Wizards: The Real Problem with Fantasy Writing

Nov 9, 22:34 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of fantasy writing, or Iamn McHugh's discussion thereof.

The article is here.
Nov 9, 23:45 by Andrew Ty
This essay cracked me up big time, though I do have to say that "A gay wizard trying to get by in a fantasy world ruled by the sexual ideology of Conan the Barbarian" sounds like a pretty darn good idea. Thanks for the enjoyable read, and prepare for the onslaught...
Nov 10, 02:06 by Liz Fox
I remember the Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy often being rather witty, if at times insufferable, but far better than the epic bores I was often reading at the time. Maybe that would have been the better choice...

The most interesting wizard I can personally recall is Zifnab, from Weis & Hickman's Death Gate Cycle. He was old, senile, and often hilarious, given to old pop culture references, and used just sparingly enough that he never grew old. More importantly, his occasional bouts with lucidity gave his character a profound sadness while filling out his history and that of the end of the old world. Others dislike him for the very same reasons, however.

That was really the height of their career, in my opinion, what they're written before and since hasn't measured up. If they had been better writers it really would have been an explosive series, I think.

[Black Company sure sounds interesting...]
Nov 10, 11:23 by Paulo Marques
you know, you could have just said that making someone a wizard doesn't make him interesting, and that they should be developed like any other character.
and i disagree about the oversuse of jedi thing, since most people higly praise the KOTOR games, which are pretty much full of "wizards". Having played the second, i have to say that is isn't a problem, at least in the parts that weren't rushed.
Nov 10, 11:33 by Alaya Johnson
This was really hilarious. Very much appreciated, particularly because you hit on something I've been feeling for a while, but never quite figured out. Wizards almost always make things way too *easy* for the rest of the characters. Well, to tell you the truth, that could probably be said of magic in general...
Nov 10, 14:15 by Josh English
I think some wizards (Gandalf and Dumbldore) are interesting because they are deus ex machina, and most of the characters (and the reader) know this, but they don't solve the problems for the main characters. Gandalf and Dumbledore do treat the other characters as chess pieces, and they rarely explain their motivations. This makes them a little more intersting, especially as they are rarely the main character in any scene.
Even if they exist in fantasy solely to explain what just happened to the idiot hero (and idiot reader), they are worthwhile characters.
If the wizard is the main character, I think you're right on as to why they can be dull. It's everythiing non-magical about them that makes them interesting or boring.
Nov 10, 15:25 by A.R. Yngve
One wizard character I like is Merlin played by Nicol Williamson in John Boorman's EXCALIBUR.

You could of course see this Merlin as a methaphor for John Boorman the director of the film: trying to guide the course of the plot(history) in a favorable direction, diverted and embattled by villanous actors, ambitious actresses and bad location weather.

But this Merlin is fallible. (His first choice of King of Britain is disastrous.) He's weird. He's got a sense of humor. He is often and openly frustrated by how difficult the other humans are to handle.

And of course, he has a (at least hinted at) sex life - Morgana, played by Helen Mirren, seduces him.

Go see EXCALIBUR on DVD, and see how wizards are done right.

Nov 11, 13:03 by Mike Manzer
I have to disagree with you pretty strongly... yet kind of agree at the same time. Wizards themselves are not a problem, per se. Maybe you don't like wizards and that's your personal opinion - you are welcome to it. I LOVE the Earthsea books, for example, right up there with everything else that Le Guin has done. They are absolutely brilliant. That's the disagree part.

The agreement part is that they are often a crutch for sloppy writing: you need to inject some va-va-voom in a story without any? Stick in a wizard and have him pull off some cool fireworks. (This is the Harry Potter books, at least the first two which I actually read, in a nutshell for me - without the magic you have nothing, because there really isn't much character there per se). You can't figure out how to tie up those pesky loose plot strings? Bam - wizard as Deus Ex Machina. Not so hot. Boring and sloppy.

Handled well, like I would argue in Earthsea (or, hey, even the Seers in Left Hand of Darkness, if we want to talk about SciFi specifically), wizards can be really impressive, adding a depth to the plot that nothing else can accomplish. Heck, look at the witches in MacBeth: nothing else would be that creepy.

Anyway, my 2 cents.
Nov 11, 23:31 by Matthew Rees
If you like wizards that are "petty, venal, vicious, backstabbing, and moderately incompetent," maybe you should check out The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud.
Nov 13, 12:05 by Dennis Mahon
Just a question: what is the WWE that Ian mentions in Rule #8?
Nov 13, 13:28 by Bluejack
I think that's a reference to World Wrestling Entertainment.
Nov 17, 13:22 by Dotar Sojat
What the hell, I'll bite.

I second Nightwish's opinion about the fact that just because the character is a wizard doesn't make them instantly interesting.

On Gandalf, I think that most people, especially the younger readers, can't get around the lack of fireballs and obvious power and don't realize that Tolkien's wizards deal in influence and knowledge, with a few odd tricks thrown in. Gandalf is so not powerful, in fact, that the balrog kills him but he has to call in some favors and to get sent back. And, once he's there, he is still fallable. He is all to willing to believe the Mouth of Sauron when he tells him that they've captured Frodo and Sam.

As for Dumbledore, he does come across as a little deus ex machina at first, but all I can say to that is, well, sorry that you're an adult reading a kid's book. The neat thing about the POtter series, is that in each book she expands the world and Dumbledore's role in it. Yes, he's a very powerful wizard, but there are lots of powerful wizards, and he's also made serious mistakes, he's done everything right and things have still gone wronge, and he has many, many, enemies.

Totally agree about the Jedi being wizards.
Nov 18, 07:54 by Barney McGrew
Interesting argument...

But I think I disagree.

A lot of the points abouit wizards in the article, are just arguments about bad chararterisation in general. There's a chance that bad characterization is more rife amongst wizards than any other class of character, but I'm not convinced.

I think what's really boring is magic itself.

Now I'm a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but more often than not magic is boring. At least a certain (predominant?) type of magic. When magic is just some sort of divine, unreasoning, all powerful force then it's boring as hell. Gandalf's magic once he's gone all white? Not exciting.

There has to be a reason for magic - and the reason cannot be the fact that the author is writing in the fantasy genre. So many things has become just the accepted short hand of fantasy. Elves, dwarves, wizards, etc. It all gets put in simply because it's the fantasy genre. And magic is one of the biggest culprits of all.

Everything contained within a story should be there because it needs to be there, not because of some random preconception of what fantasy is like.

And that's why I still like Harry Potter, even though it's riddled with magic and wizards.
Nov 18, 11:32 by Bluejack
Magic -- when it's fun -- is, well, magical. Magic that is technology dressed up in medieval clothing is dull, dull, dull. Magic that is filled with wow and wonder, that's worth reading.

I think one reason for the success of the Potter books is that what she does with magic is for the most part inventive and fun. It may not be brilliantly written and the plots may not be totally original, but the magic is plain fun to read.

Nov 20, 16:42 by Ben Payne
I always prefered the magic characters to the swordsmen... I much prefered Pug to Tomas. The magic characters were usually the underdog with not much going for them apart from their magic ability, which they usually had no idea how to use.

But you're really talking about two types of "magic" character. First there's the young magic user like Pug or Garion who are usually very human, and then there are the older wizards who often serve as plot devices, although they can still be done well at times...

I agree with a lot of your list, though. And there are examples of fantasy novels, particularly when extended beyond an initial trilogy, where the central character becomes *so* magically powerful as to become unbeatable... which is kinda boring.

I totally disagree with your list of names though. I'd identify more with someone with a goofy name than some pretentious name like Aarogorn son of Arowthorn any day:)

Nov 25, 11:50 by Sylvia F
foxyshadis: Glen Cook is fantastic. I was really pleased to see him mentioned, and highly recommend Glen Cook's "Black Company" series. The wizards WERE one of the best things in the books. They were cool and spooky and, as Iamn put it, weird but still human. Cook does fantastic, creepy things with magic, and he knows when to use it for flavor and when to hold off so it's a treat when it appears.

Nice article. I agree with those saying that problem seems to lie more in characterization than the idea of wizardry per say, but so many authors tend to use the magicians first and foremost as convenient plot-carriers and self-insertion characters. It's the mistake of trying to jazz up a person by giving them "cool powers" instead of some actual style.
Mar 17, 03:01 by Oliver Hauss
As for Gandalf, I believe thinking "Wizard" is thinking in the wrong modes. He and his kin are called "wizards" in the sense of "wise men". But in one of his letters, Tolkien refers to him as an "odinic wanderer" and if we look, for example, at the various incarnations of Odin, be it in Wagner's Ring or in the Volsungasaga from which it is derived, we see the lines in which Gandalf should be seen. Of course there are occasions on which he looks like the "classic" wizard such as when driving off the wargs, but that to no small degree is because so much later writings imitated Tolkien without really getting what he was about.

This is, in a way, similar to the "technobabble kills TV science fiction" argument. No, it's not technobabble that kills TV science fiction. It's technobabble used as a pitiful excuse for a proper plot resolution. A wizard in and of itself is just as little of a nerd as technobabble is nerdy. Both, however, can be used in a nerdy way, and that's when it gets boring and annoying.

Oh, and I agree that Star Wars is fantasy
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