By Barbra Annino
Implementing paranormal elements in fiction can be tricky business. Because the "magic" shouldn’t be used as an easy way out of a tough spot, the writer needs to draw the line on when and how it’s used. If your protagonist is at the bottom of a well and all she has to do is twitch her nose to get out of it, what fun is that for a reader? And what would be the point in turning the page if he never believed she was in real danger?
Magic, otherworldly beings and paranormal circumstances can be fun to play with — but they should also propel the plot forward. They should be used as a tool, like a gun or a special talent, attributed to the character as a source of protection, an element of disguise. Not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
In the book Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman weaves a world where the Owens women are cursed. They can never find true love, even though they have a firm grasp on spell casting. They cannot just snap their fingers and make everything better in their own lives, although they are often successful in helping others — sometimes too successful. In the story, the power of their witchcraft both hinders them and helps them. It’s a delicate balance that Hoffman blends well.
If you apply that formula in your own work, making the magical traits of your characters both bothersome and helpful, the reader will continuously wonder if the next dream, vision or spell will lead to more hot water or get her out of harm’s way.
Think of the Monk books and Adrian Monk's incredible gift for detecting. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he often says. And it is.
Monk’s observational skills take on an almost superhero-like quality. He sees things that others simply don’t catch, which helps him to solve murder after murder, yet also puts him in the path of danger. Arguably, this gift may be the root cause of his paralyzing fears as well.
Monk is a perfect example of the flawed genius — the superhero with debilitating faults. That’s more than balance, that’s a teeter-totter that makes for great storytelling.
Play with the magic in your books. If your character has the ability to see dead people, as in the Wendy Roberts books, perhaps he’s also blind. He can “see” people that have passed on, but he can’t see his own wife. This would make for compelling plot points.
If the character is a witch, make her dyslexic, so that she needs to use extreme caution every time she casts a spell or crazy things happen. Got a character that can talk to animals? What if the animals lied? Or what if they talked in riddles all the time and she had to figure out what the message was?
Magic in its many forms has captured audiences since storytelling began. But, as in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," magic can cause chaos — and even the most gifted protagonist has no story to tell without succumbing to his own flaws. Make sure you balance the supernatural with human frailty.
Barbra Annino is the author of Opal Fire, a Stacy Justice gemstone mystery. A Chicago native, she freelances for a variety of publications, writing about health, food and travel.