The right way to write witches. 

"/> False Fantasy: Making Rules of Modern Myth — The Airship
By Sarah Bennett

The right way to write witches. 

In 2008, Wired ran an article about Leland Chee, the guy hired by George Lucas to be the Star Wars “continuity cop” and make sure that, between the series’ films, comics, novelizations, and cartoons, the facts were straight. As any fan knows, the Kessel Run must always be the same distance: invented universes, be they near or far, only truly work if they stick to a firm set of laws and logic. Sadly, older myths don’t have a gatekeeper like Lucas, which makes for many frustrated nerds, subpar entertainment, and, well, vampires that sparkle, werewolves that are actually panthers, and zombies that run a four minute mile. And that’s not usually good. So here is where I put on my Leland Chee hat to make some basic rules for fantasy writers going forward, starting with the most maligned and overexposed of fictional creatures, the Witch.

Witches, like werewolves, have appeared in myth forever in so many different forms that it’s hard to set up rules, let alone break them. Still, the witch archetype has gotten into a bit of a rut lately, starting with image. It’s nice that they’ve gone from grotesque to goddess, but enough with the sexy witches already. There’s got to be something on the spectrum between a pile of warts in a fright wig and Alyssa Milano.

The witches from Macbeth in a ye olde illustration. 

We also need a new way to show witches as they struggle with their power. Since most modern witches are depicted as outsiders with a gift who have a potential axe to magically grind, the power struggle usually comes up, and as much as I enjoyed black-eyed Willow, making a powerful woman scary seems like the most obvious choice.

Witches don't need to be ugly (to everyone but Captain Kirk). 

It’s not just a matter of more warlocks (on which the late BBC show Merlin apparently has the modern-day monopoly), but fewer powerful witches on the dark side. So many of the mythical characters described in this column, like vampires and werewolves, are inherently evil, but what makes witches more interesting is that they have a potential for good.

One of the more interesting narrative opportunities for witches is for their power to be acquired by choice. For vampires and werewolves, their supernatural side is often thrust upon them, and while most witches are written as born with certain powers, others, like not-evil Willow, are just drawn to magic through their own intellectual nature. Sure, being born into power or a mysterious question is one of the more standard elements of myth (see: my Chime review), but that’s what makes a character who’s chosen or come upon a supernatural identity a refreshing change from the norm.  

I never saw Beautiful Creatures, but I know this mopey witch girl is afraid she's going to turn evil and Emma Thompson looks terrifying.

No matter how your witch gets her skills, there needs to be a logic to her power. If she needs certain elements to cast larger spells, don’t have her suddenly be able to move a mountain by blinking. If she requires newt eyes for spells in one scene, don’t have her need car keys in another. And if she has all the qualities of a superhero, don’t feel obliged to make her a sidekick— witches make fine heroes, and they don’t need to wear tight pants in order to do it.