Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tools of Paranormal

Implementing magical elements into fiction can be tricky business. Because the magic shouldn’t be used as an easy way out of a tough spot, the writer needs to draw the line on when and how it’s used. If your protagonist is at the bottom of a well and all she has to do is twitch her nose to get out of it, what fun is that for a reader? And what would be the point in turning the page if he never believed she was in real danger?

Magic, otherworldly beings, and paranormal circumstances can be a fun theme to play with but they should also propel the plot forward. They should be used as a tool, like a gun or a special talent, attributed to the character that serves as a source of protection, an element of disguise. Not a get out of jail free card.

Take the book PRACTICAL MAGIC. Alice Hoffman weaves a world where the Owens women are cursed. They can never find true love, even though they have a firm grasp on spellcasting. They cannot just snap their fingers and make everything better in their own lives, although they are often successful in helping others—sometimes too successful. In the story, the power of their witchcraft not only hinders them, but helps them. It’s a delicate balance Hoffman blends well.

So if you apply that formula in your own work, making the magical traits of your characters both bothersome and helpful, the reader will continuously wonder if the next dream/vision/spell will lead to more hot water or get her out of harm’s way. Think of the MONK books and his incredible gift for detecting. “It’s a blessing and a curse.” He says this often, and it is. Monk’s observational skills take on almost a superhero quality. He sees things that others simply don’t catch. Which helps him to solve murder after murder, yet also puts him the path of danger. Arguably, this gift may be the root cause of his paralyzing fears as well. Monk is a perfect example of the flawed genius. The superhero character with the debilitating faults. That’s more than balance, that’s a teeter-tauter that makes for great storytelling.

Play with the magic in your books this way. If your character has the ability to see dead people, as in the Wendy Roberts books, perhaps he’s also blind. He can “see” people that have passed on, but he can’t see his own wife. This would make for compelling plot points. If the character is a witch, make her dyslexic, so that she needs to use extreme caution every time she casts a spell or crazy things happen. Got a character that can talk to animals? What if the animals lied? Or what if they talked in riddles all the time and she had to figure out what the message was?

Magic in its many forms has captured audiences since Shakespeare. But as in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic can cause chaos and even the most gifted protagonist has no story to tell without succumbing to his own flaws. So make sure you balance the supernatural with human frailty.

Barbra Annino

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