"Are you a real witch," asked Glinda, "or a literary witch?"
"Oh, literary, of course, dear," Griselda replied. As proof she pulled the Times Book Supplement out of her pointy hat and began to read.
Fiction is fictional, but some of it is more fictional than the rest. If I mention a real-world car or computer or a historical figure, the reader knows that the item or person is based on reality. But the historical figure in particular may do and say things not in the history books, so there is always some fantasy involved.
On the other hand, if I make someone up, like Glinda or Griselda, do I want you to think they're real? No. I just want you to think my character is realistic--and I don't think we ever call something real "realistic." Tolkien called this Secondary Belief: the belief we're willing to grant something fictional. He also said that it was dangerous to confuse Secondary Belief with Primary Belief (belief in real people and things), and sane people can generally keep them straight.
But what about fictional witches, for example? There are real people who claim to be witches, though their beliefs vary widely and none of them strike me as authentic. But they don't usually fit the literary stereotype of broom-riding hags stirring eye of newt and wing of bat in a cauldron. They're also a far cry from most "witches" in modern fiction. You see, most fictional witches (aliens, elves, superheroes, etc.) are literary devices: they have some gimmick that makes the story work, which is all that matters to the author. If that's all the magic is--just a gimmick--there's not much to worry about.
Slippery Slope?So are all fictional witches innocent? Isn't there a slippery slope that leads readers to accept what is wrong? There can be, especially these days. There are two main danger signs:
1. Instructions. If the witch (Red-Eye Knight, whatever) is purely literary, the author probably won't go into a lot of detail about how to do it yourself. On the other hand, if you have practically an instruction book on how to cast a spell, summon up a vision, or move a book with your mind, then it's not wise at best and probably plain wrong.
2. Preaching. I always get a chuckle out of Christians who don't want to write preachy spec-fic. It would be interesting to find out about their home planet. Spec-fic has been preachy for decades; consider Star Trek (all forms), Star Wars, and the Matrix. Any preaching there? And what are they preaching? But in any case, just as you should avoid something that preaches a false gospel, so you should avoid something that glamorizes witchcraft or psychic powers. (Tolkien and Lewis didn't; witches in "Narnia" are a loathesome lot.)
If these two things are missing, then the magic or other oddity probably is nothing but a plot device. If it truly makes you uncomfortable, you're better off avoiding it. But don't knock the gimmick.
Tune in again next time for "It's Not the Deus, It's the Machina":
"What the deuce is that?"
"Deus. Deus X. Machina. There's a god in this box, you see. Very useful."
"Must be rather small, though."
"Folds up nicely, that's all."