On Crafting Paranormal Variations of Mundane Literature

A Weird Circular Guest Post with Rebecca Buchanan

Walk into any brick-and-mortar bookstore or any library or browse any online site, and you will see them by the dozens: modern variations on classic works of literature. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, for example. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. Grendel by John Gardner. Wicked by Gregory Maguire. And the hundreds, if not thousands, of prequels, sequels, and retellings of the Austen canon.

A particular subset of these retellings are the paranormal or magical variations. The recipe seems simple enough at first glance: take a classic work of literature that is utterly mundane and add supernatural elements. But there’s more to it than that. If you want to create a magical variation—and I recommend that you give it a try because they are so much fun!—there are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before you start writing.

1) Which classic work do you want to retell?

Pick a book. Maybe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or maybe The Scarlet Letter. Moby Dick? Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde? Or maybe The Three Musketeers? Did you absolutely adore The Swiss Family Robinson as a child? Discover the delight that is The Scarlet Pimpernel in your teens? 

Pick a book that you know you will enjoy re-imagining; it could be a mystery, a historical adventure, a romance, a thriller, or a war novel. Don’t pick one you find boring because, really, your readers will pick up on that and be bored, as well. Maaaaybe pick a book that you hate if you think you’ll have fun rage-rewriting it into something magical.

Consider, too, the context in which the original was written and the attitudes expressed by the author. How much will you have to change the characters to make them fit modern sensibilities? Or will you leave them as they are? For example, I love Golden Age pulp adventures and murder mysteries, but there is no escaping the fact that many are riddled with sexism and racism.

Once you have the book, the more difficult question follows; and answering it will determine how far your retelling varies from the original text. 

2) Is the magic of this re-imagined world open or secret?

In the first case, magic is well-known in your fictional world; it could be practiced by most people or only by an elite. The magic could be anything from basic elemental powers to some combination of speech and hand gestures to highly complicated celestial rituals. Are there limits to the practice of magic? If so, are they social, political, or cosmic? Are there magical rivalries? How does magic work with science and effect the development of technology? And so on.  

In the second, magic is hidden from the majority of the population; perhaps even to the point that most people refuse to believe that magic is real. In this case, who is capable of practicing magic? Is it genetic? A matter of stumbling onto a lost grimoire? How do such magical people find one another? Are they in hiding from the government, corporations, or other practitioners? Are there secret organizations? If so, what is their purpose? And so on.

There are pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. The choice is entirely up to you, but let’s consider a few examples to get a better idea of the implications.

Let’s suppose that you decide to craft a variation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. The original is an adventure romance set in the late 1700s, with the titular character rescuing French nobility from the guillotine. Now, an open magic variation here could be a lot of fun. Maybe Sir Percy Blakeney is known to possess some minor glamour abilities, but, in fact, he is a very powerful illusionist; and he uses this ability to get himself, his associates, and the people he is rescuing in and out of France.

So, with magic being openly practiced in this world, how does that affect your story? Do you follow the events of the original Scarlet Pimpernel exactly, just adding little touches of magic? Do you follow the broad outlines of the original but change events as needed to account for the existence of magic? Or do you take the characters and the main plot (rescuing innocents from a dreadful death) and run wild?

One point to bear in mind: the further you stray from the classic original, the less your work is a variation or retelling. If the only thing your book has in common with the original work is the name of your protagonist, and everything else is radically different, then your book is not a variation. It’s a completely new book. You might as well just change the character’s name and publish it as your own unique creation — because that’s what it is.

Now let’s consider the implications of the second option. What if magic in your reimagining of The Scarlet Pimpernel is secret? In this case, Sir Percy Blakeney might be the latest, and possibly last, in a line of aristocratic mages; perhaps his ancestors used their powers to maintain the family’s wealth and position, but Percy opts to use his abilities to protect innocents. And — surprise! — it turns out that the love of his life, his French wife Marguerite, is the last in a line of fae-blessed witches. But they have kept their abilities from one another out of fear of rejection, imprisonment, and death. Which, of course, becomes an issue as the novel progresses, and they find themselves facing down enemy spies and mages.

The world has an ancient, varied, and rich literary heritage. There are thousands and thousands are classic works — many forgotten or under-appreciated — that now exist in the public domain. Spend an hour or so browsing at your local library or bookstore or at your favorite online retailer. Grab a few that pique your interest. Lose yourself in the story. And then imagine: where’s the magic?

About the Author

Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. Her poems, short stories, and novellas have appeared in a wide variety of venues, a complete list of which can be found at EHS. Her latest releases are “The Adventure of the Faerie Coffin: Being the First Morstan and Holmes Occult Detection” and “The Maiden and the Marrow Witch: A Tale of Magic and Murder,” which can be found at all major retailers.

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