So You Want to Write About Witches and Magick: Some Advice
Hi everyone; hope today is going well for you! Today, I’m going to be talking about witchcraft and magick in fiction from the angle of writing it. I realize many witches (including myself) have a burning desire to see more realistic portrayals of magick and the Craft, and there’s no better way to go about it than for us to take pen to paper ourselves!
This short series of tips is designed for those who want to write a story with characters who practice magick in a more realistic fashion than seen in novels like Harry Potter. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Harry Potter, of course, but there’s room in the genre of magick for realism, too! Hence, why I’m writing this. I’ll be using examples both from my own writing and from novels I enjoyed that featured realistic magick.
Why write realistic magical fiction?
So, why a realistic portrayal of magick? Obviously, most novels and stories that feature magick are of the fireballs-and-glowing-spells variety, and not very realistic at all. That makes for good reading, too, but more realistic portrayals also have a place insofar as they’re incredibly unique and interesting! Why not stand out from the crowd a bit?
It’s also worth noting that most witches, I think, if given the choice, would prefer to read something more realistic fiction-wise over an equally well-written fantastic portrayal. I know I would, and I feel like it’s important for magical practitioners as a community to write and create their own magical narratives, providing role models and other hallmarks of good media.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of how magick actually operates in the real world. I don’t know about you, but my Craft is intensely personal, and exploring it (or a character’s equivalent) in fiction makes for strong characterization. Furthermore, real-life magick is more nuanced than just “she throws fireballs,” and is bound to entice your fellow witch readers who love subtlety and delight in detail.
So, those are some reasons I, as a witch, would like to read (and write!) more realistic portrayals of magick in fiction. How do we do it, though? What sorts of tips can be offered? Let’s begin by discussing the hallmark (I think, anyways) of excellent stories - characterization! How do you create compelling witch characters and interesting magicians?
The first important thing to note is that, as you no doubt know, witches and magicians are an incredibly diverse lot. Witchcraft in and of itself is only one of many magical styles, and others exist, including things like conjure and ceremonial techniques.
Within many broad categories, you find a wealth of smaller traditions. What kind of magick does your character practice? Sweep, by Cate Tiernan mixes real magick with fantasy, and in that series, most of the characters are Wiccan, but participate in a variety of different styles of magick, ranging from herbal casting to spirit work. Realize, too, that your character will probably work with a variety of techniques, so keep that in mind, as well!
Secondly, ask yourself what your characters believe. How do they conceptualize their magical experiences? Do they believe in a deity or worship a godform, such as the Wiccan goddess or an older pagan deity? Are they Christian? Jewish? Taoist? Views on how magick works and why are as diverse as practitioners themselves, so you need to consider what sort of paradigm your characters are working and living within, as well as why.
I want to note that I’d be careful writing about practices that are foreign to you (the writer). If you know nothing about Christianity, don’t make your character a Christian, for example, unless you’re willing to do a lot of research to create a sensitive portrayal. As to myself, I’ve experimented with a lot of magical paradigms (such as chaos magick and Thelema) and I tend to draw from those when I write.
I’ve had characters who were Wiccan, chaotes, and Thelemites in past works. It’s usually best to write what you know. Don’t feel as if your story needs to be full of characters from many different paths or religions to be realistic. Such a story would be realistic, but there’s nothing technically unrealistic about, for example, a story focused solely on chaos magick. Err on the side of caution here to avoid inaccurate or trite portrayals of actual practices. Again, write what you know.
One thing worth avoiding is stories where the main character or characters discover they’re the “chosen ones” and realize a great destiny. I suggest avoiding it because it has become relatively cliche in fiction as a whole, but also because it’s unrealistic in the world of realistic magick. It’s tacitly conceivable that someone might somehow find themselves in such a position, but very cliche in fiction.
Mostly, it’s unrealistic because magick rarely works that way, and while that shows my own bias (I don’t believe in destiny as such), I’d avoid it just for the cliche factor. I’ll admit in one of my stories I did feature a character who was the reincarnation of a famous folk hero and had a certain “special destiny.” This was a very low-level thing and didn’t feature everyone treating them differently because of it. It was also balanced out with other characters having similar situations, thus making the “special” character relatively ordinary.
One of the benefits of writing more realistic magical fiction is that characters can literally be anyone. There’s no need for them to have been raised by arcane wizards in a windswept castle, because, in real life, witches and magicians come from all walks of life. We could be your neighbor, or a friend. The most important thing is that you work out what your character does magically, why, and what they believe about it. This is, of course, in addition to normal guidelines for good characterization.
Plots and Telling a Good Story
Now, let’s talk about plots? What makes a plot suitable for realistic magick? What plots don’t work within this genre? Which are cliche? Let’s dive in.
Since the keyword here is “realism,” plots can be taken easily from real world experiences and inspiration. Just like me and other real-life witches, witches or magicians in realistic stories will have normal, everyday hardships and joys, and you can explore this. That approach is, in my opinion, much more interesting than just focusing on the magick itself. A story where magick is the main driving force of the plot is rarely going to work well; something else must be there to drive the magick instead!
As an example, I’m currently working on a short story called Curse Your Local Heroin Dealer. It’s gritty and very much a NSFW thing, but it features a coven of folk witches who find themselves at odds with local drug dealers who’re literally poisoning the community. The main conflict has no real magical aspect; rather, magick is a tool used to solve problems for the characters. It also draws a lot from my experiences living for a while in an area with a serious heroin epidemic, and I think it’s turning out to be a compelling and meaningful story.
As another example, look at the Circle of Three series by Isobel Bird. In those stories, the three main characters are burgeoning Wiccan witches. While magick is present, it isn’t a means to an end itself. The girls deal with all the normal struggles of high school students, but face them with a magical twists. Plots include relationship drama, dealing with the death of loved ones, and local mysteries. All of the stories could conceivably have been written without magick, but adding magick creates depth and shifts the story into interesting territory.
In particular, avoid situations where magick is the sole solution to the character’s problems. Just as, in real life, a witch can’t wave a wand and fix a problem, your characters shouldn’t be able to just do a spell and have their world set aright. Instead, the magick can be a vehicle for them moving forward, but also cause for introspection and character development. This is done particularly well in the Witches Chillers series, where the main character’s social awkwardness is underscored by her feeling less adept magically than her peers.
Building a World
A few notes on worldbuilding: you wouldn’t think it necessary when you’re going for realism, but it absolutely is. Anytime you have witches and magicians in a story, they’re going to interact with the wider society just as we do in the real world. Pay attention to the way society treats the occult as a source of inspiration. How will characters handle being feared (or laughed at) for their practices? How will they handle the increasing fascination of society?
Another thing to consider is magical social structures in the story. Will your character belong to a magical Order, secret society, or coven? In most cases, it’s a bad idea to use real-life organizations in a story. Instead, you should invent your own fictional ones. This isn’t difficult, because you can crib a bit from real life, just not too much. In one of my stories, I created a secret society similar to (but distinct from) the Ordo Templi Orientis as a backdrop for a story about a character’s struggle with depression and how it affects their magick. In other stories, I’ve written about fictional covens and traditions of magick.
Finally, as a last tip, do not slander real paths or traditions for the sake of creating a villain. It won’t be believable if you do it, and will, furthermore, anger people. Why do that? It’s pointless to create a villain who’s a super-scary LaVeyan Satanist, because five minutes of research will tell your readers that LaVeyan Satanism isn’t all that frightening, let alone evil.
I avoid this in my stories mostly by creating traditions and paths out of whole cloth for the antagonists. The villains in one story I’ve been working on, for example, worship an egregore that takes the form of rat, but doesn’t exist in real life. Another option is to just make the antagonist’s path or tradition irrelevant to their villainous activities, but that can be difficult to do well. In short, try not to play to stereotypes about occult traditions, and don’t slander large (or small) swathes of the community in the name of a villain.
I hope this was helpful and inspirational for budding magical writers out there! There is so much potential in this genre, and I would love to see more of it. If you’ve favorite stories that use this approach, do share them with me, so I can enjoy them, too. If you, yourself, have written any realistic magical fiction, why not share it? I know I look forward to reading more in this genre!