Fantasy World Building: Defining Magical Characters

Photo Credit: Image created by: breebree446
Photo Credit: Image created by: breebree446

In the realm of Fantasy, it seems that the words mage, wizard and witch are thrown around without a lot of reference to the actual meaning of the words. It’s always just assumed that a reader knows the details of each class of magic-wielder. Exceptions occur when a writer has created a new order or brings a twist to the traditional. As a life-long reader of Fantasy, this isn’t something I ever spent time thinking about in the past. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the different mechanisms that Fantasy writers utilize to fuel their worlds. I’m intrigued by the rules behind magical use and how characters tap into their respective abilities. If you are creative, the possibilities for how your characters wield their magic are infinite and these are the things that kept me reading.

Recently, I have been revisiting the Fantasy genre and the rules of the Fantasy universe lead me to a desire to explore another intriguing aspect of this genre: the words used to describe/categorize the humans in possession of magical characteristics. Traditional Fantasy stories seem to rely on mages. More modern literary fiction, it seems, relies upon telling stories about witches. Wizards show up in the Harry Potter series and Arthurian Legends; and magicians appear in Lev Grossman novels and my favorite recent novel, The Night Circus. Of course, there are many more words to describe magically inclined humans besides these few, but, we’ll stick with the most common for the sake of time. A writer will choose which reference is most appropriate to the story that he or she is telling. As the Fantasy genre continues to progress in the publishing world, readers can see how the genre flows and is reinvented by writers.

So, let us begin with definitions. (All definitions come from
Mage: A magician

Witch: noun 1. a person, now especially a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic or sorcery; a sorceress. Compare warlock2.a woman who is supposed to have evil or wicked magical powers 3. an ugly or mean old woman; hag. 4. a person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

verb (used with object) 5. to bring by or as by witchcraft (often followed by into, to, etc.) 6. Archaic. to affect as if by witchcraft; bewitch; charm.
verb (used without object) 7. to prospect with a divining rod; dowse.
adjective 8. of, pertaining to, or designed as protection against witches.

Warlock: noun 1. a man who professes or is supposed to practice magic or sorcery; a male witch; sorcerer. 2. a fortune-teller or conjurer.
Wizard: noun 1. a person who practices magic; magician or sorcerer. 2. a conjurer or juggler.

3. Also, whiz, wiz,[wiz] (Show IPA). a person of amazing skill or accomplishment.
Sorcerer: a person who practices sorcery; black magician; wizard.
Sorceress: a woman who practices sorcery; witch.
Photo Credit: THE WIZARD OF OZ and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Photo Credit: THE WIZARD OF OZ and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When I looked up the definitions of these words, I was surprised to see how similar most of the definitions are and actually expected to see more of a distinction between them. In particular, I expected to see a reference to the use of a wand or staff in order to differentiate them better. Some terms clearly have a particular gender affiliated with them. The terms “witch,” “warlock” and “sorceress” are all typically based in gender. I don’t recall reading any stories about male witches or female warlocks so it’s a pretty easy place to start. The term “mage” is one that typically crosses gender. I was surprised to see that “wizard” is not affiliated solely with the male gender.

But beyond gender, the above terms each have different levels of power and sometimes their own sources of power, depending upon the way the writer has chosen to build their world. An additional layer is the type of story in which these different terms appear. The traditional Fantasy story, your classic, epic horse and sword story, follows the mage/wizard route with perhaps the occasional reference to witches. A modern, literary fiction story typically depicts a witch and the story is told in a modern or historical setting that is more in line with our own actual human, real-world experience. Urban fantasy seems to opt out of the traditional words used to describe individuals in possession of magical powers. I also have a sneaking suspicion that some facets of Urban Fantasy are actually what is influencing the Dystopian story. I don’t have any actual evidence to offer for that belief because it is a belief based on the sense I get when I am reading both story types. It is an idea I am still formulating and may address in a future post.

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema
Photo Credit: New Line Cinema

Lastly, for some of the above terms, there is an expectation of villainy about them. The definition of the word “witch” references being evil and since “sorceress” references the word “witch,” it can be surmised that a sorceress is typically affiliated with being evil as well. Wizard is also affiliated with villainy simply by the definition’s reference to sorcerer. But it is a term that seems like it could go one way or the other.  I find it equally interesting that J.K. Rowling chose the word “wizard” to describe her characters simply from looking at the definition listed above. Of course, I can’t imagine them being described in any other way. The term works: you have good wizards and bad wizards and they all live in this complex order of magic together. It would get too complicated if the bad guys were called wizards and the good guys were called something else. Then Rowling would have to have gone about and described how you transition from one to the other or at least explain why both terms are present in the culture she has invented. Tolkien does the same thing in the LOTR books. So I would chalk that up to making intelligent writing decisions.

My curiosity about the use of any of these terms in a story arise from my latest edit of my friend’s forthcoming novel. In the world she has created, the word “mage” is the popular term of the people and “witch” is used as an insult. It has been some time since I have picked up a traditional, epic fantasy story, so I don’t exactly know what is currently popular in this facet of the genre. But, I find my friend’s use of the word “witch” as an insult to be an intriguing artistic decision because of the type of story she is telling. Her world is one in which magic is taboo and outlawed and it is this fact that draws a connection to our own real human history, particularly through the avenue of her use of the word “witch” and our own (U.S.) history of the Salem Witch Trials and the many other times in history when those accused of being witches were persecuted.

In the world of publishing, a writer must find a way to make him/herself unique, but you can’t venture too far out from what is popular if you want to actually be published. It isn’t often that publishers will take a chance on something that completely changes up the game. But when it comes to the terminology surrounding magically inclined characters, there seems to be a fair amount of leeway. Perhaps the expectation surrounding these words, and their history in the genre, is what leads current writers to adopt different words to describe their characters and their abilities. We now have “weavers” and “conjurers” and a host of other terms that have been used by authors. The use of these terms allows writers the freedom to wander where they can and seek a way to define themselves as different from the tradition.

Have you come across any interesting Fantasy worlds where the characters and/or their magical abilities are described in a new way? Please share if you have!