Magic, Mischief, and a Little Bit of Chicken Fried

is for magic.

In which I weave together writing advice and my feelings while listening to Zac Brown Band.

M is for mischief.

In which I talk about the major downsides of an INTJ personality, specifically mine. And maybe weave in more writing advice, for any of you trying to write one.

M is for muffins.

Because I made some this morning and they were delicious, and I felt like I needed a third item in this list.

But anyway, magic.

I’m currently reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it brought to mind all the ways I’ve seen magic used in novels. There are infinite variations of magical abilities and their causes, but all forms of magic have to have one thing in common: it must both defy logic and work within the bounds of it.

Magic, of course, at its most basic, is doing what cannot be done in the physical world. It is manipulation of the world without following the world’s rules. This is not, however, a free pass for anything to happen. If you want your story to be good, your magic has to be believable. It has to follow rules as strictly as the physical world does, if not more so. It has to have limits; it has to have laws.

This is what I see writers screw up the most when worldbuilding. They use magic as a catch-all, as a mystical force that can just do things, without fully understanding it. The main character needs to get out of a sticky situation? Oh yeah, he has magic! The villain hasn’t made a move in a while? No worries, she has magic!


Magic in your story has to be a vein running through the novel, as real and consistent as the protagonist’s eye color and accent. (Another two things I see forgotten that shouldn’t be.) It can’t only pop up every now and again as a plot device, unless the nature of your magical system is sporadic and unpredictable. But even then, if it’s just a plot device, you’re doing it wrong. And you’ll probably end up with giant plot holes, at best.

But I get it, magic systems are hard. How can you write something that doesn’t exist in the real world? How can you manipulate the laws of the universe without knowing the laws of the universe? Well, I’ve got a simple solution for you:

Develop a working knowledge of the laws of the universe. All of them.

What?? you ask. That’s insane! you say. Way too much work. Well, writing is work. So if you don’t have time for that, you don’t have time to be a writer, and I highly suggest rethinking your choice of aspiration. Just because you like books doesn’t mean you have it in you to be a writer.

But if you’re still convinced you have it in you, but you’re not sure where to start, I’ll give you a couple places:


If you think these sound like high school classes, that’s because they are. If you sat through a science class without paying attention because you wanted to be a writer and didn’t need to know this stuff, you were wrong. And your writing is suffering because of it. When they tell you to write what you know, they’re not telling you to write about breaking up with your junior high crush behind the concession stand at a football game your team was losing (though, as many books have proven, that’s also a legitimate thing to write about). They’re telling you to not write about working as a veterinarian if you don’t know what the inside of a vet clinic looks like. They’re telling you to not write about manipulating the laws of the universe without knowing the laws of the universe.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
People are inherently selfish, unless they have a reason not to be.
You don’t die from getting stabbed, you die from other things related to getting stabbed.
Living things have a lot of delicate moving parts.

Read wikipedia articles. Follow science and technology and travel blogs and magazines. Go buy some old (but not outdated) textbooks from a used book sale. Watch documentaries. Take some classes at the local community college. Learn another language. Make friends with someone who knows what you don’t. Watch people. Take notes, take notes, take notes. Nobody can remember everything. If you see something you want to remember, write it down.

But research can only take you so far. Go out into the world. Do things you want to write about, and remember how you felt. Watch people in a big city interact, because if you’re from the suburbs, I promise you’re not going to capture city life by watching it on television. Go spend a week in nature. Let it seep into your soul. Look for magic in the world: where it could exist, how it would affect situations, what would be the source of it.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” —Roald Dahl

The world is full of magic, for those who look for it. Even more than that, it’s full of the possibility for magic.

What could conceivably work as a portal to another world? What physical attributes can be changed without many repercussions? If he were a magician, how would his interactions with her be different? What emotions have the strongest forces behind them? Anger? Lust? Love?

Which is where Zac Brown Band comes in. Country music is not my music. For a while, it was one of the three genres I wouldn’t listen to. But I’ve started to come to appreciate it, especially on hour-long car rides down dirt roads to the county fair. There’s something more open, more honest about country music than the artificial autotune of modern pop or even the drug-addled shredding guitars of rock and roll. It’s the closest thing to magic you can hear on the radio.

It’s love. It’s loss. It’s life.

So as I drove home listening to Zac Brown Band, I contemplated how effortlessly it fused with my life, with my mind. It didn’t force anything on me, it just sat and coasted along under my already meandering thoughts, my unacknowledged feelings, pulling and reflecting and encouraging without ever seeming to want or expect anything from me.

Magic should do the same thing. You should never expect anything of your reader, you should never force anything on her. You should tell him things he already knows, but present them in a way he might not have considered. You’re not creating a new universe. You’re never creating a new universe.

You’re simply manipulating the universe we all know.

Because isn’t this what we do every day anyway? Every time you learn something new, your world shifts. Every time you fall in love, you see things in a new light. Every emotion presents you with a different world than the one you knew previously.

This. This is my biggest problem in writing, in life. As an INTJ, feeling is low on my function stack. I see logic, I see inconsistency. I know when I need to infuse things with feeling, but when I do, it comes across flat. Or I deflect it with humor. Or avoid it entirely. Country music is the antithesis to my writing style. To my personality.

Maybe I hated it for so long because it showcased emotions I couldn’t relate to. Emotions that I somewhere deep down wished I could experience as easily as country music singers seem to in every song. Summer romances, heartbreak, camaraderie.

Don’t get me wrong, I have friends and a fairly healthy social life. But it’s never as easy as I want it to be. I see these girls who can walk past something male and, like Bugs Bunny, his eyes will bug out of his head and he’ll follow her around until she agrees to go out with him. She’ll giggle, she’ll bounce, she’ll flirt. Those are not qualities with which I was naturally endowed.

I have no tolerance for emotional manipulation. I have no pity for self-deprecation. I physically can’t humor someone doing or saying dumb things. I also can’t act like an airhead. I’ve tried, on a dare, and I couldn’t last more than about fifteen minutes. I also can’t wink, but that has more to do with my facial muscles than my personality.

But the biggest thing is that I don’t have it in me to just approach someone and start flirting. I’ll see every possible outcome and calculate the approximate odds of him finding me endearing instead of weird, and, with the few I would actually want to flirt with, it never comes out as a high enough percentage for me to deem it worth trying. I run the possible things I could say to him through my usual criteria and they all come out feeling false and hollow, because I wouldn’t be saying them because I meant them, I would be saying them with ulterior motives. And as I’m contemplating these odds and hollow words, another part of my mind is sizing him up and coming up with flaws, telling me that the odds of me liking him for any length of time is even lower than the odds of him liking me. And the stupid thing is, none of what’s running through my head is untrue.

Even when I’m drunk I’m straightforward and logical. I thought that might help, but nope. Though my standards do lower a bit.

And when that extraverted sensing does poke its head in to cause trouble for me, I get the urge to wander through an abandoned amusement park or make a treehouse or start a fight, not really to walk up to someone attractive and try to get him to go out with me. (For those of you writing an INTJ, don’t forget the spontaneous destructive streak we all have. When life gets too much for us, we tend to want to do things completely out of character, just for the hell of it. Preferably things that appease our need for sensory experiences.)

I need to figure out how to channel my destructive mischievous streak into something that men would find attractive. Or how to smile instead of scowling. Or how to just talk to people. I hear that’s the first step to a healthy relationship. I hate talking to people in groups. This also seems to be common to INTJs, but I haven’t quite figured out why. Some variation of not feeling the need to talk just for the sake of it. But unless I end up locked in a room with someone male and attractive for some indeterminate amount of time, I think I need to start speaking in groups.

So I guess all this to say, if you’re stuck in your writing, listen to Zac Brown Band’s The Foundation. Unless you’re trying to write an INTJ, in which case just befriend one.

And pay mind to the magic of a cold beer on a Friday night, a pair of jeans that fit just right, and a little bit of chicken fried.

Happy writing.


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