Writing About Magic

Today's thought provoking twit comes from Nicholas J. Ambrose:

You don’t always have to write what you know. After all, who knows about aliens, or magic?

Which is a good advice. I often suffer of need to be exact in every minute detail. Still, I beg to disagree in this particular case. 

witch drawing a magic circle around the cauldron painting by John William Waterhouse

I don't want to go here in questions whether magic works or not. Those are far beyond the scope of this post and would require that we set some definitions first. For the sake of the argument let's go with fantasy moment of the magic, thus giving us huge artistic licenses and a waste playground to enjoy.

But even with that premise, magic is a well developed system, with its own history, rules and logic. It's a huge tradition. Many of traditions actually, but they somehow fit together. 

Of course, nothing prevents you from ignoring that and writing your own system from the scratch. But chances are that you'll end up with a story flavored with something that is named magic but doesn't have the strength of the real thing. 

That's why you should do your homework and research the magic if you want to write about it. Life is larger than literature. Diving in the thousands of years of tradition can give you more than just the props and a couple of fancy-sounding words. There are great stories in there. After all, if you are attracted to magic enough to write about it, digging in the grimoires doesn't sound so bad. 

magic ritual photo by Brock

Sure, you can stray from the course and add a bit of your own thing to the traditions. That's what writers do. That's what many magicians throughout history were doing, thus developing their art and creating new traditions. But for doing that you need to be familiar with what was there before you. You have to know to rules to break them. 

Otherwise, you'll end up with a cheap and thin fantasy. It's lame just like J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter. Harry Potter is just infeasible piece of cheap literature for anybody that has a slightest clue about magic. There are wands and flying brooms and potions and spells, but they are just props and scenery glued to the plot. 

Sure, one can't deny Harry Potter's success. Neither one can deny the success of the porn industry, but we don't call it art. If the main actress has a pointy hat and mumbling nonsense declared to be spells it's not magic. It's still porn. And no actor's wand will make it anything more than that. 

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  • Interesting post, but I still disagree. Knowing the rules with a craft is always handy – art and writing, for example – but knowing the rules of the history of magic – whether you believe in it or not – isn't something I can see being highly necessary. Why should a writer have to research the established history in order to be able to make their own take on it? Why not create something from scratch without knowing the details of the past pertaining to it? If you're creating something, it is what you want to create. If I want to write monster horror, I don't research every myth and piece of fiction related to monsters past cultures believed in, feared or revered.
    Sure, some knowledge of that is a good thing. I won't dispute that. But unless you're specifically attempting to emulate the thing you're writing about, rather than forging your own version of something, then I disagree with the sentiment that you ought to research full history of it. And attacking a piece of literature just because you disagree with the way something is presented according to its history ultimately suggests snobbery that prevents you from being able to accept the positives of something that doesn't conform to your belief system or standards for magic-related fiction. I, for example, do not believe in God – but Stephen King's Desperation, a novel so rife with references to God that the conclusion hinges upon it, was a fantastic book, and one I did not call into question based on its contradiction to my own beliefs.

  • Oh, I'm not advising researching the full history of magic. That is too much even for the anthropologists, let alone for a writing project. But writing a good magic novel without some knowledge about magic doesn't seem like a good idea. 
    Let's see it on a more mundane example. Do you think it's possible to write a good novel about WWI pilots without knowing what types of planes were around at that time, what they could do and how it felt flying them? Hardly so. One can try but it would end up in a story about some people flying and fighting planes with two pairs of wings. The rest of the story would crack for every reader that has a bit of passion for WWI. And that would be the majority of the audience. 
    In your own example, Desperation is a great literature for both believers and atheists because King did the homework and he haven't just invented God to spice up the story. The whole logic of the religion stands whether one is a believer or not. 
    BTW, I'm not attacking Harry Potter because it doesn't conforms with the witchcraft traditions I'm familiar with but because it simply uses the scenery even thiner than pop-culture. And it's not just about witchcraft. At one novel, the big snake is there chasing the heroes and it's all suspense until the snake hears Harry moves. Nice for a cartoon about a reptile from some other Universe, but in this one snakes can't hear. They feel vibrations from the ground, but they can't hear and they can't determine where the vibrations come from. J.K. Rowling is just a lousy researcher that packs teenage stories (not that I have anything against teenage stories) in what she (correctly) thought would be a well-selling scenery. 

  • Yes, I can accept researching about WWI pilots for a WWI-themed novel – however, that's something that's grounded in reality. The tip regarding writing what you know, and referring to magic is applied on the basis that people that write about such things don't actually believe in witchcraft. If you do, then yeah, by all means do your research so your book conforms with the rules of your belief system. But if you don't, what's the point in researching the history of something you don't believe in if you want to create your own spin on something? That's the magic of writing – being able to put your own twist on something, or completely reimagine it, without having to conform to some arbitrary rulebook. It's like if I decide to write a book about ghosts. I don't believe in them, but should I research everything related to ghosts and the types of ghosts 'recognised' by the people who do in order to comply with the apparent 'rules' of the ethereal world? Or should I be able to do what I like with my fiction, and create my own unique flavour or spin, without something else guiding me along? Otherwise I'm not doing much of my own at all – I'm merely tacking on an extension to a road travelled many times before.
    Are you referring to Chamber of Secrets, and the encounter with the Basilisk? Because Basilisks don't exist in the real world, and I'm pretty sure there's not a rulebook regarding the hearing abilities of such a creature. Rowling chose a creature that exists in fantasy and applied her own take on it. To call Rowling's own take on something into question because it's 'thinning down' a legend is ridiculous. It's like picking apart all these vampire and werewolf books so pervasive in YA fiction now because they don't honour the true legends set out centuries ago. These books are called 'fiction' for a reason.

  • I knew we'd come to vampires sooner or later :)
    Well, I skipped the whole trend so I couldn't really say much about it. But as far as I got it it doesn't have to do much with vampires, they don't even look like they should do. Which is OK if ones aim is to create franchise for the teenagers. For anything that will survive a couple of seasons until something other grabs the attention of the kids (like comeback of Melrose Place or something) it is a complete miss. But with that logic in mind, one can write anything about anything. No big deal. Speaking of vampires The Addiction is a great movie. It really explores its theme instead of showing some nice looking kids going to high-school or whatever.
    Back to witchcraft and magic…. by all means author is to enter its own spin. That's what the fun of the job is. But unless there is some substance audience can relate to, what would make that story being about magic? 
    Or if it is a ghost story… if I write one about ghost, but that ghost is just a blob of fog floating in the backyard but not related to deceased owner of the house not trying to interact with the current inhabitants… is it really a ghost story?

  • I feel you're both hitting the nail of my point on the head and then entirely missing it. "But with that logic in mind, one can write anything about anything." Yes! Exactly! That is the marvel of fiction! That's why it's so great! I don't have to know everything there is to know about pirates in order to write about pirates, or spin my own take on them. It's how fantasy works, and it's how ideas continue to develop instead of just stagnating and becoming constantly samey as extension after extension is added onto something that already exists.
    You're making the assumption that anyone that reads about magic either knows the history of magic, or believes in it enough that they want any piece of fiction pertaining to it to honour its histories and origins. That's simply not how the majority of readers work. They read for escapism. The millions and millions who've read the Harry Potter series don't believe in magic, but that doesn't mean they can't connect with the story because Rowling has created, as you think it, a 'hackneyed' version of witchcraft and its surrounding universe. Just the same as people who don't know a lick about vampires and the legends surrounding them have been able to connect with all of these franchises popping up left, right and centre for the YA audience.
    If your ghost story is a blob of fog, then sure, why not? If the story has got some kind of interesting conflict in it, and that is how ghosts work for you in this specific work of fiction, then why not? I read a ghost story several years ago that didn't even feature ghosts at all – not in any traditional sense, which is what you seem to be implying. It didn't stop it being a ghost story, though, and it didn't water down my experience because of that particular author's almost surely non-conformist take on the topic.

  • We are talking two different aspects of the literature here, hence the hit and miss problem. 

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