How do I make a magic-wielder not seem like a super hero when working with others with other magical talents?
by Joey Camacho
(Fort Worth, Texas)
Hi Glen, thank you for answering my other question about emotional moments in a story, that helped out a ton! Wall of text incoming. I am sorry in advance. There's a TL;DR at the bottom.
Now, I love super heroes, don't get me wrong, but in my opinion they are just too... They stand out too much. I don't think that makes them bad characters, but sometimes when I'm writing my book I feel like I subconsciously like them way much more than I believed.
As I told you before, my story takes place in a fantasy setting, in a world divided between different known and unknown races like the Humans of the Four Winds Kingdoms, the Pure Elves of Archinem, the Grove Elves of Lilitha (or Breszha, can't recall the name :D), the Dark Elves of Sarterra, the Dwarves from Below, Orcs later on, the Trolls of the Witch Brood Tribes, and the Cyclopes of the Islands of Mystery. Naturally, with so many different cultures in a fantasy setting, magic is involved. My main character is specifically a Pure Elf from Archinem, the kingdom that won the War of Magic against the Dark Elves and Humans, which denied the two losing races the ability to use arcane magic (one of the many types of magic in my series) through a mysterious ritual that involved some global brain washing spell and the banishing of Human students from the Arcane Sanctum in Archinem by my main character's father, King Artalon, and his accomplice Regent-lord Fardris (who will end up being the antagonist soon).
A little context if you have time, if not TL;DR at the bottom:
My character, Ergwen Rowyth, had a best friend that was Human, Jonah Armielle. He was a student at the arcane academy in Archinem-- the Arcane Sanctum-- before he and the other Human students got kicked out rather violently from Elven lands during the War of Magic. Now Jonah was a dirt poor orphan basically living off the dumpster in one of the Human capitals called Andren until one day, when Ergwen's mother, Queen Liara, traveled there and sensed his affinity for magic. To be honest, Jonah's talent in the arcane wasn't a big deal at all, but the Pure Elven Queen needed an excuse to "adopt" him, I guess, so she brought him to Archinem to study the arcane and gave him a home in the Royal Castle of Rowyth because she was just a good person like that. Haha. And she "saw" something different in him, go figure, you know how old people (and I mean thousands of years old) are sometimes. Truth is, she just felt like he was "the one" for her daughter, since she believed that most Pure Elves were just too unwilling to humble themselves enough to put someone else's needs in front of theirs.
The General stereotype with Humans in my book is that they are selfish as heck and way too imperialistic for the majority of the Pure Elves. Power-hungry too. Anyway, a series of events during the final day of the War of Magic (the Prologue) proved to Princess Ergwen, who had lived all of her 14 years of life with Jonah as her best friend in the Castle of Rowyth, that he was no different from all the other Humans and that her racist father was right all along. Jonah finally came to understand that he was being corrupted by his want to hold on to power in the form of his arcane magic so he did the unthinkable of any Human and ripped his small talent for magic from himself and imbued his lifelong friend with it (she hadn't been born with magical talent like most of her family), knocking her out cold for a few weeks, trusting that she was a much better candidate to wield his power than he was, what with what he believed to be her "pure" heart.
Now that that's done, from my planning I'm getting an air of a Justice League type thing that I certainly do not want for my story. Ergwen will be wielding rather weak arcane magic along with two life-leeching daggers (as in, they steal her life without her knowing it, not her enemies' lives) for most of the story, Jonah will have actually been training with a new organization, the Church of the Holy Light, to become a Light-wielding knight during his three years of absence from Archinem, my third main character, Jonah's lost younger sister (who was presumed m.i.a. after an unexpected Troll attack one night), Ella Armielle, will be a witch (an unholy magic wielder) if only for the first book, and lastly the rebellious
and dashing son of a common pirate with a very nice-- stolen-- ship (very much my version of Han Solo).
All my main characters are markedly different from one another in terms of magic types and styles of fighting, which I feel is too super hero-esque in itself when you have the Fellowship of the Ring being all magic-less and working out flawlessly. In the Lord of the Rings, the only person who wields magic is Gandalf, so everyone is relatively in the same boat in how they fight (mostly swords).
My question is, do I have to cut characters' talents in different types of magic to make it seem more common and less super hero-y? Should I cut characters? I mean, wielding arcane magic in Ergwen's case is the norm in her Elven society, Jonah's Holy Light organization is starting to gain lots of ground with the Humans, and Ella's witch magic stems from the Trolls of the Witch Broods, who are numerous. So the problem isn't that they're too exclusive to the characters themselves, but that they're so different from each other and it just seems out of place when put together in a scene, and it'll be this way until the second book or last half of my second book. To put it in perspective, Jonah will be using Holy magic and Ella will be using Unholy magic when fighting as a team.
What's your opinion on that? Too much? I'd honestly like to go through with it because it'll spark a LOT of tension with all their differences in place, and even Ella's connection to the Trolls of the Witch Broods is a major problem I'll be looking to tackle in the next book, if not weave it into the first one. But this super hero image is just keeping me from moving on :/ is it worth it?
I feel like the reader would just think that I just couldn't help but make all of my main characters save one a special, magical person even though they really aren't that special or powerful in the least... Not yet.Answer:
I have the impression you're a world-builder.
There's a balance that must be achieved between creating a story world that's detailed enough to seem authentic and creating one that is so riddled with superficial details, rules, categories, etc. that it actually starts to feel artificial -- more like Dungeons and Dragons or an online video game.
When too much emphasis is placed on superficial character traits and abilities, the characters can actually start to feel inauthentic. As you say, more like superheroes than real people. Sure, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, talents, skills, knowledge, etc. But that's only one part of who we are. Readers want characters they can relate to, who feel human -- which is why more people like Batman than Superman. We can relate to Batman's character flaws more than Superman's perfection and seemingly limitless abilities.
I would suggest that you focus on creating an authentic emotional journey for your characters. Don't make the rules and classifications within the story world so complicated that the readers feel they have to memorize an encyclopedia to understand why a particular scene unfolds as it does. A good fight should be more about the emotional significance than about what type of magic is being used.
Stories are about people trying to cope with life. They are about a clash of desires and values, human strengths and frailties, relationships, and the struggle to find meaning, security, power, and love. They are about impulses, ideas, insights, mistakes -- all the things that characters in role playing games are immune to. For example, real people mature. Game characters level up. Categories of magic users or character races are a poor substitute for authentic human experience.
Try to make the story about your characters' values, emotional drives, desires, efforts, attitudes, and boundaries rather than the type of magic they use or the racial group they come from.
Magic should be used sparingly (it tends to make everything too easy). When it's used, consider making the magic symbolize a character's inner state.
Racial groups (humans, elves, etc.) in fantasy works are more problematic today than in Tolkein's time, when communities were less multi-racial and racism was more socially acceptable. They can easily lead to racial stereotyping. For example, many people dislike how Tolkein's elves, the superior race in his books, physically resemble Northern Europeans, while the evil races seem more North African ("dark") or Indian (riding elephants). It's a racist attitude which is less acceptable today. If you do use racial groups, they should be more about values and attitudes than appearance.
Best of luck.