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A Magic of Convenience

There are tons and tons of manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers, which is always fun and interesting. The more I read of them, though, the more a strange habit rears its little head. And it’s difficult work to make magic believable and compelling, since it is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your fantasy wold-building, but the plot, too.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at the structure of your scene. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

Luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy/magic/magical realism in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Next time you work with fantasy or magical powers, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, the reader will already know the rules of their magic. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

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  1. Cecily Nabors’s avatar

    I’m new to this site, and have been happily dabbling around in the dazzling display of good advice and insightful comments. This blog struck a chord. I’ve written an MG novel about a boy who has two ESP powers. He sees auras and has visions, which are essential to the plot. Believe me, my critique group has made certain that I thought out and clarified the up-front rules of his ESP! It’s one of the great virtues of a critique group: the members are quick to point out any anomalies or machinations the writer has used, instead of preparing the ground with care, thus making the outcome inevitable rather than contrived.

  2. Jenn Jones’s avatar

    You’ve got to place clues to the boundaries of magic throughout the novel, in a way that’s both subtle (fully in the context of that moment, rather than obviously prepping for a future scene) but memorable enough to recall once it becomes “activated.”

    But oh lordy, once you’ve done that, is it EVER hard to edit that manuscript. Take one interaction out, and I have to find new homes for three important tidbits of information. My next effort is going to be a LOT less intricate for that reason.

  3. Kathryn Purdie’s avatar

    I attended a workshop given by Holly Black at a writer’s conference this past summer. Holly said, “Magic has to have a cost,” meaning that if a character exercises his/her magic, it has to cost them something, whether that’s being weakened or what-have-you. This “cost” also helps ensure the magic in your novel isn’t too convenient and further fleshes out the rules of your magical world. Great post, Mary!

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