This article is the fourth installment of my In Fiction series. Check out my articles about Vampires and Werewolves as well!
The terms witch, wizard, warlock, and sorcerer are only a few of the many names given to describe humans with magical abilities. In fiction, any of these can be used and reimagined, but they all have one thing in common: Magic. I previously wrote an article about magic and magic systems in fiction, which you can read here, but for this article, I’m going to focus specifically on the humans with these gifts, what makes them what they are, and how their legends have evolved over time.
For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to all magic bearers as witches from here on.
Witches have been known throughout history for centuries. After some brief research on History.com in their article History of Witches, I found that one of the earliest recorded accounts of witches comes from the Bible in the book of 1 Samuel, where it names the Witch of Endor. This is thought to have been written between 931 BC. and 721 BC. In this time and throughout history, witches have been thought to be evil creatures. Of course, recently, the narrative has changed to a much more positive one, but the dark tales remain prominent in lore.
In fiction, I’ve seen witches being used in an assortment of ways. Unlike other mythical creatures, whose powers are generally well known and limited, witches have a lot more freedom in what they can and can’t do. As such, no two stories about witches seem to be the same. In famous stories like “Harry Potter”, magic is a general hard system in which witches (and wizards) are simply born with magic and learn different spells with the use of wands. This is a traditional view of magic in European stories. Other times, witches don’t require wands to channel their magic, such as in TV shows like “Merlin” and “Vampire Diaries”, or in book series like “The Inheritance Cycle”, “The Beyonders”, and “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel”.
The thing about using witches in your stories is to know what they can and can’t do. You need to establish the rules within your story so that it flows naturally. The worst thing is reading a story where the characters are in a bind and magic saves the day unexpectedly. That’s forced. Well, let me rephrase—if it’s completely out of left field, it’s forced. Something I personally struggle with in my stories is either making the characters way too overpowered or making the problem too hard for the characters to solve. Sometimes it’s both. At this point, authors can be tempted to just let magic conveniently fix everything, but that’s not exciting to readers, nor is it very good writing. It communicates to the readers that the author didn’t try hard enough to find a proper solution—even if that’s not what happened behind the scenes.
When using witches as your main characters, it’s important to let the reader know what’s going on. You may have a character learning magic along with the reader, and so spells and other information need to be taught to them, and that’s all well and good. But what if your main character already knows magic? How can you expect the reader to know what’s going on? The trick: repetition, repetition, repetition! Are the incantations important? Repeat them often, and don’t use too many different spells at once. If the words themselves aren’t, or if the specific spell isn’t, it’s easy to just call it an “unlocking spell” or a “healing spell”.
Another hint: keep track of your spellcasters’ power levels/power sets! This may seem obvious, but I can’t count the times that I’ve read stories in which the abilities of the characters kept changing. If they can do something once, you have to assume that they can do it again (unless there were very specific circumstances). Something I found assuming in one of my stories was leaving the rules vague. I knew exactly what the limitations were, and I wrote it in a way that made them seem broken. (If this makes sense: The ghost in my story could only interact with objects when no one is looking or if it left no trace. As such, she could touch a marble countertop, but she couldn’t touch a sandwich, and she went right through a door because someone was in the next room, whereas she could physically open a separate door down the hall.) It’s a fun way to get your reader to question something, to say “hey, this isn’t right”. Of course, this only works if you acknowledge the discrepancies soon after they’re made. Otherwise, the reader just gets annoyed. (Such as: In that story, there was one living character who could see the ghost, and she commented that the ghost could touch things before, but not in the presence of a different character. This proves that the mystery will be explained later in the text.)
Things to Think About:
- What does your reader know about your magic?
- Have you established the rules? (What magic system are you using?)
- Is magic important enough for the reader to know right away, or can it be shrouded in mystery?
- Who are the witches? Are they main characters, supporting characters, or extras?
- Is magic a main element in your story or a background element?
- Have you added a lot of unnecessary knowledge to the story? (What does your reader need to know, and what’s just pointless exposition?)
- Do you have other supernatural creatures or just witches? (Ghosts, werewolves, vampires, shapeshifters, angels, demons, etc.) If yes, how do they interact with each other?
- Do your witches have their own society, and as such, their own societal rules? How did they come to be?
These are only a few questions to think about when writing a story involving witches, most of which you’ve already answered in your head while brainstorming. Please note that these questions are geared toward stories set in the “real world” with added supernatural elements such as “The Mortal Instruments”, “Harry Potter”, and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”.
Every story is different. You can make up new rules for your witches that have never been used before, or you can dive deep into research to make your witches as accurate as possible to history. It’s all up to you. That’s the beauty of it. As long as everything remains consistent—ergo, it doesn’t contradict anything—people will enjoy it.
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