Ah, another rant on a subject I am heavily biased against. Well, I shall attempt to restrain my bitchiness, although last time that seemed to result in more bitchiness than normal. Regardless.
I promise I will leave genetic magic alone in this rant. (Mostly. See point 1). After all, if you have a family and they’re all magical, of course it’s going to be inherited magic, and I can’t really complain about something inherent in the premise. I can just complain about the premise being followed up in cutesy or cloying ways instead of interesting ones.
1) Remember power imbalances.
You know those stories where the protagonist has magic, but her siblings/cousins don’t, and they hate her and are jealous of her for it? Yeah.
Sick of them. So sick.
Also, you know those stories where the protagonist is the one person in the entire family who doesn’t have magic, and then it turns out she does, and hers is the most powerful of them all?
Sick of them. So sick.
Magic, in most fantasy worlds, is power—and not just in the sense of whatever its effects are. This is what I think a lot of authors miss, even as they’re using the secondary implications to benefit their protagonists. It can make things happen. It often gets the people who wield it high position and status, or it gets them hunted, which usually secures “innocent victim” status in the minds of the audience. It can impress neutral people and convert them to the protagonist’s side. Hell, it can even impress the gods, so much so that they make prophecies saying only a person with such-and-such magical ability can free a sword from a stone.
Something like that is going to fuck with the power balances of a family, the same way that age and income and past history will. And both the scenarios I mentioned above are stupid, simplistic ways of handling it. If you’re going to have fucking inherited genetic magic, at least treat it with the fucking intelligence I hope you inherited, the same way that you would any other part of your created world.
Can you write about a pair of siblings having differences because of their age, and do it in such a way to show that it’s not all the older sibling’s fault for being too important to the parents, or the younger sibling’s fault for being a spoiled brat? Surely you can, since both those caricatures are also stupid and simplistic. Authors do it all the time. They remember that age affects the way the siblings act, and either may have power that is neither right nor fair (the older sibling might be physically stronger, the younger more able to get the parents in on her side for being physically weaker).
Please don’t pretend that magic, or the lack of it, introduces an aura of purity and saintliness that makes any action the protagonist takes utterly reasonable and makes her family morons when they cannot see her glory. At least two people always make up a dysfunctional sibling-sibling or cousin-cousin or parent-child relationship. Sure, one can be a complete victim, but I think it’s the least interesting route—and fantasy authors have far more room to manipulate their fictional world than real people have to manipulate their lives. Thanks in advance.
2) Magical “accidents” are no longer all that cute.
I mentioned this in a very early rant about the protagonist’s childhood. Do you really think, if an eight-year-old found out he could wield fire stronger than his parents’, that he wouldn’t use that to “encourage” his parents to let him stay up past his bedtime? He might wind up burning the house down, but as a child, that admonition might not get him to damp the fire in time. Or perhaps he just doesn’t have the control an adult does.
Have magic show up before the character is fully and mentally adult (although it would be a very neat world where the magic refused to show up until its future wielder had a good ounce of common sense and responsibility), and you’re going to have problems that require creative and adaptive parents. An adolescent can be mature for her age and still do inadvisable things during mood swings. Imagine her not just screaming and stomping and swearing, but giving her parents third-degree burns, or breaking her father’s bones with a rock carelessly hurled by her telekinesis. Those families in the nineteenth century who apparently had poltergeists attached to their adolescent children lived in fear, not in pride over “How talented our daughters are!”
As I noted above, magic shouldn’t just take away all a family’s problems and make life easier. It should add another dimension to keep track of, one that’s sometimes easy and sometimes hard.
3) Resist the “team” urge.
This is where each member of the magical family has a designated “role” to play. Four children who each control one element, for example, and perhaps their parents control Spirit and Heart (authors’ favorite candidates for extra elements). Aren’t they too cute for words?
Yes, they are. Excuse me while I barf on my shoes. No, wait, their shoes. They started it.
There’s no reason that each family member’s magical talent should be complementary to the others. Genetics are weird and tricky things. A magical family could repeat talents—yes, even if they only had two children—have talents of varying strength, have varying levels of control, and, here’s a crazy-ass idea, have varying levels of interest in “saving the world” or all doing the same thing with their magic. Think about families where the parents try to train all their children into little musicians or actors. Aren’t they creepy? And did the kidsreally all have the exact same level of interest in music or acting?
A varied bunch of people are more interesting in fantasy travel parties, in your cast of central characters, and in magical families, too. Turn off Captain Planet and clear your mind of the memory before you start writing.
4) Decide how they react as a family structure.
What position do families play in this imaginary culture? Is each mostly an isolated farm family? Are there oligarchies? Clans? Tribes? Royal families? Families of mages bred and harvested for talent?
One reason I often roll my eyes when the author goes into a magical family story is because the “magical” part is emphasized and the “family” is ignored. Every other family in the story has, y’know, occupations, things they do to stay alive somehow. The magical family seems to sit around making magic, and they get their food from nowhere and they never have to use the toilet. (Their shit probably doesn’t stink). They revolve around their talents, and often around the team urge.
Repeat after me: Your people are more than their magic. Your people are more than their magic. Yes, even when their aunts and cousins and siblings and uncles all have magic, too.
You’ll still get sibling rivalries that have nothing to do with who can make ice form faster just by thinking about it. You’ll still get anxieties over big events like festivals, weddings, and funerals. You’ll still have parents squabbling, perhaps even having knock-down drag-out fights, that are over something other than who’s the more powerful mage. You’ll still get a network of communication between family members, of dynamics that look very different on one side than on the other; a cousin might think she’s very good friends with the protagonist, who doesn’t regard her that way. You’ll get the family jokes and skeletons.
These should be characters, not walking abilities.
5) Is this family really the only one in the world to have magic?
That’s just as boring, to me, as the protagonist being the only person in the world who has it, or who believes in it. Invent more, and you have a whole culture not just of families but of magical families to put them in. Now sit back and watch the fireworks.
Are there certain traditions in the families? What are they? How do they interact with each other? Do they marry exclusively among each other (shades of Darkover here), among people who share the talent, or in clannish or tribal structures? Do they have policies of fosterage, adoption, mutual protection? How do they regard the outside world? Are there enough of them to make a difference in the society? How do they regulate magic and its use? Are they the society?
Yes, this does mean that you can’t obsessively dwell on one genealogy for the entire book and prove that they are the source of all things pure and right. Welcome to a much better world.
6) Judge your own skill at handling large numbers of characters.
This comes from the tendency of so many magical families I’ve read to be as large as possible. The parents had seven kids, or nine. The author writes about not only a “main” family of parents and children, but six hundred assorted other relatives. The genealogical table at the back of the book is more complicated than some freshman English papers. And so on.
The problem comes in when the author cannot handle large numbers of characters. Signs of this:
- The characters all start resembling each other, or various stock personalities (the Comic Relief, the Bitchy Sister, the Funny Younger Brother, the Protective Older Brother, and so on).
- The author madly flings names across the page and expects you to remember the most minor of them six hundred pages later.
- The author has a bad case of overloving her world, and thinks that everybody will want to know the smallest, tiniest details of everybody’s marriages, remarriages and pregnancies, who’s a fraternal twin to whom and who’s identical, and what everybody looks like. Describing one character for paragraphs on paragraphs is bad enough. Imagine fifty.
- The author has a supposedly cool idea for naming in her culture. This supposedly cool idea involves every person in a given family having a name that begins with the same letter or sets of letters. IDIOCY. (Yes, there are parents in our world who deliberately do this. IDIOCY).
- The author introduces relatives who have no bearing on the story, just because they appear on the family tree. No one needs to know that much detail of your worldbuilding notes.
If your reader has to spend all her time untangling who these people are, then she can’t focus on other things, like the protagonist and the plot and the aspects of the setting that aren’t the Magical Family Love-In. Please take some care. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing about one parent and his or her only child if that is all you want to or feel you can handle. Magical families don’t need to be sprawling.
7) Beware the powerhouse.
This happened to David Eddings. (Granted, a lot of things happened to David Eddings that other authors could learn from). At the end of his second five-book series set in the same world, he had his main character, the main character’s distant relatives, the main character’s uncle-by-marriage, and gods know how many other people all wielding magic. There were at least seven or eight of the world’s strongest mages in there.
Can we say “overpowered?”
A magical family that all agrees with each other and all have powerful magic is going to be a threat. Yeah, you can write about people hunting them for their magic. (Though see Point 8). But you won’t be able to write about much that threatens them, unless you make it a clash of the titans or make everyone involved so monumentally stupid that they never think of simple solutions—the idiot plot, in fact. Otherwise, the reader can sit back confident in the knowledge that no one is going to die.
Don’t do this. It’s the team effect multiplied, and at this point, it’s bloody stupid, not just stupid.
8) Not every plot point should have to do with magic, either.
Other stories I am tired of seeing:
- The magical family hunted down and persecuted for their magic, or having a powerful child stolen from them.
- The magical family having their only conflicts come from debates about the proper amount of power to use and when.
- The magical family all living and loving and being cute together, rather like a situation comedy transported into Fantasyland.
- The magical family doing nothing but stab each other in the back, with no other goal at all. These people usually are attempting to rewrite the Amber series, and failing rather badly, because none of them have Zelazny’s pacing skills, interesting metaphysical conceptions, or sense of humor.
As I noted above, this family should have dynamics not based on magic. What are they? Spin stories out of those. Or they can be as caught up in the great disasters facing the fantasy world as everyone else, without being the keystones of the Light side’s resistance. Or they can face the challenges that you find in political fantasy, transformative fantasy, brutal fantasy, without altering the whole tenor of the story just because they’re there. Use them as pieces in your story, and not only the most important ones.
When these work well, they work really, really well, and when they’re bad, they’re barfy.