Magic to Serve, Not Solve, a Story: KJ Dell’Antonia on Magical Rules in Literature
On Vampires, Witches, and the (Literary) Craft of the (Magickal) Craft
I was in the middle of a revision and absolutely convinced that this one was going to kill me. Slowly, painfully, a long, drawn-out death at the hands of weapons I’d created myself: jagged plot holes, cuttingly sharp transitions, two-dimensional characters ready to wield blunt cliches in their quest to live a larger life.
It was the story of every revision I’ve ever done and I knew it, but I’d made it even worse this time, because this story had magic. Magic with internal logic, a system I’d built and created to lure my protagonist, Flair, into the kind of life-altering disaster she needed to change. Magic that had served the story—and therefore me—well. Until now.
Now it was screwing everything up. Things I needed to happen couldn’t. I was stuck.
Damnit, I texted my two writer buds. I’ve magicked myself into a fucking corner.
Their responses were simultaneous.
Use your wand.
Are you a witch or not, Hermione?If there is one rule of literary magic, it is that it must serve the story, not solve it.
Very funny, kids. Thanks a lot. And yet…the more I thought about it….
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
If there is one rule of literary magic, it is that it must serve the story, not solve it. To do that, the magic needs limits. Rules. Mine did, and those rules were getting in Flair’s way, because that is what rules do. If they were getting in my way as well, that could only mean one thing. They were the wrong rules.
There’s a line we straddle as writers, made famous by variations on a tweet I see screenshotted regularly on Instagram: To the reader who complained because my novel about vampires on a submarine was “unrealistic”: sorry.
The joke is solid—vampires! Submarine! And yet the complaint might be valid too. If you’re going to put vampires on a submarine—and you can, you should, it’s actually quite logical and raises questions for me about vampires in space, because is that sunlight? What is day in that context? but I digress—if you’re going to put vampires on a submarine in all that nice undersea darkness, those things must transcend what readers know about our reality and take on a life of their own. They have to become real.
The story logic has to hold and the emotional glue has to stick and we have to care and worry about those vamps in their sub. And probably, because this is the way of both story and life, the fact of their vampire-ness has to become an additional problem for them to overcome, a barrier to what they want or must do to survive their journey and achieve or revise their goals.
Rules are what makes that happen. Rules, expectations, the laws of physics—those are the boundaries that create both lives and stories. Even if we declare that there are no rules, that’s a rule. In that world, some things can happen (fingers become sausages), and some things can’t (certainty of any kind).
Flair, stuck in her story, was hating those rules. Cursing her limited powers, her disappointing allies and most especially her supposedly magic Tarot deck, flat out refusing to do anything useful while she tried to find a way—any way—to get herself out of this mess unscathed.
I was stuck because my job wasn’t finished. The rules I’d made were still hazy and worse, I didn’t even know what Flair thought those rules were, or why, or whether she was right. Which meant I didn’t know who she was or, why she was who she was, or what she would really do once the thing that mattered to her most in the world was in danger of disappearing for good. And until I knew those things, she couldn’t know them, either.
In real life, the rules are always hazy. We’re hardly ever entirely certain what we believe, or why, or what we will do if we’re trapped on a submarine with a vampire or our fingers suddenly turn into hot dogs. The magic of a story—and the job of the witch who creates it—is to deliver that clarity.
I found myself in trouble along with Flair because I’d forgotten not just who made the rules (me) but more importantly, why. We can’t just make up any old rules (or change them when they become inconvenient). The writer’s job is to make the rules that force our character to transcend that moment of twisting and turning and beating her hands against a closed door and do something else. To make a choice that is not just possible, but inevitable.The writer’s job is to make the rules that force our character to transcend that moment of twisting and turning and beating her hands against a closed door and do something else. To make a choice that is not just possible, but inevitable.
Flair wanted her magic to fix the people around her. To make them do what she wanted them to do and want what she wanted them to want. After I got those texts demanding that I put on my big witch pants and do the work, I sat down at my desk and spent the next four hundred and fifty-seven hours cursing my limited powers, my disappointing allies and my own Tarot deck while going backwards and forwards and sideways in story time and story logic to give Flair what she thought she wanted and then show her what it meant.
My spell had to ensnare both Flair and the reader in the kind of magic in which the only things that can happen are the things that do and the only thing Flair can do is what she finally does—which is to accept that the only choices she can control are her own.
It sounds so easy when I put it like that. But every writer knows that fighting through all those words we put on the page in search of what we really meant to say with our keyboard as a sorry substitute for a wand is ridiculously difficult. But at least now I know the right thing to ask myself when the rules I’ve made have me backed into a corner and the magic isn’t happening and it feels like it never, ever will.
Are you a witch, or not?
Playing the Witch Card by KJ Dell’Antonia is available via Putnam.