Recent feedback about Ruling Eden got me thinking about the nature of imperfection in characters appearing in fantasy or paranormal stories. In Ruling Eden I created a protagonist, Rachel, who discovers after 25 years of a mundane life, that not only is she magical, but that she’s the most powerful magical being on Earth and a virtual Queen to every paranormal/magical being. A series of events propels her into the alternate realm of Eden’s Court and she’s off to battle politics, intrigue, and a world in danger of destruction. Not to mention her love life.
As I developed Rachel I focused on her inner conflicts, her lifelong struggle with anger and her fear that she would end up misusing her new power. So when a reader commented that Rachel came off as too perfect it got me thinking. Was it because she was able to manipulate her newfound magic easily in so short a period? Maybe. Was it because she accepted the awful responsibility dropped in her lap with little struggle? (Okay, she’s honorable, so sue me.) She certainly opened her heart to care about a number of the supporting characters she met right away. After a lifetime of being isolated, she grabs at the possibility of new relationships with both barrels. Maybe all of these things are true. As writers we adopt ideas about our characters and sometimes focus on these ideas to the exclusion of others. I was hell-bent on focusing upon her anger and insecurity, traits I saw that made her less than perfect. I love conflict in my heroes and heroines. Inner conflict most importantly. I realized after this reader comment, that what I found particularly interesting in characters is how their self-perceptions often misaligned with their actions or how others see them. Rachel is a woman of strength, but she doesn’t always see herself that way. We can be our own harshest critics.
But in a fantasy novel, a world that is explicitly about magic, does the conflict have to encompass the specifics of magic? Does the nature of the beast dictate a reader’s interest in how the protagonist master’s their magic? Rachel’s inner conflict includes her fear of using her magic, and some feeling that she’s out of control with it, as well as having to learn what her magic encompasses, but all in all she is able to master almost every magical task that comes her way. I just finished reading two books by Wen Spencer, Tinker and Wolf Who Rules. The heroine is kick-butt scientific genius who’s young, genuine, loveable, a bit distracted by the physics popping left and right in her mind, and pretty quickly able to master the magic she’s taught once she is turned into an elf. Okay, maybe in a few places she messes up on the finger movements that are crucial to the magical system in this book, but she just about accomplishes everything she tries to do magically and pulls solutions out of her brilliant mind left and right. What makes her a great character, and one we don’t hate even though everyone is enamored of her and she is a wonderful woman, are the flaws that have nothing to do with her magic and talent. She has a hard time seeing the big picture, gets swept up in the ideas that pop into her head and doesn’t always think about how they fit with everything and everyone else. She’s a bit socially naive. You can tell I loved these books. I highly recommend them. And the premise involves the city of Pittsburgh being swept up every month to the world of the elves in a space warp. How random is that? On top of it the heroine owns a junk yard and builds hovercraft motorcycle racers.
Anyway, I digress. My questions parse out to this: How do you like your magic served? Does it have to be a problem for your protagonists? Can it be something that comes naturally or does there have to be a hitch to it that’s tied to a hero or heroine’s inner or outer conflict? Do you favor the more spell driven magics or the inborn kind that comes with being a shapeshifter for instance? The best thing about writing fantasy is that there’s no one way to create a magical system. Where do you fall in your preferences on this? Just a little informal poll. Any comments are appreciated.