Special Items: Paranormal

Hi Gang. Craig with you again today and I’m about to bite off more than I can chew. I write what I call speculative fiction. This is the stuff that requires a suspension of disbelief from your reader to enjoy the story. It’s a broad area that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, paranormal/supernatural, horror – and those are just the broad categories.

Let me get the barbecue off them first.

It occurred to me that most of these genres have special items in them that enhance the setting and help the hero succeed. Honestly, I could write a book about this stuff, but this is a blog post. Let’s throw the bones and see where this winds up.

Looks like paranormal/supernatural. It’s as good a place to start as any. Truth be told, there is a lot of drift between the speculative fields, and if you’ve ever read steampunk you might have found elements of all of them. But, paranormal it is, so away we go…

When it comes to creating magical items, there are no rules, not even guidelines really. I’m going to call these simple concepts. When you create a special item, here are some things to consider:

• Enhancing the world you are building.

• Balancing the scale between ultimate power and limitations on usage.

• Resale value.

• Costuming.

Sometimes you don’t even need a special item, but it can really enhance the background of your story. Plenty of vampires have been dispatched with a simple wooden stake over the years. (I said they were points of consideration, not requirements.)

If you want that special something in your story, it should assist with world building. In paranormal tales, that usually means an artifact. A supercomputer could actually detract from the mood you’re trying to create. Paranormal tales are full of bones, teeth, holy relics, and other such items for a reason. Put some thought into what this thing looks like while you’re deciding what it does for your hero.

The biggest part of special items is balancing that scale between ultimate power and limitations on usage. This can be done by having the item be unique, and hard to find. There’s only one holy tooth of St. Something-Or-Other, and to get it you have to break into the Vatican. The difficulty, rarity, and risk helps establish that this cat’s bicuspid is pretty special. There weren’t a lot of people capable of pulling Excalibur from the stone for example.

If the wand has to be made from the heartwood of a golden tamarack, someone is going to have to travel out West, trek into the forest and do a lot of physical labor to make it. It helps establish the value and difficulty and makes it more worthy.

Don’t let your special item solve the problem. That should come from within your hero by facing and conquering some inner demon. The item should ease the path or be helpful in some way other than that. Using your amulet of Nuke The Eastern Seaboard might solve the problem, but two paragraph stories aren’t much fun for readers.

There are a lot of ways to make acquisition difficult, from expense to rarity. They’ve even been broken into pieces and require multiple quests to obtain the whole item. Some could require a ritual to perform their function and that might not be easy while the undead army is charging forward.

You can have a world full of magical items, but those should be less helpful. The never ending pack of gum might be cool, but probably isn’t going to help with the big story problem.

When I mentioned resale value up above, that’s what really grabs readers. Think of it this way: If there were such a thing, would you want it personally? A grungy old tooth might not have much real-world appeal. What if it were a towel of perfect hair? It helps your heroine get past the velvet rope into the club where all the witchy things are going down, but every time she dries off with it she has perfect hair. A lot of people might want that on the other side of the page. Heck with a flying broom, I want one that will clean up bulldog hair on its own. Maybe it can do both?

Costuming might be just me, but I like items to do double duty when they can. (Similar to world building) I enjoy letting my acolyte step outside in a new outfit that tells everyone the hero is here. The acolyte is gone and the master has arrived. There’s no reason the fireproof armor that lets your hero walk through hell itself has to look like a jumpsuit. It could look like a tux and turn all the girls’ heads. In a way costuming is close to character building.

I suppose the secret behind those bullet points is to make your magical items do double duty – triple duty if you can pull it off. The only one I never skip is balancing the scale.

I’m about to hit 800 words and could write 8000. We’ve covered the basic stuff here, and maybe it’s best to flesh out additional things in the comments section. Do you put a lot of thought into magical items in your paranormal tales? Do you like to read stories that include these items? Do you want me to expand into science fiction and fantasy?

52 thoughts on “Special Items: Paranormal

  1. Pingback: Three Links 8/8/2020 Loleta Abi | Loleta Abi Historical & Fantasy Romance Author & Book Blogger for all genres

  2. Your “costuming” is excellent, Craig. 🙂 And I completely agree on the need to balance the risk/reward in speculative fiction props and magic systems. Too hard obviously doesn’t work, but too easy will kill the tension in a story. Great post. 🙂

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  3. Well done! I find that in many of my flash fiction pieces I quite naturally (and often non-intended) include a bit of the “speculative” in the story. A bit of magic sprinkled in with the everyday. Your post inspires me to do more of that.

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  4. These are my favorite stories to read and write. I had a lot of fun creating my characters’ weapons-to-call – tattoos that tingle when danger is near and allow the wearer of said tattoo to pull a weapon out of it. My characters have tattoos of blades, swords, barbed whips, spears, etc. Of course, the placement of the tattoos needed to make sense as well. Lol! 😉 I enjoyed this piece, Craig! 🙂

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  5. Hmm, I have fun writing about supernatural beings but haven’t used many paranormal artifacts. I really like the idea, though. The closest I’ve come to that are tattoos bespelled on peoples’ arms to induce dreams. But I want to use something that’s a portal in the future, and you’ve given me some great ideas. I always enjoy your posts. They make me think:) I just finished reading Staci’s latest scifi, STONES, and Landon’s searching for ancient artifacts. Her characters have found some but don’t know how to use them. A clever twist.

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  6. I love everything related to magic! You touched on something that got me excited. When I wrote “Jonah,” I only dabbled with the idea of magic – having velvet chairs appear out of nowhere when Drake the Wizard appeared – little things like that. It was such a fun story to write while at the same time keeping some sort of believability to it. I love the idea of a magic object playing more than one role. Great post, Craig!

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  7. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Okay, you folks who love writing fantasy, paranormal, and sci-fi: Craig Boyack has a wonderful post on Story Empire today, filled with good tips on using “special items.” I took notes, and you might want to as well. I highly recommend you check out his post, and then pass it along, if you can, so others can pick up some ideas, too. Thanks, and thanks to Craig, as well. Loved this one! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. While I don’t write fantasy and even keep my paranormal bits confined in this world (in the Wake-Robin Ridge series), I can see myself having some sort of artifact be discovered on that ridge, for sure. You’ve given me some great tips to consider, Craig, and all are things I’d never have thought about on my own. I’m making some notes for a possible spin-off novella, wherein Rabbit might stumble across just such a thing. And he’d be one who’d recognize it pretty quickly, too. Thanks for such a super post! Gonna share it over on TWS for sure! 🙂

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  9. Most of my paranormal tales center more on supernatural entities rather than objects endowed with magic, but I have dipped my writing fingers a time or two. I used a magical object in End of Day and also in a couple of short fictions, a few still waiting to publish. You know I love the strange stuff. I’ve even used a place endowed with magical powers (an igloo in the TNT, which appears throughout my Point Pleasant series). I got some double usage out of the igloo, but I have to admit I didn’t plan it that way. It just sort of happened.

    Excellent post, Craig!

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  10. Having a little trouble answering the question because I always saw paranormal as ghost-based while fantasy is predominantly magic. Cursed objects seem to overlap in the two arenas, but it does feel like there are loads of differences. Maybe it’s the modern usage since paranormal tends to take place in our reality, but with a supernatural twist. Hence, it’s’ off the norm that the rest of us are used to. Fantasy is its own reality with rules that make the paranormal fairly normal, so nobody treats it as such. This is just genre word usage that’s tweaking my head.

    As far as magical items go, one does have to be careful. The biggest challenge is power levels. It’s very tempting to have a magical item appear at just the right time and solve everything. Same goes for spells, which is why there’s a joke phrase called ‘A wizard did it’. People use it to explain odd plot events that seem to push things along without any effort from the heroes. Magical items have the same risk. We also assume that every magical item will be incredibly useful, so you rarely see anything that was created for a niche event. Funny how wizards never seem to create wands of entertaining burps or a chair that announces the weight of anyone who sits in it.

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    • There is so much drift between the genres. In my mind, anything that includes witches, Universal movie monsters, demons, devils, could be paranormal. The world setting helps define where to place it which is what makes Clyde fantasy. Magical items can be a bit deus ex machina, if we aren’t careful. Timing for these things is important, too. If it’s introduced early on, readers might wonder why the heroes didn’t use it to solve subsequent problems.

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      • While there is drift, I do feel like people use various genres far too interchangeably. Fantasy, paranormal/supernatural, and science fiction get this a lot, especially those first two. Paranormal can even include psychics, so superheroes can fall into that arena as well if you wish. Setting is a good defining factor though.

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      • You’re aware of the whole Star Wars debate. Whether it’s fantasy or science fiction? I say SF, because of the settings, even though it has fantasy elements. Is Alien science fiction or horror? It’s both, too.

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      • I’ve seen the Star Wars debate. I go with Science Fiction too because of the alien part, but mostly the level of tech. The Force is the reason people dub it as fantasy, but it doesn’t work the same way. It’s much more psychic in nature with mind tricks and telekinesis. The first and third Alien would definitely be more sci-fi/thriller because it depends on tension. The second movie is more sci-fi/action.

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      • A big part of my frustration is that fantasy gets the short end of the stick a lot. People look at it more like a sub-genre than a big one. I always get questions asking if it’s historical fantasy, sci-fi fantasy, supernatural fantasy, etc. It’s like there can be no actual fantasy and it’s always secondary to another category.

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      • Honestly, it’s a larger category than most. That’s why the sub-genres came into vogue. If someone is looking for urban fantasy, an epic fantasy might not serve their needs. I always look at fantasy as the main genre and the other terms are subdividing it. Sci-fi has a lot of the same problems. Grinders is a near future cyberpunk tale, but as SF it goes in the same pot as space opera.

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      • The weird thing is that people still put the sci-fi subgenres together and consider them almost secondary at times. Fantasy is incredibly divided and chopped up to the point where the essence of it gets lost among all the nuances. I’ve seen basic vampire and werewolf stories in modern world called urban fantasy even if they’ve gone a more science route with the creation. Epic fantasy is routinely argued about because it tends to be defined by whoever is the most popular. When LOTR movies came out, epic fantasy was all about adventure. Harry Potter made it magic and coming of age stuff. Game of Thrones turned the definition to political stuff. I can’t think of any other genre that gets itself torn apart and rebuilt so often that many can’t even agree what is and isn’t really part of it anymore. Worst part is that fantasy doesn’t even sell that well beyond the big names, so the tearing apart does extra damage to prevent newer authors from getting out there.

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      • I get that. Maybe it’s a good idea to narrow our stories on Amazon so people can find whatever sub-genre they’re shopping for. At minimum we can avoid an unhappy review from someone who thought they were buying something else.

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  11. Great post, Craig. Definitely give us more on science fiction and fantasy. I love the stuff you come up with, and you explain it so well. What you say about resale value is something I haven’t put much thought into, but I will be in future. 🙂

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