Mages as Main Characters: A Comment on a Reddit Post.

Today, I ran across this post on the /r/fantasy forum. It purports to be a commentary on the difficulties of writing magic-using characters, and since I have already dipped my toe into fantastical magic discussions this month, I may as well keep going.101247-200

Suffice to say, I beg to differ with the author of the post. Quite strongly. I think it carries with it a host of dangerous implications, both in terms of fiction, and in terms of real life.

Let’s take the first point:

Without balance, mages are hammers and everything else is a nail.

Basically, the poster is arguing that without an author-imposed limit on magic-usage, mage characters will cheerfully use their powers to resolve any situation. To which I would make the following points:

  • Having a special ability to do something does not mean that a character will use that special ability in all circumstances. Sometimes, it’s straight-out inappropriate: being the best sniper in the world does not help you paint your house, which means the character is going to have to resolve their problem in other ways. After all, your character has a well-rounded personality, right? One that is defined by more than simply having a special ability? Even Howard’s Conan occasionally encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve simply by hitting it.
  • Balanced magic is another kettle of fish, but using RPG-style limitations strikes me as pretty unimaginative (not to say it can’t be done well, but concepts like spell points, or whatever, are pretty old hat). To take the sniper example again, there are some circumstances where the sniper could use their ability, but they wouldn’t, because it would be utterly daft to do so. You don’t shoot a parking-warden dead for ticketing your car – social ramifications restrain both real and fictional characters from doing anything they want.

The drawbacks of being a mage have to feature prominently if you’re documenting their lives in any kind of detail. 

I honestly don’t see the point here. Every real-life person who has a special ability will spend most of their time not using that special ability – often in situations where someone else’s special ability is more pertinent. The World Chess Champion may be a magician over the chessboard, but that doesn’t help him if he needs medical treatment – for that you need someone qualified in a different area, namely a doctor.

Every action carries with it something economists refer to as opportunity cost – the cost of not being able to do the next best alternative. If every action has an opportunity cost, by implication so does a chosen career-path. If you are training to be a doctor, that means you can’t be training to be something  else. Which in turn means everything has a drawback – mage or otherwise.

Fragility VS competency is always a tricky balance

The poster concludes that since a magic-user who can fight would be overpowered and thus uninteresting, best if the magic-user is some sort of weakling, who must shield themselves from physical attacks (or get someone else to shield them).

Where to begin…

There is not just a distinct lack of imagination here, but also a lack of familiarity with the genre.

Tolkien’s Gandalf is one of the most famous mages in fantasy literature (while actually doing comparatively little magic) – but he carries Turgon’s old sword, Glamdring, around from The Hobbit onwards. Why? Because Gandalf can actually fight if he needs to. Does this make Gandalf uninteresting? No, it doesn’t, because there are foes out there that are more than a match for our wizard.

Moorcock’s Elric is another sword-wielding spell-caster, to the extent where he is better known for the sword than the magic. Elric is actually a weakling in the sense that he is a sickly albino, in constant need of drugs (or Stormbringer) for sustenance, but this rarely comes up in terms of having to defend himself from attacks – his fragility is an issue away from fights, not in the fights themselves. Oh, and his role as a cosmic plaything means that the issue of being overpowered never comes up.

And that assumes you are actually dealing with offensive spell-casting at all. My own Teltö Phuul is technically a mage (he is a qualified Necromancer, after all), but he is basically an ordinary person who just happens to be able to raise the dead. His magic (if you can call it that) is only sometimes useful for dealing with combat situations, and even then he has to get creative with it. He’s not simply throwing fireballs at people (nor is he more fragile than the average person – he has his athletic side with swimming).

Mages might not be the most obvious romantic leads

This is where unsavoury real-life assumptions come in. Basically it amounts to the following reasoning:

  • Magic-users are nerdy weaklings.
  • Nerds struggle for romantic attachment.
  • Therefore magic-users struggle for romantic attachment.

It’s really a restatement of social stereotypes masquerading as literary analysis.

Now, there are examples of magic-users who do struggle in the romantic sphere – Rowling’s Severus Snape, for instance. Which is rather beside the poster’s point, since Snape’s problem isn’t that he’s a mage (his enemy James Potter is one too), but rather his own status as both a bullying victim and a bully. The issue is not that Snape is a nerd, the issue is the character’s psychology. A better example would be Väinämöinen from Kalevala, an immensely powerful mage who is unlucky in love – but as Merlin shows, even the very archetypes of the western wizard can have romantic interests. Similarly, while Gandalf is not a sexual being, Elric most certainly is (female characters throw themselves at him on a regular basis). And Teltö happens to be bisexual, and very open about it.

I am rather flogging a dead horse at the moment, but I think the real problem with the post is that it betrays stunted thinking about how a magic-user would interact with the world around them. Too much willingness to buy into tropes – indeed the post represents an attempt to justify clichés via an appeal to “reason”, rather than trying to address what is actually in the fantasy genre as written. While it is entirely possible to write about a nerdy sexually-frustrated mage who hides behind meat shields, and to write it well, the key point should be to try and make the character feel fresh on its own terms, rather than simply claiming that this is the logical consequence of magic-use in a fantasy setting.

 

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