One of the reasons I love the fantasy genre is the scope it provides for unleashing the imagination – especially when it comes to wild and wonderful characters. Whether it’s a dragon, a talking lion, dryad, elf or three-headed cave troll with a penchant for peanut butter, magical characters can bring both colour and depth to any fantasy tome. But given they exist only in our minds, or the collective realm of myth or fairytale, – how do we make them feel real?
1. Use Traditional Concepts
We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. There is a great wealth of folklore, and definitive works, that can provide a foundation for your magical character. You can either adhere strictly to the well known – and accepted aspects of this folklore (which your reader will also be familiar with), or you can use it as a starting point for your own unique flavour of character.
Vampires, the (almost overdone) mythical creature of the moment, are an excellent example, with a rich history. Most people know vampires as undead, fanged, blood sucking creatures of the night, with an hypnotic sensuality, who may or may not be adversely effected by garlic, sunlight, holy water and crucifixes. In a perfect how to, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer took the traditional vampire and gave it a sparkly, teenage, vegetarian makeover that resonated with a huge audience.
2. A Good First Impression
A strong first impression is important when you’re introducing any character – but even more so when that character is magical. The reader needs some form of context to understand them, so pay attention to the physical traits and how the character impresses as being different.
For example if your magical character is a great golden lion who wields the oldest magic of all, his first appearance should make an impact. In The Magician’s Nephew, (the prequel to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), we hear Aslan singing Narnia into being before we see him at all. And Lewis’s first description leaves us in no doubt that this is no ordinary lion:
It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song…
And because it’s always worth a lesson in how to show not tell:
The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool…
If you’re a purist, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was technically the first time Aslan appeared in print. But even there Lewis used a similar technique – having other characters talk frequently (and with great excitement and anticipation) about Aslan’s coming, before the children finally see him surrounded by an audience of Narnia’s magical creatures.
While you don’t need to spell out every detail of your character’s magical nature, at least give the reader an idea of how to respond to them. Are they good, bad, powerful or interesting?
3. More than Human
Many magical characters, at their core, are portrayed as humans with special abilities. While this allows the reader to identify with the character, some of the most memorable magical characters I’ve come across have noticeably different perspectives and attitudes. Star Trek’s Borg race – which values the collective consciousness is a good example. As are Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords, who bored with having experienced everything life has to offer, develop their own self-serving agendas – incapable of having regard for humans or anything else with a short (and by their standards, insignificant) lifespan.
Because we can never truly shake off our human-ness (don’t worry neither can the reader), try and think how your character’s unique characteristics impact on their world view – and in particular their interactions with humans. Comparison is a great tool in storytelling.
Like any other character, a magical character needs to be well developed. Make sure they have strengths and weaknesses, catch-phrases and preferences – and a discernible character arc. Most importantly make sure the reader can connect with them – and hopefully you’ll have created a character that not only lives on the page, but is truly memorable.
by Raewyn Hewitt