Hidden Clichés: the Sorcerer/Wizard/Magus

I planned to write about several characters here, but as I started, I realized fantasy wizards/mages deserved a chapter on their own. Here I mean the "good" wizard/mage, although a lot of things here also apply to the "bad" one. S/he is the most difficult character to partray because, by his/her function, s/he requires a complex personality. S/he has enormous potential, which is rarerely exploited.

 

Before you embark on the making of a mage, you must first define how magic works in your universe, as this will have a lot of influence his/her personality.

 

A- The different types of mages

 

Most belong to one of two models:

 

1- The individual living outside society: marginalized or rejected, or, at best, living on the fringe and coming as a "visitor". This is the classic old man with the long hair and the white beard, Gandalf-style (if he is the bad guy, he can afford to be bald and hairless and even look exotic. If she is a woman, she can be much uglier than most women of her age or on the contrary, incredibly beautiful). S/he is single with no children or grandchildren and seems very happy to live within his /her own company. If benevolent, this mage is usually a secondary character who helps the hero, although his/her motives are not always clear.

What kind of elderly person would be happy to live on the fringe, without a family and volunteer to help a hero in his/her quest? What had prompted him/her to choose this career? If you want to have a credible mage, you will have to answer.

 

2- The other type is fully part of the society, typically an apprentice or beginner mage, and often the hero of the story, Harry Potter style. This not only has implications for how magic works, but also for the society you are going to portray. How many wizards / mages are there compared to the general population? What is their role? Is it a common profession, such as blacksmiths in the Middle Ages, or a rare elite? Are they part of the ruling class? If the answer to this question is "no", it can be reasonably predicted that it will be a highly regulated trade. No sustainable society will let you make potentially toxic alchemical experiments or summon demons in the middle of a populated area. You will have to pass exams to show minimal competence (it seems that even the druids had them), prove that you have good character, submit your workplace to regular inspections, even possibly have to pay a professional tax. At that point, of course, the job no longer looks glamorous.

And this is only the beginning. There are other questions: What is the average income of a mage compared to the rest of the population? How do they combine family and work? Etc ... In addition, if the mage is female, she tends to specializes in two activities: clairvoyance and healing. More about it later.

For those who find it hard to imagine a mage submitting to such trivial constraints, I would answer that traditional wizards, in societies where such people existed, generally had to go through years of apprenticeship (often between 5 and 10, like in science or medicine nowdays), to comply with a whole series of daily rituals and taboos. So, in real life as in fantasy, sorcerer was not a funny job.

 

B- How did they get there?

 

There are roughly three ways to become a mage in fantasy:

- Have a special gift

- Achieve mastery of your art after long and arduous studies

- Both

 

The gift/ability, obtained at birth is supposed to avoid giving too much explanation about magic and studies. There are often whole mage families. In our times, even a moderately educated reader might wonder about the genetics of that gift, especially when some seem to show only in females. Do you have a ready explanation?

The innate gift is also a way of weakening the credibility of your character. Imagine, you have a gift in real life, like a musical ear. Are you necessarily going to become a musician or a composer? Maybe your personal tastes and your family's ambition push you towards a totally different profession? So why do all fantasy individuals with a "gift" end up as mage? Were they first warned that it was a difficult and dangerous job? Additionally, mages are generally defined as having a "strong character" (another cliché, but that's for another time). So, with such a character, will you accept being forced into any career you did not chose?

Finally, this gift always seems to come to a smart individual. Back to my real-life example, a fool (whatever meaning you give to that word) can perfectly have a musical ear. So are there any hopelessly stupid and dangerously incompetent mages? I would say yes, but not intentionally created as such by their author ...

And above all, having a gift isn't all. You usually have to combine it with several others to get results. And even with the right combination, you will have to work like crazy to learn your trade (ask a professional musician) and give up many evenings with friends. What kind of person will accept such a constraint from a young age? At best, s/he's likely be a workaholic. At worst, downright crazy.

In conclusion, avoid your mage to be gifted by birth. If you absolutely want him/her to be gifted but without elaborating, have the gift obtained by accident, from a deity or some other higher authority.

 

C- Ideology

 

In real life, wizards had a close connection with some religion / ideology. Often they were priests. In Christian religions it was simple, they were often the polar opposite. Alchemists cultivated complex philosophical and religious visions. This is an aspect we tend to forget in our modern world where we no longer believe in anything, but it is essential for the coherence of your story: what prevents them from using their power for evil, for example? Why don't they dominate their society (possibly with the best intentions)? What are their views on the politics of the day? Are they willingly involved? On the contrary, do they have rules that prevent them from doing so? In short, what is the position of the local ideology on wizards and what is the position of wizards on the local ideology?

Be careful if you use the terms white magic and black magic. You will have to explain them. Sure, in the 80s, we could just talk about the dark side of the Force, but even in Star Wars, the characters oscillated between the two. Do you have precise definitions? This is where it gets complicated! If the dark side is the destructive side, is it okay to use it to destroy a bad guy? To allow a rebirth? Yep, destruction is part of the life cycle, just like construction in many cultures, so someone has to do the dirty work!

How do the sorcerers perceive their superiority and / or their difference? Do they live apart? Do they have the same attitude towards the problems of existence, like death or bad breath as everybody else? If they are immortal or endowed with exceptional longevity, do they have the experience to match? Are they jaded? Or, have they spent centuries living in an ivory tower?

 

D- The priests

 

This sub-category of wizards has slightly more females than males, imho. We oscillate between the "strong woman" and the consecrated virgin object of fantasies (or vice versa, like Phèdre in "Kushiel's Dart"). First, you need to seriously define your religion, in addition to your system of magic. Are the two one and the same, like in Antiquity or are they opposed like in the Christian Middle Ages? What degree of visibility has their divinity? Will s/he appear physically? Through visions? Through signs? Not at all?

 

Then how did your priest got there? Is the priesthood for him/her a job or a calling? Is this a hereditary function (yes, even among Catholic priests, celibacy did not become a standard until the middle of the 11th century)? Do they form a homogeneous group? Is there a hierarchy?

 

Finally, a priest has a tendency to breathe, eat, drink, sleep, in short, to live according to his/her religion. The choice of his/her clothes, diet, way of speaking, daily schedule depend on it, so you will have to think about it. Are there any dissensions within the religion? Politics? Forbidden knowledge? What does s/he thinks of that? Is s/he afraid of death? What are his/her plans for the afterlife? It matters, because it can motivate him/her to risk his/her own skin more than any character in the story, or even sacrifice him/herself.

If s/he goes on a quest with the hero, who will take care of the temple / parish / sacred fire in his/her absence?

 

 

The two following specialties are, like the midwives in the real world, very strongly feminized. Their potential is also underused.

 

E- The diviners

 

This is a specialty to be handled with care, as divination will have a lot of implications for the consistency of your world. In real life, diviners were usually seen only as interpreters of the word of various gods or spirits. In fantasy, where we have often forgotten how religions worked, diviners simply "see", like on a TV screen.

 

- If they see the future exactly as it will happen, does it imply an immutable fate? Aren’t their visions coming right on time, like some deus ex machina of information? Does your diviner see anything, including events that will happen a thousand years from now or that involve people unknown to him and living miles away? Or, specifically, events involving people s/he knows? How well can s/he predict the future of a total stranger who comes to consult him/her? Can s/he see his/her own future? The future of relatives? Can s/he see things that s/he would not be able to frame in his/her mind, like his/her spouse cheating or an alien spaceship landing in his/her medieval village?

 

- If they see "possible futures ", are you sure, to misquote Shakespeare, that a diviner is needed for that? Wouldn't a minimum of reasoning be enough?

 

- If they see the present, or the past: are these events geographically or emotionally close to them?

 

Finally, most fantasy diviners aren't particularly smart. They are there to give information, period. They are not expected to take action on the events they describe. On the contrary, for many diviners in traditional societies there was a certain amount of "interpretation", whatever the method of divination (see the case of the Pythia). In addition, they were not only expected to give you the raw information, but also to give advice!

 

F- Healers

 

There are two types of fantasy healers:

 

1- Those who heal by a special, psychic or religious gift, the laying on of hands, etc. She is usually a rather uneducated young girl. Often, she becomes the hero's friend and / or tragically finds death. Her gift is often hereditary. If you choose this path, make sure it is consistent with the rest. I remember having read one or two pulps of the 70s where there was a line of hereditary virgins in a medieval universe (in addition they lost their gift with their virginity, so they were closely guarded). The author did not consider it useful to provide an explanation on their mode of reproduction.

You have to seriously think about the extent of her/his powers: can s/he grow limbs back like Cian in Lanfeust? Raise the dead? What will the place where s/he lives look like? Is there a long line of people at his/her door? Does s/he still have time to sleep? Why hasn't the general of an army kidnapped her to repair his wounded soldiers after every battle?

 

2- Those who heal by plants. This healer is typically a respectable matron, if not an old woman.

There is also the intermediate model: the somewhat uneducated young girl who heals with plants, to be green, feminist and "realistic", but she poses, precisely, a big problem of plausibility.

In real life, being a traditional healer easily took 5 to 10 years of apprenticeship. In short, once you got your qualification, you weren't so young anymore, especially by the standards of those times. So indeed, the matron model is more believable. You typically had to memorize hundreds of recipes, disease symptoms, plant descriptions etc ... to avoid poisoning your patients. Here, I am not talking about the traditional healers of medieval Europe, where the job was almost clandestine, even punishable by death. Under these conditions, there was no recognized training, basically anyone could claim to be a healer. In places like China or subsaharian Africa, the rules were much more stringent and the status much more prestigious.

Besides, if the function of healer has a strong religious connotation in your world, s/he risks, like the priest, to be bound by so many taboos and rituals that the job will not be fun at all.

By the way, if you stick taboos on your wizards, they must be consistent with the thought system you have established and not completely stupid in the eyes of the average reader (see the example of hereditary virgins above).

If your job is to heal people, you will find yourself facing not only unpleasant aspects of the human body, but also suffering, death, family tensions, conflicts... In short, that job requires a minimum of maturity. Make sure you healer is not unduly naïve.

And don't forget the most interesting thing: an herbal healer is bound to know a thing or two about poisons. This is the dark side...

 

Whether they are diviners or healers, they are in a position to know or guess a lot of secrets. They will have an enormous influence on their society, especially if they are recognized as competent in their job. Many warlords did not go on an expedition without securing the soothsayer's "approval", otherwise their men risked fleeing at the first difficulty! This influence is rarely seen in fantasy, except when the healer is an old man with a white beard.

Finally, these two categories of wizards seem to help, most of the time, only the good guys. The bad guys, despite their intelligence, fortune, power, and charisma, either don't need them or don't think about them. 

 

 

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