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By Joanna Bourne
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Whatever gods there be

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Joanna Bourne, Historical Romance

I’m thinking tonight about how characters deal with the acquisition and use of immense magical power.

How do you write this?

Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Nalini Singh, and Charlaine Harris handle this by giving other characters lesser but still important powers. The mucho powerful character is part of a continuum. There’s shared experience and a knowledge base. There are systems in place.

Often their power arises from discipline, work, study, diligent effort. The character’s attitude toward power is signalled by a history of deliberately building that power. They’re not so much conflicted. The character gets a magic sword because they’ve
trained in swordfighting since childhood.

This is Iron Man’s power arc or Batman’s. Not Spiderman’s. You may still get reconsideration of motive and responsibility in use of power, but it’s late in the arc.

Often characters develop new abilities in immediate response to threat. The action separates acquisition of new power from a later intellectual exploration and emotional response to it. The emotional response may be explored in scenes of relative quiet with a trusted advisor.

But the internal response is explored. In an earlier posting I looked at a book where the two protagonists are destined to in some way become an abstract universal constant.
Like becoming Pi or E=MC2.
This sounds uncomfortable and destructive to a sense of self,
but we don’t see the emotional and intellectual internal fallout in the characters as they grow and change.

The author leaves the story before the characters get more than a taste of their universal constant-hood. The author is not looking at that aspect of the story. We don’t take step into the apotheosis because is simply not the author’s intent.

How is this handled? How well does this work?

I feel as if  the author deliberately moves the story slightly into mythos mode. Into traditional storytelling. Eastern European Folk tales and American Indian Folk tales show surreal illogic of character motivation. There’s virtually no internals and self examination.

I’ll have to reread Zelazny’s Lord of Light and see how he handles this.

How else?

Well, there’s a magical child growing up to be a more-than-human avatar in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Two of them, in fact.

We got Bran who is the Pendragon, son of King Arthur. He’s a minor character with magic. 
How does he feel about all this?
We don’t see deeply into his POV so we’re not sure.

This works okaybecause this is a tertiary character. And the author responsibly tidies his story neatly away in the end. In the series farewell scene, we see Bran renounce his potential for magical power. He will be a vanilla human to do human work in the world. 

In a couple hundred words Cooper shows us what’s been going on in Bran’s mind the whole time. It makes an emotionally satisfying wrap up and we didn’t have to overbuild a minor character to look at this.

Will Stanton is the more interesting character problem.

Eleven-year-old Will learns he’s one of the Old Ones human incarnations of magic, born to save the world from a rising evil. In four books we see him sweat and suffer and fear his way to agency and power. His internal growth from boy to a powerful adult in a kid’s body is convincing and, in many ways, tragic.

The author shows Will knowing and regretting the distance that opens between him and his family and friends. At what point does he cease to become a human boy? Some good internals there.


Romance genre studies human emotion. What do the protagonists feel? Authors flay it out on the dissecting table for all to see. They build the plot structure to reveal those feelings. They stud the page with internals and emotional conflict.

Mostly Romance explores the love relationship and at least one emotional conflict. It’s interesting to look at magical power as the emotional conflict
Lots to think on.



RITA-winning author Joanna Bourne writes historical fiction set in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and Regency England. It was a time of love and sacrifice, clashing ideals, and really cool clothing.


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