acknowledge it, would mandate that other parts of the story resemble our era. So why not have magical flyswatters for the general public to use? After all, in this scene, the mayor has also acquired a giant Venus Fly Trap to assist him with ridding his office of unwanted pests. Here’s the reason – the mayor is not a magical character, nor is he a major character throughout the book. He does not control the giant plant; he’s only borrowed it or purchased it. He cannot “control” it.
This is not to say that all non-magical characters are minor players, but most minor players don’t warrant a slice of the magical pie. By minor, I mean someone who plays a minor role in the outcome of the book. A magical being who only appears briefly in the beginning of a great fantasy novel will not be there without purpose. You can bet your magic mirror that he/she will appear later or be a catalyst for something larger.
The writer needs to make distinctions between the magical and nonmagical in order to keep the readers’ interest. It would become boring after only a few pages if everything were accessible to everyone. The mayor’s exasperation with a bug overpopulation comes because he has no power to change this.
Delores, on the other hand, does have the magical ability. So why not just have her wave her moonstone pendant and fix things? Well, again, that would be boring and not believable even for a fantasy novel - and, authors relish conflict. It’s what gives our stories interest, credibility and makes our readers use their brains while reading to try to guess upcoming resolutions.
We have to allow a great deal of humanity to reside in our magical beings; otherwise, we might as well write them as robots. The reader has to be able to relate to these characters in some way. Who can relate to a robot? We have to be able to feel their sorrow at the loss of a loved one, their anger at being used or tricked, or their joy at being able to work out their problems on their own. Our readers should want to be like our characters in some way or at least want to know them better.
So, even though Delores is magical, she is still dealing with her own demons. The conflict within her has to become resolved before she can resolve problems for others. The magic she uses to solve her town’s problems, i.e., magically creating a moat around a forest, pales in comparison to her personal triumphs.

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