The panel “Strength Isn’t Just for the Strong” was another excellent one from this year’s World Fantasy Convention. The panelists were Carole Cummings, David Anthony Durham, Rhiannon Held, Fonda Lee, and Marissa Lingen. The program description reads, “Fantasy stories with ordinary, non-magical people, both humans and others, as protagonists.”
As I look back over my notes on this panel, what strikes me about the conversation is that it addresses the question of why fantasy matters–why magic matters. What does fantasy literature have to offer? It’s perhaps not the most intuitive takeaway from a discussion on non-magical characters, but bear with me.
Though fantasy is often defined by its use of magic, whether in the form of magical humans (witches, wizards, etc.), magical creatures (unicorns, dragons, etc.), or more nebulous magical forces, non-magical characters can play an extremely important role. For those of us real-world humans who are not in fact magical, non-magical characters offer a jumping-off point into a fantasy world. They are relatable, and they allow readers to learn the world along with the character.
Magic and Worldbuilding
The conversation quickly turned toward the role of magic as metaphor. Magic in the world of a story comes with its own social norms, mores, etc. In the world of the story, is magic innate, or is it somehow learned, earned, or otherwise gained? The answer to this question will determine a lot about the world. Who has magic in the world of the story? How do they get it? Who controls its acquisition and use? Are there different styles of magic? Traditionally, magic is equated in fantasy literature with power, worth, intelligence, specialness. When magic is portrayed as a form of intelligence, we miss out if we don’t include non-magical characters with other positive traits.
Whether it is a form of intelligence or not, magic is often a tool to represent real-world issues of power and privilege. Magical characters in stories are typically an elite. As the non-elite, non-magical characters offer another lens, a different way to think about how people without privilege navigate their world.
If magic is associated with goodness, it’s important to be aware of who has it and who doesn’t, and what this may inadvertently say to readers about which groups are privileged/worthy/special and which are not. If, on the other hand, magic is bad, then being non-magical can be shorthand for goodness in a character.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series was mentioned as an excellent example of worldbuilding using magic, as in these books, fantasy races with varying degrees of magic are not mappable to actual ethnic groups (e.g. Tolkien’s problematic Easterlings).
Magic and Characterization
Magic can have detrimental possibilities or confer disadvantages on a character. It doesn’t necessarily equate to unlimited power or “better” characters. A fantasy world is more interesting if the non-magical characters are not “less than,” but are instead simply different. In a well-developed fantasy world, magic will be a complication, not a cure-all.
A character’s main or only mode of strength should not be magical–they need other kinds of strength, or they’re cartoonish. All characters need both multidimensional strengths and multidimensional weaknesses. There are many kinds of strength that we underestimate in the real world; we need to think more broadly about what strength is in developing fictional characters.
An interesting point that came out of the discussion of magic and character was the idea that the antagonist should always think they’re the protagonist. Fonda Lee offered her litmus test: “Can you rewrite the story from the antagonist’s point of view and have readers think they’re the protagonist?”
Much of the discussion on this panel ended up being about magical characters rather than non-magical ones, but the opening thoughts about non-magical characters as relatable really set the tone and contextualized everything that followed. As I reflect on this from a couple week’s distance, it strikes me that 1) fantasy authors have a hard time not talking about magic, and 2) fantasy, with its use of magic as metaphor, matters. Magic offers us a way to explore issues of privilege, class, intelligence, while putting ourselves as readers (who may be extremely privileged) in a position to practice empathy. If we are the non-magical characters, viewing the world of the story through non-magical eyes, then we are the characters who are not privileged, who do not hold the ultimate power. As the current climate of political discourse continuously shows, it’s often extremely difficult for white people to acknowledge implicit racism, for men to recognize their privilege, for straight cis people to understand that theirs is a position of power, etc. By taking us out of our own world and putting us in the pages of another, a magical world in which we automatically understand what it means to not have that particular power, because we don’t, fantasy gives us a way of empathizing that realistic literature cannot offer.
This all feels very half-baked at the moment, but in the interest of time and capturing my thoughts before this convention is weeks and not months in the past, there it is. I’m going to be mulling this over for a while.