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November, 2005 : Criticism:

Wizards: The Real Problem With Fantasy Writing

This essay was originally going to be a review of The Mammoth Book of Sorcerers' Tales, edited by Mike Ashley, and published in late 2004. This recent addition to the serried ranks of Mammoth Books includes stories by contemporary writers (including some of my favourites) of the stature of Ursula Le Guin, Tom Holt and Mike Resnick, alongside historical curiosities and rarities such as Clark Ashton Smith's "The Double Shadow" and Michael Moorcock's "Master of Chaos". It should, I thought, have been an interesting read. But I couldn't finish it. I forced myself through about two-thirds of the stories and browsed the rest, hoping, vainly, for something to spark my interest. Nuthin'.


As a collection it was, in a word, boring.

After several months of soul-searching and some very rudimentary research, I have concluded that there are two possible reasons for this. On the one hand, it may be that, when it comes to taste in fantasy fiction, my universe simply does not align with Mr Ashley's. Alternatively, it could be that sorcerors and wizards, by their very nature, are just plain dull.

I have come down in favor of the second explanation on the grounds that: (a) it's much more likely to provoke a backlash from enraged Potterphiles, (b) it could explain what's really wrong with a great deal of mainstream fantasy fiction these days, and (c) the first reason doesn't make for much of an essay.

Could it be that what's wrong with fantasy writing today isn't a decline in editing standards among many of the major publishing houses, or the marketing imperative that measures the quality of a book by the inch-thickness of its spine and its potential for endless sequels? Could it be something more insidious? Embedded from the beginning in the classics of the genre, of which today's twenty-volume epics are but pale and prolix imitations?

Could this simple premise (wizards=boring) explain why, although I'm in awe of every word of science-fiction Ursula Le Guin has ever written, I yawned my way through the Earthsea trilogy? (Not quartet — I couldn't come at the fourth book.) Could it be the reason why I skimmed all the bits about Pug in Magician, the first fantasy epic I ever read, anxious to get back to Tomas and Arutha and all the other blokey-blokes up to their elbows in grime and gore? Could it be the real reason why, after a lifetime of fandom, starting with seeing the original instalment with my dad when I was five, I found the Star Wars prequels so crushingly disappointing?

"FOR GOD'S SAKE, MAN! PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!" I hear the dieharder-than-I fans cry. "Why on Coruscant are you bringing up Star Wars in a discussion of high fantasy?

"Star Wars is science-fiction," they say. "The original, the ultimate, the apogee of space opera."


C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe is space opera; Star Wars is high fantasy in techno-drag.

Could it be that episodes I–III were mediocre not because George Lucas is "a piss-poor director of actors" (as one Australian critic so colorfully alleged) but because they're so full of Jedi? And Jedi, let me remind you, lest you accuse me of the self-indulgent bitterness of a disgruntled ex-fan, are wizards. There ain't nuthin' SFnal about the Force, folks, for all the belated effort to prop it up with technobabble in Episode I. (Dude, he's strong with the Force — who cares about his Mosquito-Chlorine count?)

I contend that episodes IV–VI were fun because they only featured three Jedi and the Jedi they did include were entertaining and engaging for every aspect of their characters other than the fact that they were wizards. Yoda was fun because he was small and cute and his words in the wrong order he spoke. Plus, he had someone's fist permanently shoved up his butt and that'd give anyone a spring in their step. Luke was interesting precisely because he wasn't a Jedi until Episode VI, at which point he instantly suffered an abrupt and absolute loss of charisma.

Coincidence? I think not.

And Obi Wan Kenobi wasn't the coolest dude of a pensioner ever to lead a small group of renegades to rescue the princess and save the galaxy because he was Obi Wan Kenobi. He was cool because he was Sir Alec Guinness. As soon as Ewan MacGregor stepped into the role (who, better-than-competent actor though he is, ain't Sir Alec) it was revealed for the straight jacket it really was.

But why are wizards so unengaging?

First: the sex. Or rather, the notable lack thereof. And yeah, I know, endless numbers of writers carry on about magical power being better than sex blah blah blah. But seriously: sex is a big part of what makes us the selfish, short-sighted, aggressively tribalistic hyper-primates that we are. Without sex, wizards are just thaumaturgic uber-nerds.

How many nerds, I ask you, don't want to see their heroes gettin' some?

And, let's face it, if you're reading this essay (let alone writing it) you are a nerd. Some writers try to give their wizards a love interest – Pug gets himself hitched, HP plays a bit of tonsil-hockey in the Quidditch off-season – but, really, while the characters go through the motions, you can tell their sorcerous hearts aren't in it. They'd much rather be locked in their bedrooms playing with their magic wands.

Not that I think wizards should get more butch, necessarily. A gay wizard trying to get by in a fantasy world ruled by the sexual ideology of Conan the Barbarian (kill de men, rape de horses, hear de lamentations of de vomen, etc) might, for example, be a character worth reading. No, it's the absence of any kind of gender from the characters of most wizards that's disheartening. One is always left with the sneaking suspicion that under their robes (to steal a line from Kevin Smith) they're as anatomically challenged as a Ken doll. Or (again, thank you Mr. Smith) an angel.

Which leads me to the second reason. Wizards often don't make interesting and sympathetic characters because they're too perfect. Like elves with beards. Too often, wizards are the Basil Exposition of the fantasy genre, barely-translucent ciphers for the story's author. They know everything that's going on, but only dole the information out to the other characters when the author wants the reader to know. They have a spell up their robe to deal with every situation – which is fun for a while, but wanes as quickly as having all the cheats for the latest Nintendo adventure. Consequently, if the wizard does happen to die, it is much more obviously a convenient plot device than genuine human drama.

Third reason: the names. While warriors get blessed with names like Conan, Arutha or Rhodry Maelwaedd, Eddard Stark or Aragorn-son-of-Arathorn, wizards get lumbered with hangers like Gandalf and Pug, Nevyn, Ged and Dumbledore. Credibility? Ha!

Reader identification? I think not.

Might as well call them all Slartibartfast and be done with it. Only hobbits and dwarves get shorter shrift (boom boom) in the naming department.

Evil wizards often fare somewhat better: Saruman. Sauron. Voldemort. Thulsa Doom.

The Witch King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul.

Gives you a chill, doesn't it?

But it ain't necessarily so: Count Dooku, anyone? Oin and Gloin would be more badass bad guy names than Dooku. JarJar Binks would be a more credible… okay, maybe not.

One might be tempted to argue that being Evil in itself adds a certain level of interest to a wizard's character. Being undead and evil is even better. Who, after all, are the great villains of high fantasy? Sauron? Voldemort? The aforementioned Witch King of etcetera? Au contraire. These are hardly characters at all. Like many of their Good counterparts, they're little (if anything) more than plot labels for a simplistic Manichean moral order. Hardly original. Or exciting.

(And don't get me started on that tedious business of Evil Wizards always investing their power in an artefact that is: (a) easily misplaced and (b) the Good Wizard knows how to destroy or use against them.)

I happened across a recent example a couple of weeks ago, which I won't do the author the disservice of naming, since it's their first novel. A stock young-peasant-lad-discovers-he's-the-chosen-one-and-saves-the-world fantasy story was ticking along nicely for the first two-thirds of volume one. It had offered up a couple of entertaining deviations from the norm, such as the chosen one being written as a cantankerous Yorkshireman. There was some nice interplay between the principle characters, a dash of political intrigue.

Then the Evil Wizard Lord turned up. Yawn.

To further overstate the point: which villainous character has the most depth, emotive range and capacity to engage the reader/viewer? Gollum? Grima Wormtongue? Or a giant flaming eye perched atop an unfeasibly tall phallic symbol? The great villains of fantasy aren't the one-dimensional Evil Wizard Lords, they're the tormented henchmen, the petty, venal, vicious little backstabbers. In short, the fallible and the fallen: the Gollums and the Grimas.

Okay, so if being evil (or even evil and undead) isn't enough to make a wizard interesting, what is?

I submit that incompetence goes a long way.

For me, the only really engaging story in the aforementioned Mammoth Book was Tom Holt's "The Infestation," in which a washed-up failure of a wizard is confronted by a demon that wants to devour his city. This wizard is all too human, his triumph by no means certain. The reader is engaged in his struggle because it seems genuine.

Gandalf provides another good example. As Gandalf the Grey, one has the strong impression he's a bit of a bumbler, perhaps a touch senile. A little too fond of the halflings' weed, one might suggest. So, when he stands up to the Balrog, one is halfway convinced that he really is suicidally overmatched. Of course the quality of the delivery helps, with that glorious moment of apparent victory, before the beast drags Gandalf down into the chasm after it. "Fly, you fools!" Exquisite.

Like a smack in the forehead with a hammer.

But then he turns up again as Gandalf the White. No more senility, no more bumbling. Suddenly, he's read all the way to the end of Part III and is channelling J.R.R. like the Prophet taking dictation from God. Suddenly, he's thrumming with power (which, of course, he hardly uses, except at points convenient to the plot). Suddenly, he's not nearly as much fun.

But is incompetence, alone, enough? Terry Pratchett's Rincewind is the ultimate incompetent wizard. But is he really an interesting character? Or is he only interesting because he hangs out with an orang-utan, homicidal Luggage and an elderly barbarian who's a lifetime in his own legend?

Glen Cook, in his Black Company novels, is one author who has discovered secret recipe for making wizards interesting. How? Because, for Cook, labels like good and evil are nominal. Whichever side they're on, his wizards are petty, venal, vicious, backstabbing, and moderately incompetent. Many of them are, if not actually undead, then at least risen from the grave. They have badass names like Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, The Howler, and The Hanged Man. They have human jealousies and human rivalries and moments of human frailty. They get laid and they get jilted and they leave their lovers buried alive for all eternity. They are all fallible.

And the final, vital ingredient? They are seriously weird, man.

One speaks every sentence with a different voice and spends several years carrying her head around in a box. Another appears to be a midget werewolf who lives in a pile of rags on top of a flying carpet. A third is an actual hanged man, complete with stretched neck and bloated face. A fourth gets hacked to pieces, devoured by magic and otherwise murdered so many times he's reduced to the undead-evil-wizard equivalent of Boxing Helena. At which point he cons some gullible natives into dressing him up as the Wicker Man and really starts to kick some ass.

But even the Cook Method isn't necessarily enough. Steven Eriksson has applied it pretty faithfully in his Malazan books, without managing to make his wizards interesting. (Possibly that's because if you're going to use, not just the first, but the first two inch-and-a-half thick volumes of your neverending epic essentially setting up your world, you should be able to devote some quality time to character development.) And, while you wouldn't accuse him of verbosity, Cook himself falls into the same trap of character building with an RPG stats-sheet in his Dread Empire series.

So, is there a Recipe for an Interesting Wizard? I think there is. And here it is:

  1. Don't ever let them speak with the voice of God.
  2. Let them be human.
  3. Let them be weird.
  4. Let them be incompetent.
  5. Let them not be built on a stats-sheet.
  6. Let them be anatomically correct and let them really enjoy having sex.
  7. At least think about letting them be undead.
  8. And let them have names that wouldn't be out of place in WWE.

Copyright © 2005, Ian McHugh. All Rights Reserved.

About Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh lives in Canberra, Australia, but would rather be closer to the beach. He is a graduate of the 2006 Clarion West writers' workshop. His short fiction has appeared in the All Star Stores anthology Twenty Epics, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) and Antipodean SF. He has stories forthcoming in ASIM, Challenging Destiny and the Fantasist Enterprises anthology Blood & Devotion.


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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