Updated: Jan 26, 2021
gra·tu·i·tous adjective 1. uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted 2. given or done free of charge
mag·ic noun the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces
gra·tu·i·tous mag·ic noun in fantasy stories, a brief, entertaining pause in the action in which the characters encounter a minor magical object or spell, ideally in a way that allows readers to get to know them and their world a little better
In fantasy, our characters must often use magic. Harry Potter duels with his wand as he fends off hostiles in his eponymous series. Gandalf uses his staff to zap a horrible monster in the Lord of the Rings. Magic is also used against the protagonists. Queen Jadis the White Witch turns her enemies (and our friends) into stone in the Narnia books.
As these three examples so ably illustrate, magic is a serious thing. We writers want to be thoughtful about who performs it and when. Obviously, everything can’t be solved just by waving a wand or there’d be no challenges, no tension, no suspense. So we need to exercise restraint in how we permit magic to be used in the fantasy world we create.
But, very occasionally, magic may be allowed to make a gratuitous appearance in the interest of good humor. In the Harry Potter stories, nobody is going to fight a duel using Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which are magically imbued with, well, every flavor. Dumbledore admits to Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone that he ate a vomit flavored one as a child and hasn’t liked them since—but he takes a caramel-colored one in hopes it’s harmless only to find it actually tastes of ear wax…
Bertie’s Beans don’t move the plot along, but they do add fun to the story and some dimensionality to the characters.
In Nevermore: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, Morrigan and her friend Hawthorne are exploring the hotel where she lives when they come across a dressing room that serves the theater. It’s hung with all sorts of magical costumes that not only change your appearance but also your accent and behavior. “Hawthorne was still skipping down the corridors half an hour after he’d taken off his Goldilocks costume,” she reports on page 185. Fun! But obviously not necessary to move the plot ahead.
I skimmed my own Silent Lee stories looking for these cameo appearances of fun but unnecessary magic but did not find many. I realize it’s possible to be too serious about the magic in one’s writing. After all, magic is central to those life and death climaxes in one’s plots. But a quick diversion into some gratuitous magic now and then is entertaining, and also can reveal a bit more backstory about your characters and their magical world.
It took me all the way to page 202 of my second book, Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, to find a really clear example. They are searching for clues in an evil master’s study at Raahi’s school, the Boys’ Academy of Alchemy and Magic (BAAM for short), when this scene unfolds:
“These books are by people who’ve visited other worlds,” Raahi said. “Did you know,” he added, flipping through a leather-bound volume, “that there’s a world in which birds are highly magical and sorcerers collect their feathers? Hmm, I wonder if this feather is…” He waved it toward them.
“Raahi!” Sie shouted. “Stop that!” The instruments had lifted off the desk and begun to float upward, but they fell back when Raahi clapped the book shut on the feather.
“Sorry,” he said.
We don’t ever visit this world or use feathers from it again, so should this scene be cut? I don’t think so. Sometimes, as Rowling and Townsend prove, it’s good to slip a little gratuitous magic into the storyline for a comic pause in the action and to do more world-building along the way.
* Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, which Kirkus Reviews calls "A pleasant take for readers who want a female-centric Happy Potter story,” and Midwest Book Review calls "original and delightfully entertaining.” – Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.