Are You Overusing “Magic” in Your Writing?

magic bears suspend reader disbeliefFantasy writers and readers have a reputation for being just slightly soft in the head. I mean, what adult believes in magic? But wait a moment. All forms of writing ask for a suspension of disbelief by the reader, and there are elements of “magic” in most genres. That’s the joy of reading. By creating an imaginary world for us, the writer pushes us towards a sense of wonder. But it is easy for an author to overuse the readers’ belief in the more wonderful story elements. Since they are…well…magical, authors may think they don’t have to follow the usual rules. But use of magic has rules of its own, because that is where the writer is in the most danger of pushing readers into disbelief. The following are a few principles of writing “magic” of all sorts that authors might wish to consider.

Principle #1: The Dreaded “Oh, Come On!” Reaction

The last thing a writer wants to do is throw the reader out of emotional connection with the story. Yet it does happen. Where magic and its cohorts are involved, it happens regularly. Why? Because the writer pushes the reader beyond what is credible for that story, for those characters or for that genre.

When you experience Poirot using his “little grey cells,” you know you are in the presence of a magician. His ability to come up with off-the-wall solutions is nothing short of magic. Agatha Christie’s skill allows her to run that thin line between “Wow, what a genius,” and “Oh, come on. How could he have known that?”

So if your Elizabeth Bennet is starting to fall in love with a horrible Mr. Darcy, be very aware of keeping your magic just this side of the “Oh, come on,” line. If you lose a reader’s trust, you have lost a reader.

Principle #2:The Reader Needs to Believe

Why are we willing to allow an author to persuade us, even for a moment, that something so unlikely is real? Because we need to. If we are so involved in the characters and their struggles that we desperately need them to succeed, we are willing to put our credibility aside farther than usual.

Take The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an example. Lisbeth Salander is the magician of Internet geeks, an idiot savant/ward of the state, who has somehow developed arcane online resources matching those of most small countries. Yet hardheaded modern action and suspense readers lap it up when she easily foils the international criminal mastermind and steals millions from his hidden offshore accounts. The reason we allow our sense of reality to sleep in this case is that Lisbeth has been treated so badly, as a child and as an adult, and our sense of moral outrage is so inflamed that we desperately want her to succeed. So in the end we don’t bat an eyelash at her highly unlikely accomplishments.

Face it, we could all use a little magical assistance at times. So the first technique to remember is to develop reader empathy with our characters so the reader wants desperately to believe in their abilities.

Principle #3: Unrealistic Human Reactions

Fantasy is based on the concept of real people in an unreal world. No matter who our characters are, from weird aliens to 60s hippies to modern office workers, the only way a human reader can connect with a character is if the character acts in a “normal” human manner. The reader needs to be able to imagine, “If I were in that situation, I would feel and act that way, too.” So don’t think that you can drive your plot any which-way with unrealistic behavior, and that readers will accept it because your character is alien, magical, crazy, or in love. You’re gonna lose ‘em.

This is probably one reason why Romance as a genre has such a bad reputation. It seems to hold out the promise of easy writing; by Principle #2, you have made-to-order readers who desperately need to believe in love, who at the same time believe that people in love react in illogical ways. That’s a recipe for overuse of the reader’s trust. Like the weak Fantasy author who writes a character into an inescapable hole, then out of nowhere creates a new magic power to solve the writing error, many Romance authors think they can create a love interest willy-nilly out of nowhere, because in real life, sometimes it seems to happen like that.

What these writers don’t realize is that, in spite of our lack of logical understanding of love, we all have an intuitive grasp of human nature. So we often experience the “Oh, come on!” response to Romances, and thus write the genre off as unrealistic.

Principle #4: The Reader Might Know Better

Sherlock Holmes, magical though he was in his day, is dated because many of his “scientific” observational techniques were actually based on the prejudices of Victorian times, and as such really wouldn’t have held up statistically, and especially not in our time. We have a far more sophisticated and educated audience now, and authors have to be careful not to base stories on magical concepts that readers won’t buy because they know better.

What I have mentioned about love applies even more to insanity. While mental illness seems incomprehensible, this is not carte blanche for the writer to manipulate his characters (and readers) with unexplained, unprepared, and unrealistic quirks and actions. Readers start with an intuitive knowledge of human nature, and modern readers have a pretty good grounding in psychology and the more common mental disorders. Woe betide the author who jumps his character from psychosis into schizophrenia without proper forethought and revealing symptoms. A large number of his readers will say, “Oh, come on!”

Principle #5: Loss of Suspense

The biggest mistake fantasy authors make, and the one that applies in the most widespread fashion across “magicians” of every genre, is having too much magic. If we go back to the basics of creating suspense, the whole tension of every scene comes from the balance between the difficulty of the challenge and the hero’s possible inability to meet that challenge. The will he make it or will he fail? fear drives the plot of every novel (and film, short story, and TV show) of every genre. So, while it is tempting to write our way out of plot corners by giving our heroes new powers to deal with the challenges that face them, readers quickly pick up on it.

This is especially dangerous in “coming of age” plots, where the hero is developing new skills and powers. If every time a new challenge arises, the author simply drops a new weapon into the main character’s arsenal to deal with it, after a while we stop worrying about the possibility of failure. And the tension (and our interest) drops.

Principal #6: Prepare Your Audience.

If you want your readers to accept your magic of whatever nature, all you have to do is prepare them. This means laying out the criteria for your magic/insanity/high-tech machinery/whatever. Decide before you write what your main character can and cannot do. Then give your readers clues ahead of time to prepare them for what is going to hit them. There is nothing more effective for the creation of suspense than a powerful being coming smack up against an obstacle that the readers could see coming. Likewise, there is nothing so suspense-destroying as a character suddenly coming up with an unprepared magical solution to his problems.

So if you’re going to have Elizabeth fall in love with that awful Darcy character, drop a bit of interest in at the beginning. If you want some good suspense, tell the readers that your magician needs to rest for five minutes after casting every spell. And then stick to it.

And last of all, remember to make your readers care. If they care about your characters and they care about your ideas, they will be willing suspend their disbelief in order to join with you in your story. If you treat your readers right, they will follow you anywhere. That is the joy of writing.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

9 thoughts on “Are You Overusing “Magic” in Your Writing?”

  1. Excellent points, Gordon. And I like that you apply these to genres that ordinarily don’t think of themselves as including magic. If it sounds too good to be true – it is. Don’t do it. Even where, as in High Fantasy such as Harry Potter, magic is integral to the story, it needs to be be plausible.

    1. In spite of all the plot holes in the Harry Potter series, I think this is one area that Rowling has nailed. We always know that Harry’s magical ability will grow. But there’s always the tension of “will it grow fast enough?” and “will it grow enough?” and “who will be the collateral damage?” to keep the suspense high.

  2. Good tips, Gordon. Any writer that has to do any type of world building has to face these issues, so it’s an important topic for many writers.

  3. All good points for those writing fantasy and romance, but what about those of us writing about real magic? I find myself in this situation in a number of my books about Africa, where magic is very real and a fact of life among many of its peoples. And this is not just some hocus-pokus of conjuring tricks, not mere illusions or sleight of hand, it is a powerful force that can catch even the most sceptical.
    Some of the magic used can be partially explained by good clear logic, and it relies on the people’s willingness to believe. But much of it goes way beyond that and defies any explanation by current knowledge or investigative techniques. So how does one portray that?
    I have chosen to do so simply, by explaining the events and the experiences as clearly as I can and letting my readers make up their own minds. I’m not given to fanciful ideas or imagination, and can be quite sceptical. Also, as a western trained psychologist, I have some understanding of human mental processes and how they can be fooled. Yet I can testify to the veracity of the incidents I’ve written about, and they were magical, even though sometimes they stretch conventional belief far beyond what you might find acceptable limits.

    1. It sounds to me like you are writing about magic in a fairly non-fantastical way. After all, whether it’s magic or psychology or mass psychosis, some things happen that have no logic, and people love to read about them.
      Your comments tempt me to mention Christian writings, all of which, for the purposes of this discussion, fall into this category. But Christian magic has very strict rules, known for centuries, and good Christian writers do not tend to create “miracles” out of nowhere to solve their conflicts.
      Your technique of giving factual evidence and letting readers make up their own minds almost guarantees that you are not falling into the traps I am writing about in the article

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