How magic and character go hand-in-glove
It takes a certain amount of gumption to create a world from scratch, especially when there's magic involved. All the details to consider - How will it work? What are the limits of the magic? Who knows about it? What do they do with their new with their magic?
Then, there's the whole explaining-it-to-the-reader challenge.
Nothing kills a good story vibe faster than a long silver stake of explanation.
But there's hope. Of the many excellent examples out there, I chose to delve into Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy because of her masterful handling of that critical moment, introducing the magic.
Spoiler alert: it's not about the magic, it's about the characters.
By the end of the series, you can't imagine Holly Black's characters in any other world. We follow the ups and downs of Cassel, the main character, wonder about the moral implications of a mother manipulating her son’s love-interest’s emotions, and ask if we can be a good person and also a murderer. These are intense stakes.
We believe in this world, yet it maintains its strangeness. When we think about building a story-world of our own, our first instinct is likely to focus on setting and the mechanics of the place and its magic.
I believe that the place cannot exist apart from the characters who inhabit it if we want to create a rich and believable experience. In her July 2016 lecture “Creating a Working Magic System,” given at the at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Holly Black highlighted two main points of exploration for world-building: How does this magic work? and How do people behave once they get the magic? The second question carries more weight throughout the series because it binds the characters in their particular magical setting. This connection is especially evident in the beginning.
On the first page of White Cat, Cassel is on his dorm’s roof in the middle of the night. He assumes he’s sleepwalking. For six pages, everything about the world, if not the situation, is normal. We are not reading for magic, we’re reading about a person.
The first hint of something unusual about the world is the description of Ms. Northcutt, Headmistress, drinking a cup of hot coffee “and gripping it so tightly the leather of her gloves over her knuckles is pulled taut.”(6) It’s cold outside, so this detail might slip by, but the scene is in the Dean’s office and wearing gloves to drink hot coffee seems odd. Cassel admits, to the reader, that he was a sleepwalker before, that he’s running betting cons at school, and he’s “done plenty wrong.” (7) The details are building and it’s not until we have a grasp on Cassel’s situation and we sense that he has a secret past that the magic comes fully into view.
“[Dean] Wharton’s hand goes unconsciously to his neck, where I see the colored cord and the outline of the amulet under his white shirt. I get it. They’re wondering if I’ve been worked. Cursed. It’s not that big a secret that my grandfather was a death worker for the Zacharov family. He’s got the blackened stubs where his fingers used to be to prove it. And if they read the paper, they know about my mother. It’s not a big leap for Wharton and Northcutt to blame any and all strangeness concerning me on curse work. (7)
A few lines later, Cassel reflects, “I try to think back to whether someone brushed me with a hand, but I can’t recall anyone touching me who wasn’t clearly gloved.” (8)
Holly Black has drawn us into the story with a compelling scene – a boy on a roof in the middle of the night –not a dazzling act of magic. We’re following Cassel, who seems vulnerable. Then we wonder what kind of kid in a boarding school runs scams, but it’s not until we’re curious about why he’s sleepwalking again and what the bad things are he’s done that she reveals the magic. We read first because we want to understand the complexity of Cassel and why he’s in this predicament. We also want to know his secrets. The magic is surprising and exciting, but it’s not the bait that lured us into the story.
In her revelation of the magic, Holly Black deftly outlines her world. Who has the magic? Cassel’s grandfather and mother. What does the magic do? It curses people. With death, we assume, and possibly with strange behavior. How do you make it happen? Touching without gloves. How is the user affected? Grandfather’s blackened stubs are related to his being a death worker. How is the world affected? People know about the magic and they wear amulets and gloves as protection. How are the magic users or magical beings grouped and perceived? The use of “Zacharov family” sounds mob-like, and we assume using magic is wrong, feared, or not allowed.
Within eight pages, we have a world, a romantic relationship, and a murder. Cassel loves the Zacharov daughter and he killed her three years ago (8). His family knows his secret, he tells us, and he’s determined to get back into school after being kicked out for sleepwalking because it’s the only place he can pretend to be something he’s not. That’s his story goal: getting back into school. A short while later, in chapter two, we learn that Cassel is the only non-worker in his family (24), which sets up his emotional arc: he doesn’t fit in anywhere. The twisty surprising bits of information are intriguing, but we continue reading because of the situation Cassel is in, not only because of the magic.
There's plenty more to be learned from these books about connecting characters to their world and I recommend a close read of the trilogy to tease apart the character-world connection. It's useful to consider this question while reading: What’s left when you take away the magic?
Characters, relationships, and desires.
The Curse Worker characters exist in a moral landscape and a physical landscape, both of which directly shape their stories.
In any world, the setting, is a reflection of the internal landscape of the characters, not just the backdrop. A magic setting must answer Holly Black’s question, but it must also be considered part and parcel with the characters in order to ring true.
The Curse Workers inhabit a world in which the characters go hand-in-glove with their magic.