Avoid Being Turned into a Toad: what you need to know when you’re writing the Witch
Avoid Being Turned into a Toad: what you need to know when you’re writing the Witch
By Sarah Elliott
From Winnie to Willow to Wanda, women with magical powers feature in films, TV series and stories throughout the ages. Synonyms for the witch rise or wane in popularity over time including enchantress, sorceress, hag, necromancer, wiccan, and crone.
I met my first witch in a storybook. I can’t remember which story it was, but I do remember that she was old, hag-like, cruel, crooked-nosed and had an evil cackle. Every witch I ever came across since then was the same, until Glinda, the Witch of the North portrayed in the film musical The Wizard of Oz (inspired by the books by L. Frank Baum). Glinda was a witch with a serious glow-up!
(Fun fact: The Wicked Witch of the West was named Elphaba in Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked (1995). Her name was based upon the initials of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), The initials “L.F.B.” each gave one syllable to the name: El-pha-ba.)
Our wonderful writerly imaginations have spawned a whole spectrum of witches. Like many things in society, perceptions and definitions change over time. This is certainly the case with the witch. Look at the definitions below. Which one fits the witch in your story?
“In fairy stories, a witch is a woman, usually an old woman, who has evil magic powers. Witches often wear a pointed black hat and have a pet black cat.”
- From the online Collins dictionary
“a practitioner of a Nature-based religion founded on ancient beliefs, which honours both a male and female divine principle and included the practice of magic, especially healing magic and divination”
- Also from the online Collins dictionary
“…a person who makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for magic powers, often depicted in some way as becoming Satan’s sexual partner.”
- Tiffani Angus
Definitions aside, we are free to let our creativity fly higher than a broomstick from your local hardware store and create witches that can act as protagonists, antagonists or other characters in our primary or secondary worlds. We may choose to follow a popular witch trope or not.
Tread carefully lest you draw down her wrath
Tropes are tried and tested but do we want them to get tired? Wound down and out of energy like a toy with cheap batteries? Let’s examine some popular witch tropes and consider how you could flip these on their head.
- Often portrayed in fairy tales and folk tales as an evil old hag who is jealous of a younger character
- Places curses on characters
- Has a familiar who is usually a black cat
- Can sometimes shape-shift
- Wears a pointed hat, flies on a broomstick and cackles
- Makes weird potions in a cauldron
- Casts spells that always seem to rhyme
- Sometimes has powers of telekinesis (hello Prue Halliwell – does that make Carrie a witch too?)
- Draws power from nature
When writing your witch, you may want to consider her age. Is she maiden, mother or crone? Is she a young witch like Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer who is just discovering her powers, almost like magical puberty? Or is your witch slightly more seasoned like the Halliwell sisters in the TV series Charmed? Could your witch character simply be: WITCH – Woman In Total Control of Herself?
Nolan and Angus in their book Spec Fic for Newbies (2023) explore the concept of witchcraft being about female power. Often witches are those women who are portrayed as being hideous looking (unwanted by men), sexually alluring (wanted by men and therefore a sinful temptation) or knowing far too much for their own good making them independent of men.
“In a patriarchal society, in which women have less power than men, or indeed no power at all, harnessing unseen magical forces is one way to acquire some agency over oneself and others.”
- Angus and Nolan
Empowering stuff. But with empowerment comes risk and consequences as history tells us with the witch trials.
Louise Yeoman, a historian and broadcaster has carried out considerable research on the witch trials and shared the following statistics relating to the ages of women who were accused of witchcraft and killed:
- 64% aged over 40
- 51% aged between 50 and 60
- 15% under 30
She discusses the reduced societal value of women aged over 40. What happens to women as they head towards 40 and beyond? Menopause. They may well become fearsome and cranky. No longer in demand as wives and child bearers and quite possibly at the top of their game in whatever field they are in. These women could be feared and as such were disposed of. Consider the wisdom, knowledge and experience these women held. They were not about to be told what to do and how to do it. They would not obey or conform (No Handmaid’s Tale for them). Could this contribute to the reason why the stereotypical witch is always portrayed as an old hag? Imagine if your witch character was a feisty crone who saved a community. Or a respected elder who guided the leaders? Or someone else completely.
Consider also, that there are women today who identify as witches, belonging to a coven (or not) or consider themselves followers of the Pagan or Wiccan religion.
Can we use sensitivity when writing the witch? Even though our characters may be fictitious, they carry the label of a whole group of real-life people. It might be a good idea to have a sensitivity reader for your work to ensure that any underlying themes or representations do not prove offensive. Of course, we know that not everyone will like our work but if we can tweak a word or phrase that will give us the same effect and experience for the reader without offending the masses, then why not?
Whew – enough of the heavy stuff. Let’s get back to the fun part of writing a witch character.
Which witch? What, when, where, how?
We all have that one friend who loves to point out plot holes in books and movies. That thing they notice because it doesn’t make sense, is a contradiction or it’s not in line with the story or character. As writers, whilst we may primarily write for ourselves, we do have some responsibility to our readers. We trust that they are paying attention and are rooting for our story to make sense and much more. Those of us who write fantasy can let our imaginations run riot with world-building but within world-building, we still need systems and rules. The same applies to magic systems when writing about witches. Some questions to consider:
- Who has access to magic?
- Are witches physically easily identifiable?
- Is magical power inherited?
- Does magic follow the rules of physics?
- Are there consequences for using magic (think Dark Willow in BTVS)?
- Is magic derived from nature?
- Can magic be learnt as a closed system (think Hogwarts)?
- Where did the magic come from?
- Are characters born with magic?
The power of three is very important in magic. Spells can be repeated three times, characters can be tasked to walk around an object three times, and we know famous witches come in threes:
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
- William Shakespeare
The four elements also play a part in magic systems, generally referring to water, earth, air and fire. How is this represented in your story?
So, we’ve addressed the general aspects of our witch’s existence in our story. But what about the witch herself? Are they mother, maiden or crone?
The maiden is considered youthful, sometimes impetuous, and eager to learn. What happens if they cannot control their magic? Or if they are being groomed as a chosen one but reject their calling? Or if they experience too much too soon?
The maternal one, more experienced, knowledgeable and in perfect control of her power. Often viewed as fertile, creative, and commonly seen as the protector. What happens if her loved ones are spirited away? If she falls in love with someone from a faction who is planning to take her down? Or if she is the last witch standing and is in search of someone to carry on the tradition?
You have definitely met the crone! Baba Yaga, Maleficent (not the Angelina Jolie version), Elphaba and Grotbags. This is the witch stereotype. She is often the outcast (not on the list and not coming in) and the one who is most feared. Warts, pointed chin, cackle, we’ve said it all already. How could you put a spin on this?
Whatever stage of life your witch is at, give her a decent origin story. Your witch does not have to have Celtic origins. Witches are known globally. Do your research to avoid cultural appropriation and introduce your readers to someone outside of Europe.
Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble
The spells! Imagine how much fun we can have with these? Incredible curses, made-up words, rhymes so sublime, they’ll last for all time!
The witch character is interesting and fun to write. It’s no wonder the witch story constantly endures. Do we follow the tropes or dig a little deeper, twist things around and come up with not another version of the same thing but something new? You have the power; you make the choice.
Angus, Tiffani and Nolan, Val (2023) Spec Fic For Newbies: A beginner’s guide to writing subgenres of science fiction, fantasy and horror
Shakespeare, William (first published 1623) Macbeth
Witch BBC4 podcast with India Rakusen: Episode eight – Hag
- About the Author
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Sarah Elliott is a published poet, writer and self-published author (Warrior Wisdom Sun, 2022). She is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and can also be found hosting on London Writers’ Salon. When Sarah isn’t writing, she is either coaching and mentoring educationalists or chucking needles into people for acupuncture treatments! Sarah is currently writing a tarot-inspired collection of flash fiction in addition to a poetry anthology. The Substack newsletter titled A Writer’s Life chronicles Sarah’s writing journey, and you can also find her work on The Horror Tree website.
More from Sarah here: https://linktr.ee/Writingforlight
Sarah is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and her poems have been featured in an online magazine and a poetry anthology. Sarah writes a newsletter titled A Writer’s Life and has a second poetry book ready for publication in 2023.
Sarah enjoys fantasy and sci-fi and is fascinated by Tarot and astrology. Recently discovering a love for flash fiction, Sarah is currently writing a collection of flash fiction for fun and maybe more.