Edith Cohn: How to Enrich Your Character’s Arc with Magic or Talents

Hi there! I’m Edith Cohn, author of SPIRIT’S KEY, and I’m going to share some thoughts about how to enrich your main character’s arc with magic. By magic I mean an ability, power or talent. This ability can be fantastical, paranormal or even quite real. After all, isn’t there a bit of magic in someone with a talent for the violin, someone who can draw or cook amazing food? So if you are writing a contemporary novel, you may still find this useful. Just substitute the word “magic” for “talent.”

Second, you’ll need to have already decided on what your main character’s magic is going to be in order to get the most out of this. If your main character doesn’t have a special ability, consider giving him or her one! Everyone has passions. And giving your character a special ability can go a long way toward creating a memorable character.  Once you’ve decided on your character’s magic, ask yourself the questions below.

The-GiverI’m going to use THE GIVER by Lois Lowry as an example because it is such a fine piece of fiction. Also I’m hoping most of you have read it so that the examples will make sense. There are spoilers, I’m afraid, so if you haven’t read it, you’ve been warned.

1. What are the magic’s fun and games? What are its consequences and obstacles?

My favorite books are the ones that explore the pluses and minuses of a magic or talent—the ones that strike a balance between “fun and games” and “consequences.” If you leave out the “fun” you deny the reader and your character the pleasure of the magic you’ve created. If you leave out the “consequences” you deny your character a struggle, and great fiction lies in creating great tension. You need both for magic to feel real. Even a common talent like playing the violin comes with hours of practice time, bloody fingers, and a sore chin in order to achieve the pleasure of beautiful music, attention or fame. Real or fantastical, your character’s magic should not come too easily.

Don’t forget the fun and games! It can be the best part of a book.

Don’t forget the fun and games! It can be the best part of a book.

In THE GIVER, Jonas becomes the holder of memories for his community. In the beginning, he’s given “fun,” exhilarating memories such as sledding in the snow and a loving memory of a family celebrating Christmas around a tree with twinkling lights. Later he is given extremely painful memories such as war and death. This balance adds a great level of complexity to the story and highlights the story’s theme that you can’t have real love and pleasure without pain. I would argue you can’t have magic that feels real in a novel without both the fun and games for your character to enjoy and the consequences they must battle.

2. How is your character’s magic unique compared to others who have magic? How is it the same?

Even if you are writing the sort of fantasy where your main character is a ‘type’ like a wizard and there are plenty of other wizards, it’s helpful to consider how your character is unique or how the magic ties to his or her personality. Not every piano player is the same. Not every ghost or goblin is the same either. In THE GIVER, Jonas is one of the few in his community with pale eyes. Giving your character a physical difference can be a great way to highlight him or her. Jonas can also see color whereas others in his community cannot. Both of these differences are connected to Jonas’s vision, and symbolize how in gaining his magic he will come to see his community with fresh eyes. Jonas is the same as others in his community because he has had an upbringing in Sameness—one without prejudice, fear or hunger. Jonas feels a part of the world Lowry created, yet different from it also.

  1. How will the magic help your character grow or change?

Main characters should grow, change or learn something by a book’s end. And the more your character’s magic can be tied to his or her character arc the more integrated it will feel. Once Jonas receives enough memories, his eyes are opened to the truth about his world of Sameness, and he can’t help but change dramatically because of this. He feels pain and love for the first time and decides his community needs these deep emotions to have a rich life.

  1. In Spirit’s Key, Spirit is a girl psychic who can see the ghost of her pet dog. Her magic enhances her character arc of dealing with her dog’s death. She improves her world by making a difference for other dogs in her community.

    In Spirit’s Key, Spirit is a girl psychic who can see the ghost of her pet dog. Her magic enhances her character arc of dealing with her dog’s death. She improves her world by making a difference for other dogs in her community.

    How does your character use his or her magic to get what he or she wants? 

All characters must want something. They must have a goal. If a character’s magic or talent helps him or her achieve this want then the magic will seem less like set decoration and more like something necessary, useful and integrated into the world. Jonas wants his family and friends to experience the love and pain that he experiences. He also wants to save a baby named Gabriel who is in danger of being released (executed). Jonas enacts a plan to escape with Gabriel so that his memories will be shared with others. He uses his memories/ magic to keep Gabriel happy and warm on the journey and to hide from searchers. He uses his newfound knowledge and memories to make a brave decision to leave. His goal is to save baby Gabriel and improve his community.

  1. How will your character use his or her magic to improve his or her world or community? 

I find the most satisfying books are ones where the world or community is somehow made better by the main character’s actions and through the use of his or her talents or magic. The end of THE GIVER is left somewhat open, but the hopeful interpretation (and the one I like the best )is that Jonas’s decision to leave saves baby Gabriel and ultimately makes his community a better place. Either way, Jonas has used his ability/ magic to change his community forever.

Edith_Cohn-9744-2Edith Cohn was born and raised in North Carolina where she grew up exploring the unique beaches of the Outer Banks. She currently lives in the coyote-filled hills of Los Angeles with her husband and fur-daughter Leia. All of these things provided inspiration for her debut middle grade novel, SPIRIT’S KEY, a mystery about a girl and her ghost dog coming in September from FSG/Macmillan. You can find out more about her on her website: http://www.edithcohn.com.

Edith is offering a Spirit’s Key swag pack as a prize–available for immediate shipping. She will also send a signed copy of the book to the winner once it’s released in September. Comment on her blog post to be eligible to win!

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123 comments on “Edith Cohn: How to Enrich Your Character’s Arc with Magic or Talents

  1. Debbie Austin says:

    I like this idea a lot and see how it can easily be adapted to “talents” if the book isn’t about “magic” per se. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lauren says:

    What a great post. Thanks – you’ve given me new eyes to look at a manuscript I was stuck on. I’m so glad I’m in Summer School!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. writersideup says:

    I love when things are broken down like this. It helps us to think about things in more detail, making the whole process easier and more effective. Thanks, Edith! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carrie Brown says:

    Thank you, Edith! I look forward to exploring the magic in my characters!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having recently lost one of my beloved dogs when I heard what Spirit’s Key was about I immediately wanted to put it on hold at my library! Only to find out that I can’t yet! Anxiously awaiting it’s release next month!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Charlotte says:

    Edith, thank you for the tips and examples on how to use magic or talents to enrich the character’s arc. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Spirit’s Key.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. winemama says:

    Looking forward to reading Spirit’s Key

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Appreciations, Edith.

    I so much like that you shared Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER for your example. She is someone I unexpectedly met once (I was too tongue tied to talk to her!) I think many books about children survivors in weird alternate rules/ situations riff off THE GIVER. And I agree with your reading of the ending. I always like hope for young readers.

    I think SPIRIT’s KEY will be perfect for some of the artistic types I expect to work with in a Florida middle school this year, so I will pass it along to a lucky classroom if I win it.

    Finally the idea of thinking of talent = magic is brilliant. I think I will have my MC in my current MG novel under contruction be able to whistle, as a result of this post. She didn’t have any mojo such as that, before this very minute. See what you did?

    Have fun with your Sept. launch.

    more appreciations.


    Liked by 2 people

    • edithcohn says:

      Sounds fantastic, Jan! I definitely think whistling and music are magic & could really do a lot to enhance a character as it is physical as well as auditory. I love it! And that is so awesome that you met Lois Lowry!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Appreciations, Edith, for this thoughtful note, & when you are so busy. It was magic that I met LL. She is an icon & we all owe her so huge a debt for everything she’s accomplished.


  9. Loved you post – thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Loved your comments. I’m now giving my MC a special ability! Saw your fb announcement of receiving yr copy of yr bk. Your extreme delight was infectious!!! Can’t wait to buy Spirits’ Key &
    I just love maps to the characters world.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Nat Keller says:

    Aha!! I think I’m now up to date!! Great post on adding a bit of magic to your story!!


  12. Marge Gower says:

    Equating magic and talent is an amazing key to a good story. Thanks for supplying another missing element to a good story. I find it intriguing and will try to use it.


  13. S Marie says:

    Excellent examples of a successful book that gives the MC a balance between “fun and games” and “consequences.” Love the reminder to include special talents and passions for our non-magical worlds.


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