Writing “Realistic” Magic
In my spies+sorcery novel Wilderness of Mirrors, I’m trying to write a grounded fantasy that builds on known facts about the Cold War, the War on Terror, 9/11 and the WTC. I am attempting to construct a fantasy that feels as intricate and realistic as the spy novels of John Le Carré. I think I can write a pretty good spy plot, with gun battles, secrets passed in the dark, cryptographic codes to be broken, etc. The tricky part of the novel for me is writing the “fantasy” part, as to this point in my writerly life, I’ve written “straight” contemporary or historical fiction. I also have no desire to craft a world utterly divorced from our reality – a la J.K. Rowling, Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. Instead, I’d like to take the curtain that lies over some 9/11 related events, and simply lift it a little bit, to reveal the edge of “sorcery” behind the scenes. I want any “fantastic” elements to feel as if they are genuine to our reality, and could exist if only someone looked closely enough. So I am looking for models of how to do this effectively.
Ted then shares his notes about drafting his own realistic fantasy, citing as models of inspiration both Tim Powers’s Last Call and Bellairs' The House with a Clock in its Walls - notably the scene where Lewis has to come up with the instructions to find the Doomsday Clock:
This scene occurs in the penultimate chapter which constitutes the “final showdown.” In this scene, the three main characters – orphan Lewis Barnavelt, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman – know that they are under threat and must try to discover and battle the plans of an “evil magician.” In the hands of many writers, this scene would be formulaic. The trio would engage in detective work (either through magic or via standard deduction), and then would prepare themselves for a magical battle that would involve wands, spouts of green fire and magical creatures. (One can easily imagine a J.K. Rowling magical scene like this).
However, what Bellairs does with the scene is interesting. To this point in the novel, our protagonist Lewis has established himself as a little peculiar, nerdy and unusually inventive for a 13 year old. His Uncle Jonathan is equally zany – if not more so – and is extremely disorganized. Bellairs emphasizes character over magical happenings, and makes us believe even more deeply in his world when he has Uncle Jonathan articulate how these characters have functioned throughout the novel.
The instructions created by Lewis is very random magic as conceived by a crazy 13 year old, and it foregrounds Lewis without giving him any special abilities. In fact, his lack of special abilities and his zany wit is what makes this chapter fun, and believable. Without Lewis being firmly established as liking these kinds of strange puzzles, the scene would never work: but with that established from chapter one, this action follows so naturally that I cannot now conceive of any other way of finishing the book. In the end, character matters more than special effects to Bellairs.