Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.

So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?

Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.

I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.

Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.

#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking

laurie cabot quote

The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.

#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How 'bout that cauldron of red-hot love?
How ’bout that cauldron of red-hot love?

How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”

Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context.  If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.

#8: All Witches Are Women

No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.

#7: The Mysterious Spellbook

book of shadows

The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?

There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.

#6: The Magical Destiny

Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.

#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong

I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)

Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.

Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.

This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.

#4: Love Spells

love spell

I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.

In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.

#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera

This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.

So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.

While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.

Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole group of women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a single man doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.

#2: Tarot Cards

So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.

#1: Blood Magic

Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.

I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)

This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.

 

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15 thoughts on “Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

  1. The way I see is that most people who read or watch anything about witches are just doing it for the entertainment value. Their not going to nit pick reality and fantasy to death like some over obsessive critic. Unless you are someone who takes the practice of witchcraft personally serious I don’t think any trope listed here is that big of a deal to use for plot devices in a story. Writing is all about putting together your own type of creativity and making the story evolve into whatever you want by writing whatever you want however you want to write it. If a trope is “tired” as you put it then if it were me I’d use it any damn way but just make it better. When it all boils down to it the fact is all your tired troupes are what people associate witches and their story lines with. Its made many books and t.v. shows very popular and as long as the writer sales and their audience is entertain that is all that really matters.

    1. The key is your third sentence: “Unless you’re someone who takes the practice of witchcraft personal serious…” The fact is, people do. I do. And tired stereotypes harm us the same way tired stereotypes of Black people as gangsters and Jews as money grubbers harms them. So sorry this reality interferes with your entertainment.

  2. I like your note that male witches are witches, not warlocks. As I recall warlock is a term for someone who has made a deal with the devil – often by breaking an oath. At least once I saw the term defined as “oathbreaker” but I cannot track down that derivation. In any case the term is derisive and part of a smear campaign. I think you’re a little hard on Charmed, not that it is a good portrayal of witches, but because it is lowest-common-denominator television. Its like blaming a dog for smelling gross stuff 🙂 I agree that this is how most people learn about these things but correcting that end of the problem is like trying to stop the tide.

  3. As someone who identifies as a witch and is also a writer, this list is only applicable if you’re trying to write a story based on real world witches. As writers, we get creative license to create any world we please. I’m working on a trilogy based on witches and it incorporates real world practices into fantasy ones. Thats the story I’ve chosen to write, the world I’ve chosen to create.

    Having my characters possess abilities that in real life, defy the laws of physics and are not possible, having them work with and against demons, does not make my story “problematic”. I’m not writing non-fiction, I’m writing fiction. It’s my story, my imaginary world, and I’m not going to take away from what I have planned to placate the wishes of those who are super protective about their practice.

    If all fiction cleaved to real life, we’d have no “Lord of the Rings”, we’d have no Harry Potter, we’d have no Stephen King, no Edgar Allen Poe, no Lovecraft. While there’s no problem with writing stories that reflect reality, there’s no need to police writing when authors choose to incorporate fantasy elements to their witchcraft based novels.

    1. I agree, actually. I have my own series with a Witch protagonist, and she has abilities that are beyond what’s considered normal in this world. And at the same time, I don’t myself enjoy reading one- or two-dimensional Witch stereotypes. To me, it’s lazy writing and betrays a lack of knowledge as well as a lack of pursuing knowledge. So I don’t think this list is only relevant to those writing Witches in the religious or modern sense.

  4. Many of these stereotypes about witches that are apparently harming pagans are actually antisemitic stereotypes, ESPECIALLY blood magic.

    The reason people think you can tell a witch by looking is because of the typical caricature with the hooked nose, pointed hat, olive skin, black eyes, and stringy/curly black hair, which are all based on stereotypes about Jewish people’s appearances + the ‘Judenhut’ which was a pointed hat worn by Jews in medieval times, when we were being burnt at the stake (along with accused witches) for being Jewish. This isn’t harmful to pagans but to Jews.

    The hypersexuality thing again comes from antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish women’s sexuality (‘La Belle Juive’ representing lust and temptation into sin for gentile men) as compared to the pure gentile women.

    Now the blood magic thing comes from blood libel – aka lies that christians spread about Jews killing gentiles, especially gentile children, and using their blood in ritual magic, as an ingredient in our matzah at pesach for example. It is not uncommon for people to believe this about us still to this day.

    Also your sweeping statements about “the Abrahamic religions” apply primarily, if not exclusively, to christianity, as far as I am aware. They may apply to Islam – I’m not knowledgeable enough on that to confirm or refute it – but they certainly do not apply to Judaism.

    I appreciate that it’s annoying to see witches portrayed like this all the time when you yourself practice witchcraft and are nothing like that, but please bear in mind that while for you, it’s annoying; for Jewish people, it is indicative of the centuries of oppression we have faced and continue to face for our religion, and can cause actual material harm to us – these stereotypes are the driving force behind acts of true hate (assault, desecration of synagogues, shootings at kosher markets and yeshivas, the expulsion of Jews from almost every country we’ve ever settled in throughout our long history, and of course the holocaust itself).

    I’m not saying that articles like this should never be written, I just wish more time was taken to ensure sensitivity to others who are oppressed for their religion, and to think about who really is the main target of some of these issues.

  5. Um, magic by definition violates the laws of physics. Real magic doesn’t exist. You can’t havean unrealistic portrayal of something that is impossible.

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