If you’re a paranormal fantasy reader you might find this scenario familiar:
The main character, Mary Sue, has finally cottoned on to the fact that things around her aren’t quite what they seem. In fact, things are getting downright weird. The various laws that govern time and space and normality in her world are breaking to pieces around her. In short, she’s encountering the supernatural… either that or she’s just mad. This is a fantasy novel, however, so you can be 99% sure it’s not madness.
The trouble is, Mary Sue continues to insist that she is mad. She continues this insistence till you are rolling your eyes and just wish she’d hurry up and figure out that magic exists, so we can all move on.
Getting it Right
This discovery and acceptance of the supernatural can often be a problem in fantasy novels. The protagonist’s reaction to the paranormal is a difficult thing for an author to get right, and it’s a sure-fire way to irritate readers if they don’t succeed.
I find if a book doesn’t get it right, it’s because the character’s reaction is sliding too far toward one of two extremes:
The Conveniently Gullible
Most logical real-world people would have a hard time accepting the existence of magic and vampires and werewolves. Practical jokes and hallucinations are much more likely explanations. Even if a person sees something they can’t logically explain, they’ll still try very hard to explain it before jumping to the “magic” explanation.
So when an average-Joe character in a novel accepts these things with barely the batting of an eyelid… it shatters my suspension of disbelief. I feel that the character is less real, and that they’ve just gone along with things for the convenience of the story.
I also lose respect for the character. If all it takes is one sighting of a vampire-like creature and a quick explanation from a support character, and they’re sold on the whole thing? They’re gullible and passive and they haven’t bothered to interrogate things further.
The Irritatingly In-Denial
This is a character like the Mary-Sue type I mentioned earlier… the one that has seen countless examples of the paranormal at work, and perhaps even had explanations from support characters, and keeps denying their existence.
I find these characters just as irritating as the ones that blindly accept. They keep coming up with flimsy reasons to explain things away (usually some variation on “I must be mad”). This becomes quickly tedious and counter-productive to the character’s bid to survive. It often causes them to take silly actions and rely on support characters to save them.
I end up finding the character stupid and annoying… the last kind of reaction you want a reader to have to a main character.
Yes, maybe in real life a person might spend a long time coming to terms with something supernatural (I know I would. I am one of the most skeptical people out there when it comes to supposedly “paranormal” things in the real world). But in fantasy novels you’re so used to magic that if the character takes too long to just believe, it’s frustrating.
Finding a Balance
A great paranormal fantasy manages to get this balance right… have the character be plausibly skeptical but not annoyingly in-denial.
Unfortunately, it’s still a hard thing to do. How do you know when it’s appropriate for them to stop doubting and worrying and just believe? Especially when you have a clear idea of the supernatural elements and aren’t approaching it like a fresh reader or character, not knowing exactly how it all works.
From the stories I’ve read, the moments when a character usually truly begins to believe tend to be:
- a key moment when a character sees something clearly impossible and inexplicable that convinces them (though they still have to recover and deal with the fallout of that discovery).
- when a character that has been increasingly suspicious finally puts all the clues together, perhaps confronting another character to have their suspicions confirmed (e.g. Twilight).
- when a character discovers their own magical ability and uses it for the first time to great effect.
Provided these moments are not preceded by too many obvious supernatural events or clues, or followed by too much continual denying and refusal to believe, I find in general they tend to work.
Still, it’s a hard balance to strike. In my own writing I find this very difficult and am probably far from perfecting it. There’s also the added factor that readers can have differing opinions of how much doubting is too much. Ultimately I guess it’s something that authors just have to get a feel for, and have to get feedback on from readers.
Of course, the fantasy novels where magic and the supernatural are already commonplace side step this dilemma completely, which has it’s own appeal. Still, when it’s done right, there is always going to be something compelling about that magical moment of discovery, when an ordinary person realises that the impossible is, after all, not quite so impossible.
15 thoughts on “Accepting the Existence of Magic”
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As a reader, I’ve always found it easier to swallow the “conveniently gullible” better than the “irritatingly in-denial.” I can assume that, for a gullible character, that perhaps in their version of the world, other things had come before and perhaps given them reason to finally accept it, and we’re just seeing that last culmination.
I simply can’t get through books where a character has impossible thing after impossible thing happen to them, and they just dismiss it. I personally have come across more “there must be a logical explanation for this!” rather than “I must be crazy.” I always feel if they’re not a physicist and can actually explain the explainable, they just look like a buffoon.
Of course, striking a balance is always best, but if a book has to err to one side or the other, I’ll take “gullible.”
Yes true, the “conveniently gullible” probably has less potential to irritate. I have read a few books where I felt the character was a little too much on the gullible side, but they didn’t annoy me as much as the ones that swung the other way. So erring on the side of gullible is probably a safer bet!
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Both gullible and in-denial work best for supporting characters who aren’t intended to be deeply involved in the plot. So in a YA, the parents might be unavailable to interfere with the kids, due to having checked themselves into rehab! Just kidding.
One reason I prefer fantasy is that magic and magical beings are understood as part of the deal, so you don’t have to bother explaining where unicorns came from, et all.
Yes I think you can get away with it for supporting characters – in-denial parents would indeed be useful in children’s and YA fiction.
You know your mentioning unicorns reminded me of a funny (true) story I heard on a ‘This American Life’ podcast. A woman had somehow grown up thinking unicorns were real animals, like rhinos and horses. She pictured them living in Africa somewhere, and I guess nothing and no-one had ever corrected her on this. Then as an adult she was having a conversation with her friends about endangered animals, and asked if unicorns were endangered. Needless to say it was a pretty embarrassing moment for her 🙂
It still makes me smile to think that people regularly use unicorns as an example of a ridiculous thing to believe in, but there was actually someone who lived till adulthood believing in them wholeheartedly!
That’s kind of sweet, though.
What a great exploration of a key point in a fantasy story. Though I’d never thought about it this way before, it’s really all related to that first quarter of the hero’s journey – the call to adventure, denial, and passing over the threshold. It’s a part of the story that’s always tricky to pace right, but it’s somehow particularly keen when it’s set in the “real world” and it’s easier to put yourself, as the reader, in that position.
Now I’m pondering whether you can paper over “conveniently gullible” with “has always wanted magic to be real / to be something special and different”. Possibly yes, but I think I’d want to see that eagerness come back and bite with some unpleasant side-effects or consequences! (Similarly, a strong reason to be in-denial might decrease the irritation: a strong religious background, or something else that presents more internal conflict to be explored.
…pardon me while I think out loud in your comments! That’s what you get for writing such a thought-provoking piece. 🙂
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Glad it was thought-provoking! 🙂
That’s a really good point about the character and their attitudes before the “magic discovery” or passing-the-threshold moment. If the character has always felt out of place and wanted to believe in magic, I’m far less likely to have a problem with their quick acceptance of its existence (and like you said, even better if that eagerness comes back to bite them). However if they’re a skeptical person, or someone who has always liked the world exactly as it is, it’ll be harder to swallow.
An example that comes to mind is the main character in ‘City of Bones’. In spite of the countless clues thrown her way, and the fact that she knows so little about her mother’s past and her dead father (so would clearly be curious about it!), she was still unwilling to believe her mother could have ever had anything to do with magic (and as a reader you can guess this connection within first chapter or two). She just kept denying it for so long that it felt like wilful ignorance, and didn’t fit with my impression of her character and her past. Just my opinion though, it’s a popular book so perhaps other people didn’t mind this so much!
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I’m not sure I ever got far enough in City of Bones to be bothered by that – but I had similar troubles with the lead character in the television series Lost Girl. Despite claiming through early episodes that she’s only here to find out more about herself, her powers, where she comes from, etc, when she is handed a book almost literally entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about being fae” she basically has to be bullied into reading it. It would have been ok if it were a character development moment – “Oh, I thought I wanted answers, but I’ve finally started to accept myself and what if I learn something terrible?” – but no such development was entered into.
I guess what it boils down to is: keep the character strong, and keep the character internally consistent. Don’t just let plot blow them around the place. Which is always good advice!
I am pretty much delighted by your entire blog, by the way. A topic and angle near and dear to my heart. So pleased to have found it!
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Thanks, am enjoying yours too!
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Making magic believable is a real tightrope walk. Thanks for the pointers!
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It’s hard because there is so many fantasy novels out there!! Unique but similar in the same time. The writer’s voice is what should be unique. I can’t determine which from the two (Conveniently Gullible or Irritatingly in-denail) I can tolerate more…. Interesting post. Well done! You made me think lol : )
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So. True. As an author, I constantly struggle with this. I think what most annoys me is a combination of both: the main character trusts other, paranormal/magical/straight up god-like, characters with her life, uses her amazing powers with immediate complete control, and is attacked by monsters. The character then, walking down the street and talking, stops and says, “this is all to crazy. This can’t be real. Maybe I’m dreaming”, despite seemingly having no previous qualms with the turmoil her life has been thrown into. Same goes for the ever level-headed character in a non-magical world. Oh, there’s an injured dragon on my roof? Well, we should probably clean and bandage it’s wounds, then give it some food and water. And then we’ll try and find its owner and/or where it came from, thereby going on a huge quest.