Hi Magician Fans.
I’m a struggling writer and a huge fan of the Magicians, both the books and the SyFy series. I’m the cofounder of Flagstaff Writers Connection and I’ve taught young writers the basics of writing fiction. I’m older—57 yrs old. I’m a life long fan of speculative fiction and I’ve read countless fantasy novels. What I want to know is how did Lev Grossman and the series writers compel me forward into their story world so well? I also want to know how they created characters who seem so vivid and how did they make me believe those characters grew and changed? I’m embarking on a project to answer those questions and use this excellent story to propel my own abilities forward.
Similar to the Write Like Rowling project, I plan to comb through each episode and each chapter looking for the answers and sharing my findings with you. If you are also a fantasy writer, you will likely find this interesting. If you are a fan, I’m not sure you will like the posts. It might be a little like finding out how sausage is made. Regardless of whether you are a writer or mainly a reader, I welcome your comments on my findings, even the negative ones.
Currently I am reading book 3 of the series so I’ll start my analysis with the TV series. I’ll add chapter analysis on my re-read after I finish book 3. As I proceed, I’ll be keeping notes on my Story Grid. I’ll also post these discussions on my blog and my personal FB page.
Being a writer is a little like being a close up illusionist. Writers, good writers, understand the deep psychology of their readers. They know how to fool the brain into believing it is seeing or feeling things that aren’t there, to believe what isn’t true. I’m watching for that sleight of hand in each of these episodes.
Episode 1: Unauthorized Magic
Written and created for television by
Based on The Magicians by
- What compelled me forward?
In this episode, Gamble and McNamara, worked to hook me right away. The first scene shows the loud, chaotic world of New York City. The sky is gray and there is dirty snow on the sidewalk. Suddenly a door opens and we glimpse a green lawn and a bright summer day. Birds are singing. Dean Fogg strolls through the door and it slams shut behind him. He sits at a bench and reads a paper. A woman (Jane Chatwin) approaches and tells him “it” has started. She drops a huge moth on his newspaper. Fogg quickly covers the insect. She continues to warn him that things are happening sooner than anticipated and he has to get his group trained before they are discovered. No names are mentioned. In fact no specifics are mentioned at all. Near the end of the scene Jane gives Fogg a clock. Then she asks about “your boy.” Fogg looks uncomfortable and in the next scene we see Quentin in a mental health facility.
What draws me in is the sense of secrecy and danger. I have no idea what these two are planning. At this point, I don’t even know whether these two are good guys or villains. In fact it is the lack of information that makes me curious and I have to continue watching to figure out what these two are talking about.
Likewise, the end of the episode propelled me into the next episode because it leaves me with so many questions. Who (what) is this Beast? Why so many fingers? What does he want with Quentin?
Writer’s Take Away:
- Create a sense of danger with body language and subtext or just murder and mayhem. Fogg covers up the moth quickly so it isn’t seen by a passer-by. They discuss someone who is starting something that is clearly antagonistic to these two. Jane stresses that their group needs to be ready soon or suffer some sort of setback. She gives him a clock “in case things don’t go well.” In the final scene, things do not go well.
- Don’t tip your cards. What makes the first scene compelling is what we don’t know. We don’t know who or what is the antagonist they are prepping to overcome. In order to discover what they are discussing I have to keep watching. Likewise, in order to see what the Beast is and what it wants, we have to keep watching the series.
- Honor the fans of the genre, even at the beginning. When Dean Fogg walks through the door from Brakebills there is an air of separation between Fogg and the mundane world. Immediately I want to know more about the world with the summer’s day and birds chirping.
- What made the characters so special?
Quentin: When we first meet Quentin, he is being assessed by a psychologist for release from a mental health facility. We learn from the psychologist, from a fight with Julia, and from flashbacks to the last party Quentin attended that he is awkward, isolated, and that Julia is his only real friend. He is desperately in love with her despite her boyfriend. We find out that Quentin retreats from his life into the childhood fantasy books Fillory and Further.
In the Magician books, Quentin is definitely unhappy with his life but he is not in a mental health facility. While walking to his Princeton (Yale) interview he muses, “All of it just confirmed his belief that his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy.”—The Magicians, pg 5. And at the interview, “It was a liquor cabinet. A big one, there was practically a whole bar in there. Quentin reached back past the ranks of softly jingling bottles and felt the dry, scratchy plywood at the back just to make sure. Solid. Nothing magical about it. He closed the door, breathing hard, his face burning in the darkness. It was when he looked around to make absolutely sure that nobody was watching that he saw the dead body on the floor.”—The Magicians, pg 10. Grossman knows his potential fans. Is there a one of us who hasn’t fantasized how we are really made for something better, brighter, more adventurous? And if we just pushed hard enough we could …
Julia: Despite her boyfriend, she clearly cares for Quentin. She works to get him to move forward with his life including interviewing for Yale and trying to get him to ask a girl at the party out. She is frustrated by his refusal to grow up and his retreat into depression and into his fantasy world. She feels he needs to grow up. But immediately after she berates Quentin for not dealing with reality, she finds herself magically transported to the entrance exam at Brakebills. When she fails the test, she begs for a second chance. She says she can’t go to Yale when she knows a University of Magic exists. So we find out that Julia was once as engrossed in fantasy as Quentin but has suppressed her feelings successfully to become an adult. In many ways she is as dysfunctional as Quentin. She is hiding her true self, and when it comes boiling to the surface she is as alone as he. More so, as he rejects her request to ask Brakebills to test her again. Her desire to be a part of the magical world will be her vulnerability throughout this season.
Fogg: Dignified, slow walk. With Jane he appears to try to keep her more down to Earth. With Quentin he needles him until magic explodes from Quentin at the thought of going back to his troubled life. Then Fogg asks Quentin to give up his medication despite the fact Fogg agrees with Quentin that everyone self medicates. That gives us a clue about Fogg’s vulnerability. But we also see Fogg heroically face off with the Beast in an attempt to save his students. What makes Fogg fascinating is this dichotomy in his character. Brave and knowledgeable but also broken and alcoholic.
Jane: We see her as a child and an adult. She seems flighty and close to panic. Fogg is astounded that she believes they can change fate. She confronts Quentin and convinces him to take a risk. Her childish enthusiasm and belief that she can outdo fate will act as her vulnerability.
Elliot: He assumes a mentor position for the newly matriculated Quentin. He seems sophisticated and suave. He looks like he has it all together, including preforming magic. In retrospect, of course, Elliot has a whole host of vulnerabilities.
Margo: Talks and acts like a party girl. Easy to overlook her in these first few scenes and she feels like a throw away character. She defers to Elliot, so that might be where her vulnerability lies.
Alice: In this beginning, Alice is really angry and self isolating. She hates magic for what it did to her brother. She is well aware of the risks magic poses.
Penny: The second of our angry characters. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder about his race and the series makes great fun of that anger. He might be over compensating for the confusion hearing voices causes.
Kade: Also seems angry or at least bitchy. At this point we don't know what she might be angry about. Again, she is a female character who is easy to overlook. She isn't really granted a backstory and she acts childishly.
Writer’s Take Away:
- Give your perfect fan a place in your story. Quentin is awkward and his friends don’t really get him. That makes him a supremely lonely man. He takes refuge in books and in his magic tricks. Lev Grossman’s perfect fan would have a long history of reading fantasy fiction. They are likely guilty of taking refuge in books to sooth themselves when the real world is a little rough. They are likely to identify strongly with Quentin and when in his POV they feel like they are in the story themselves.
- Make your protagonist(s) vulnerable. Quentin has a long history of unstable mental health. His parents ignore him and he is in danger of losing his only real friend, Julia. He is an extremely vulnerable man. We feel for him. He didn’t cause all these issues with some sort of misbehavior, he has just been unlucky. It is hard to watch a person who isn’t intentionally “bad” suffer. We want his luck to turn around and when it does, we silently rejoice.
- If you want to take a character arc to the pinnacle of growth/change, start as close to the bottom as you can. Margo seems more like a walk-on character than a major character. In fact she is the sidekick of a sidekick. She is shallow and defers to whatever Elliot says. Easy to overlook her. In retrospect, this makes her character at the end of the series seem to have made super human growth.
3. What is the Theme?
All right. I lied. I have a third question I’m trying to answer. Lev Grossman is quite famously an atheist. I get the feeling that he wrote these books in response to the Christian themes in fantasy literature, especially in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We can see the similarities even in this first episode. The Chatwins are a group of estranged British children who discover Fillory in the back of a grandfather clock. That is essentially the plot of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Fillory is a magical land, much like Narnia. And Fillory has monsters and danger, just like Narnia.
I don’t have a writer’s take away for this yet. I can only see the similarity between the two series at this point. I do think that Quentin and Julia’s unhappiness is perhaps representative of children who read the Narnia books and thought the world would be a just place but found out otherwise. They represent a deep mistrust of the adult world that created those books but was unable to create a world that reflected Narnia’s sense of right and wrong.