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Back When Witches Were Humans – On Birthright in Fantasy

Nowadays it seems that every other urban fantasy book I pick up has witches in it, and the blurb goes along the lines of “she’s a witch, but she helps humans” or “she’s a witch, and now humans are after her”, or it has some other iteration of “witches vs. them” theme. And that, sadly, is usually the reason I don’t even continue checking out the rest of the blurb, let alone reading the actual book.

It’s because I miss the witches of old. Or rather, to be more precise, I miss how they used to be portrayed in stories.

Did the boy-wizard who change witches forever?

When I was growing up, “a witch” defined a profession, not a species. It was something you could become instead of being born into. A woman chose to become a witch, or perhaps circumstances pushed her on that path.

But then came the famous boy wizard, and even though you could still go to a school of magic when you had mundane parents, the magical bloodline was something to be proud of, and of all the world building that the Harry Potter book series introduced, this seemed to be the piece that other authors picked up and transplanted across the genre.

Because of that, it feels like the current notion in fiction is that you have to be special from the very beginning to go on adventure rather than grow into it, and personally, I dislike this trend. In the end, the protagonists of the story are already special simply because it’s their story that we get to see and experience. They don’t need that extra specialness coming from something no one has control over.

The birthright, the chosen one, and other non-inclusive plot devices

I love fantasy and science fiction for many reasons, and I won’t hide that escapism is one of them. And therefore, the idea that “the Adventure” could happen to anyone is more appealing to me, as it supports the escapist nature of those books. Even if in case of some books I’d rather not have my village burned or my family slaughtered, I can still relate to the character who was forced into these circumstances.

The birthright of the protagonist destroys that notion. The reader wouldn’t be able to take the protagonist’s place, because he or she is not born under the right star, at the right time, or to the right parents.

These books can still be enjoyable, have great characters and world building. I’m just tired of the “special-ness” of the main characters… To me, it is just another take on the chosen one, and I’ve grown tired of it in my reading.

The everyday protagonist

Personally, I prefer to see the characters grow into their roles, work hard for their achievements, or even find themselves in difficult circumstances that force them to make even tougher choices to succeed. Not only I can relate to them better, but it also reminds me that I can achieve my goals through hard work, so along the escapism, they also offer encouragement and hope I can take with me to real life. It might be a simple message, but it can be a powerful one.

Such characters are also more admirable to me, since they didn’t have a head start because of a prophecy or their lineage. As hard working and determination are the traits I admire in people, I’ll root for a character who displays them rather than a spoiled brat who “is destined to save the world but he or she just don’t want to”, because of some usually silly or selfish reason.

Will the witches of old come back?

I hope that at some point, both writers and readers will get tired of this kind of setting, and I’ll see more of old-style witches who, even if they come from a long line of a family of witches, are still just like you and me: humans.

How about you? Do you prefer witches as a profession or a separate species? Are you tired of the chosen one trope or don’t mind it? And, of course, what is your favorite witch book?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

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