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 dictionary.com.)
Mage: A magician
Witch: sorceress. warlock. powers hag.
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!