In one of my (published) short stories, I used the word "sorcer" instead of "sorcerer" to describe a dude that could cast magical spells. This choice was highly calculated. Some people in my critique group objected; one pointed out, wisely enough, that you shouldn't call a rabbit a shmeerp in an attempt to sound original. You should just call it a rabbit.

But magic is special. Terms like magic, mage, wizard, spell, and sorcerer (maybe you can add a few) are laden with presuppositions that rabbit lacks.

Suppose you start reading a fantasy short story or novel and encounter the word 'mage'. Here's what IMMEDIATELY goes through my mind: Dungeons and Dragons knock-off. Casting spells of infinite variety with the mere twiddle of a finger. Magic with no coherent framework, mythology, or logic. Exacting parameters: the spell has a range of 50 yards. Irrelevance of real-life factors: it doesn't matter much if the mage is tired, drunk, sick, or about to die--the magic works the same. Or (do you really want to cringe?) suppose you call a character a wizard. My first thought is "Harry Potter." Not that Harry Potter is bad, but you don't want your story sounding like a Harry Potter imitation.

If you use these terms, I believe that you automatically lead your readers into making lots of potentially false assumptions about your world. Usually this is bad. If your wizards can only communicate telepathically with animals, why call them wizards? Invent a unique term instead.

I've noticed that some of my favorite authors do exactly this. Examples off the top of my head:

Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy): She called her two types of magic "Wit" and "Skill". I've actually been disappointed in her most recent series--she keeps referring to it as "Wit magic". Just say Wit, Robin! We know what it is. "Wit magic" is redundant. (This is a nit. I highly recommend her books.)

George RR Martin: Magic has been steadily growing in usage throughout his Fire and Ice series, but he certainly doesn't throw around words like "magic" and "wizard" very often (and not at all in the first couple books.)

Roger Zelazny: In the Chronicles of Amber, we have an entire system of magic, and a wonderful one, but I don't recall a Trump or the Pattern ever being referred to as "magic".

Orson Scott Card: In the Alvin Maker series, we have "knacks", "doodlebugs", "Makers"... All of these terms are so much more original and creative than mage and wizard.

On the negative side, I recently stood in the science fiction section in Waldenbooks and looked at the back covers of a dozen or so new fantasy novels by authors I didn't know. I wasn't impressed. They ALL used the words magic, mage, wizard, or sorcerer. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, as you perhaps can tell, but I couldn't help but to think that these authors could have benefited from an attempt at higher creativity. If they can't think of a better word than "mage", why should I trust that they've thought of a better story than slaying a dragon to save a princess? And therefore, why should I buy the book?

Result? I put them all back on the shelf.

The drawback to invention is that you need to explain. This is no problem as long as you don't info-dump. In the positive examples named above (Hobb, etc), the meanings of the new terms were handled beautifully. However, in a short story you sometimes don't have time to smoothly convey the meaning of lots of new terms to the reader. Be careful.

So, in my story--the one I referred to at the beginning of this lesson--did it really make a difference that I called my mages "sorcers" instead of "sorcerers"? I don't know. I hope so. You see the word "sorcer" and you probably know I mean a magical dude. But hopefully you also recognize that I'm not doing the standard thing. Hopefully you take it as a promise that I'm going to give you something a bit more original, and hopefully I deliver.

BOTTOM LINE:refer back to Lesson #1. No rule is immutable. But take great care before using the commonest terms for magic. It can make a reader--me, for instance--brand you as unoriginal just from the cover blurb.

NEXT:Gems of writing advice from my favorite authors.

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