Talking About Magic Part Two

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In fantasy, you can make a complete break, and you can put people in a situation where they are confronted with things that they would not confront in the real world.
— Elizabeth Moon

When writing fantasy, the most important aspect has to be the magic. It can be people who cast magical spells, people in search of magical items, magic that goes wrong and changes the world for nonmagical folks, anything at all as long as the otherworldly is involved. Last week I talked about using delicacy in explaining how your magic works. Today I want to spend a little time on the subject of magical creatures.
Magical creatures appear in every culture on Earth. The familiar unicorns and dragons are common to more than one mythology, as are a number of magical monsters like vampires, werewolves and zombies. Other creatures are less commonly known – the rakshasa, the penanggalan or the Stymphalian Birds – which makes them a bit more exotic. Thousands of years of human storytelling has resulted in more magical creatures than any one writer can use, which at first glance seems like a gold mine. You could write a dozen books and never run into the same creatures twice. For a writer, that’s the same thrill as the first big drop on a roller coaster.
In the early days of fantasy, when most of the books being written were long quests across dangerous lands of mythical beasts or retellings of fairy tales, the magical creatures tended to be the ones familiar to us through Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology. After a while, readers started pining for something new, something different, but still fantastic. Once you’ve read a big unicorns-and-elves quest novel, they said, you’ve read them all. (Let me stop here and say that I don’t agree with that at all. There is some amazing work out there, and more being written right now. But whether or not I agree, it was definitely being said.) Recent trends in fantasy reflected that desire, producing writers whose work leaned toward magical creatures blending into contemporary life (aka urban fantasy.) At first UF was a rare thing, but in the last fifteen or twenty years it has become its own subgenre of fantasy. Unless you’ve spent the last decade in the Brazilian rain forest, you already know about the popularity of vampires and werewolves as romantic figures. Other writers are delving into the less well-known creatures, like skinwalkers, for example. Whether they’re trying something uncommon and exotic or working with the familiar and popular creatures, including them is definitely a plus.

So how does one go about finding these fascinating beings to write about? As with many things, the best place to start is in the library (or on the internet), reading. Read mythology. Greek, Roman and Celtic are, of course, very recognized, since most Americans studied at least a little bit of those mythologies in school at some point. And there’s nothing wrong with writing your own story about a familiar topic. You can’t worry about whether the story’s already been done. What you have to do is make your idea fresh, so that even if it looks like something else, it isn’t the same at all.
What if you’ve been reading everything that appears in the bookstore and you want to write about some beast that no one else has tried? Very ambitious of you! Despite the shrinking of the globe thanks to the internet, there are many cultures whose mythologies are still mysteries to the American reading public. Study the legends of India, for example. Take a virtual trip through the folk tales of Russia. Considering how many people think Africa is a country, you might do well to examine the many rich and diverse cultural traditions of all the countries on that continent.
Fantasy has been around as long as there have been people telling stories. Dig into their histories, and introduce them into your work. You’ll have something original and exciting. Maybe you’ll start a subgenre of your own!

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8 comments to Talking About Magic Part Two

  • Misty, this had been the most fun part of fantasy writing for me — the inclusion of fantastical creatures in everyday life. And research on them is sooo much easier now than it used to be. (thank God for the Internet) On my WIP, I just input in Google *Middle East, bird, god, Sumeria, Babylonia, timeline* and found three instantly with the right time period and powers/looks for my creature. I remember a time when finding that creature meant a trip to the county library and hours with my nose in mythology books. (Yeah, I had to walk three miles through the snow barefoot to get there, uphill both ways.)

  • I, too, love this part of writing in our genre. I’ve borrowed creatures from mythology (which meant I had to read tons of mythology — great fun) and I have created my own magical creatures. I’d be hard pressed to choose which I enjoyed more, so I won’t even try. I’ll just say, yeah, the magical side of what we do is such a blast. Fun post!

  • Please, we don’t need anymore subgenres, Misty. Don’t encourage the damn things. 😉

    I like that you encourage people to dig into unfamiliar mythologies. East Asian mythology such as Chinese and Japanese mythology have been getting some attention of late, but places like India and Russia are still under-utilized. Germany could use some more attention as well. I’d love to see more rusulkas and kobolds in UF, for example.

  • Rats, I’m getting an inkling of another idea! I have to finish my others first.

  • By the by, this was always a favorite site of mine to go searching for odd monsters for my RPG sessions and for something different to put into a story.
    http://www.pantheon.org/

  • Thanks for the site, Daniel – I’ll have to go play there.

    David and Faith, I’ve always found that even minor creatures can lend such an air of the otherworldly to any story. I’ve invented one of my own for the second Kestrel book, so I hope it comes off sounding natural. We’ll see!

    Atsiko, rusalkas would be fun! I’ve always been drawn to writing a story about Loviatar, a Finnish goddess of pain. Nothing’s ever come of the impulse, but maybe one of these days…

    And y’all, I have learned, to my surprise, that the gremlins that tear up airplane engines are not fantasy creatures! One got into my car engine and ate the accelerator pedal sensor wire, causing my car to refuse to start.

    Okay, maybe it was mice, but can you imagine the mechanic’s phone call if it really had been gremlins? “Ms Massey, there’s a tiny little green fellow who keeps tearing at the wires and laughing at us. We’re not sure if your insurance is going to cover this. He already bit Bubba.” 😀

  • I nearly choked on my tea at *Bubba*.

  • Fascinating post. I used to play a lot of fantasy role-playing games : Dungeons and Dragons and the like. One invaluable aspect of them is that they do introduce you to a vast array of mythical creatures from all mythoi. Kobolds, for example, were very common. This has been useful to me several times when needing a fantasy creature for a story …