Using witchcraft, by Elizabeth Kay

I’ve never liked the use of magic as a convenience, and I’ve always wanted it to have some sort of structure and to be as believable as possible. When I decided that I wanted to write a story about an alternative world, I tried to think of the most magical place I had ever visited. This was Monteverde, up in the cloud forest in Costa Rica in Central America. There really is a study centre there, and a hummingbird garden, and it’s beautiful. And the Continental Divide really is marked out, so that you can stand with a foot on either side. When I remembered that, it got me thinking that it would be a good place to cross from one world to another – but there was a problem. If everyone who straddled The Divide ended up in the other world, thousands of people would have disappeared. There had to be another factor – a pause of some sort. But choosing an
arbitrary number of seconds seemed very artificial, so I chose staying still for the length of a heartbeat, which gave me the idea for the main protagonist’s illness. Once I got him – Felix – into the other world, he then had two ready-made quests – how to get back to his own world, and the search for a magical cure to his illness. I could also populate this world with all my favourite creatures – griffins and unicorns and dragons, and I could invent some of my own as well.
One of the main problems with magic, however, is that it has to have rules, otherwise every problem can be solved with no effort. It takes time to explain these rules, though, which is better suited to an entire book. If you’re using it in a short piece, you need to establish the parameters for the bits you do use. I chose to have spells that needed to be tried and tested and perfected, which meant they could also go wrong, and different creatures had different abilities. If someone was a shape-shifter, there were only two shapes between which to alternate, which simplified things for the reader.
Of course, witchcraft is still believed in abroad, and rules still operate in perhaps a rather different way from before. My only experience of the way these things work is second hand, when my daughter was doing her PhD in the Ivory Coast. The small village where she did some of her fieldwork had three different belief systems. There were the Muslims, a bizarre fundamental Christian sect, and the Animists. I asked how they all got along and the answer was fine – unless there’s a witch hunt in progress, when all the Animists walk around with downcast eyes. This happens when there have been several deaths in a row – a perfectly normal state of affairs every few years in such a society.
“And do they find a witch?” I asked.
            “Oh yes. It’s always the same old lady.”
            “What happens then?”
            “She has to make a sacrifice, and then everything’s ok.”
            “It’s usually a crate of beer, which her sons buy for her. Then the whole village drinks it, and normality is restored. It’s a good system, though. She’s elderly, and she lives on her own. But no one takes advantage of her because they think she’s a witch.”
            My point here is that even in these enlightened times, people can still be afraid of a supposed witch, when the only proof is circumstantial. And if that’s the case now, what was it like before? I think the townsfolk would simply want to hound her out of the village, and burning her house makes perfect sense. But if she really is a witch, rather than a horse whisperer, you need to tell us why she doesn’t simply turn them all into toads!
            Both today and in the past, witchcraft was prevalent in societies which have a magical world view. It’s there to explain the bad things that happen, and offers ways of altering the natural order of things. When coincidences happen, this view is strengthened and the ritual becomes enshrined in the local belief system. Remnants of this are still around in our own society, and usually have their origins in something plausible. It’s unlucky to walk under a ladder because the person working on it may drop something on your head. Beginners’ luck – if you believe this to be a fact, this can be due to confirmation bias. You’re more likely to remember something that fits with your world view. Bad luck comes in threes – confirmation bias again. If two bad things have happened, you’re more likely to be looking out for the third thing, and when it happens you’ll put it down to your superstition rather than the random nature of life which can be really disturbing the more you think about it! Superstitions are self-reinforcing, because if something happens to work in your favour it will be used again, and the expectation that it will be successful is often self-fulfilling as it improves performance because it improves confidence.
            And finally, witchcraft has usually been associated with the conflict between good and evil, and devil worship. If praying to God didn’t work, then you might as well try the other chap. It is mentioned in the Bible – Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, and, much in the way of presidents today, started to overturn everything his predecessor had done once he started to rule. II Chronicles, 33:6 – …used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Leviticus 20:27 A man or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: Witches and wizards are frequently lumped together with criminals – Revelation 21:8 - …murderers, and whore-mongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone…  In other words, they’re all destined for hell. But witchcraft isn’t just the antithesis of Christianity. Even in Rome, black magic was punishable by death. It’s not something consigned to history, either. See: Countries that still kill witches 
            So think very carefully before you use magic in your story – there’s a long catalogue of associations, and the rules must be clear.


Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Elizabeth. I'm toying with the idea of bringing some modern witchcraft into the next of my Jack Carston series and, at the moment, simply collecting snippets about it from all over the place. Your guidelines will be very helpful.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for guiding us over the divide here, Elizabeth. I will add that forest in Costa Rica to my bucket list. I root for witches in books, plays, and films. Even the most sinister ones have a story, I figure, whether or not told. Writing and witchcraft border on each other with a barely discernable divide, given that writing comes from an unknowable place, whose gifts we can use, with never-quite-adequately-grasped rules, like in witchery.

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