Witches in Fiction: The Good and the Bad By Dawn Colclasure

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” A good majority of people the world over will recognize this line from the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, but for many writers of fiction, this question hits different if they have a witch in their story. Not only do these writers need to ensure they write these characters realistically but that they also stick to their story world’s canon as far as witches are concerned. 

For example, one author, Elana McDougall, has witches in her novels for her The Eldritch of Hallows series – however, don’t let anyone tell them that! Calling that particular character a “witch” is actually an insult, as far as her story world is concerned. “Mages in my series would be witches – Human-like people who do magic,” she said. “I made it seem like the word ‘witch’ is an insult, something that reminds them of witch hunts, so they use the term ‘mage.’ For some fantasy series, a mage would be like a wizard.”

In the first book in her series, Hidden Magic, her character Sasha refers to a mage as a “witch” – to which another character corrects her with the more appropriate term “mage.”

Aside from negative stereotypes attached to witches and witchcraft in fiction, there is also the stigma that witches are “bad” or “evil.” While The Wizard of Oz had a good witch and a bad witch, many witches in fiction have been portrayed in a negative light for far too long. During Halloween of 2022, I saw many new books featuring stories of scary witches or witches written in a way representing them as “evil.” This kind of portrayal of witches in fiction being “evil” can be insulting to people such as myself who identify as witches – the kind that are not evil.

I am not alone in feeling this way. Another author I know who is also a witch, Jaclyn White, has had this same reaction to witches being portrayed in a negative light in fiction. When she comes across such negative portrayals of witches, she notes that “I sigh and roll my eyes in irritation. During this passed Yule, I read a book called A Holly Jolly Murder by Joan Hess, published in 1997. It’s a cozy about a murder committed on the Winter Solstice among a grove of Druids. The story is good, although, the way the armchair detective’s attitude over the Druids were cringeworthy. They were called ‘silly,’ ‘weird,’ and other negative words. If I remember correctly, there were some LGBTQ situations that didn’t age well. I’m getting tired of seeing the negativity and linking Paganism and witchcraft with Satan and devil worship. I also don’t like seeing Gods and Goddesses written/printed with a lowercase ‘G’. I don’t like seeing scenes where black candles are used for every ritual or spell. I hate when Paganism is portrayed as a cult where a human or animal is sacrificed. Even thousands of years ago, the term ‘sacrifice’ wasn’t what everyone thinks. When it was time to butcher the farm animals for winter, they offered the leftovers to their Gods and ancestors. It wasn’t like anything in the movies.”

And while another novelist, Catherine Cavendish, is aware of how witches are often negatively portrayed in fiction, she is not worried that portraying a witch as a “scary character” is harmful to how readers would perceive what witches in real life are actually like. “I feel that my readers are intelligent enough to know that the witches I write about are not the witches that exist in real life,” she explained. “The real witches I have met and those I know are caring, spiritual, considerate people with a strong sense of their links with those who have come before, and with the land and natural world around them. Any resemblance between them and the scary ones I portray is purely fictional. I also feel that, given all the documentaries about famous witch persecutions such as Salem and, predating that by 80 years, the Lancashire Witch Trials in England, most people know only too well that those accused, tried, convicted and murdered as so-called witches throughout the ages were no such thing. If they were anything at all, they were wise folk – usually women – or (as in the case of a number of the Pendle Witches convicted at the Lancashire Witch Trials) members of feuding families. They were innocent of the crimes of which they stood convicted. Any fictional creation of Salem or Pendle by any novelist, screenwriter or short storyteller today is purely for scary entertainment purposes and I think people realize that. That certainly applies to my novel, The Pendle Curse.

Meanwhile, the necessity to portray witches accurately in fiction remains. While some writers of fiction may take creative liberty with their stories and witch characters for the purpose of entertainment, others like Jaclyn would like to see a more accurate representation. This is something she tries to achieve in her own novels. “In Witches and Black Roses #16, Masquerade, a ritual is shown helping a new witch tap into his powers to help fight against a serial killer,” Jaclyn explains.  “I feel that the other installment, Breaking the Omerta, portrays it more since another new witch becomes interested in tarot reading, Astrology, and other forms of Magick and science after breaking free from his mob family.”  

She goes on to add, “Even though I write about vampires, mermaids, werewolves, and other mythical creatures, I incorporate actual Pagan holidays and rituals. I capitalize words like Pagan, Gods, and Goddesses to show that our Gods and Goddesses are important also. Since Paganism is a religion, ‘Pagan,’ ‘Wicca,’ and other words to describe our religion should be capitalized. Most of my characters are Goth since I want to show that Goths aren’t evil and because of that, I make sure my other Pagan characters are not into the Goth lifestyle. I like to balance it out. In my books, the world is Pagan as though Christianity didn’t flourish after the inquisition. This idea is faintly hinted at since I wanted to focus more on my witches solving crimes with romantic intrigue. I don’t want to be political, either. Even some of my LGBTQ characters are written naturally as though their lifestyle was never questioned, I don’t make it political. I hate politics. This is not a slam towards Christianity or their God, it was just an idea that came to me while studying Egyptian, Roman, and Greek mythology. I did have an unpleasant experience with a group of Christians from my first marriage that caused me to begin questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church. For scenes involving magick, I try to be accurate with proper candle color, crystal, or any other tool. When I first began my series, there weren’t that many Pagan authors (that I knew about at the time) who wrote fiction where witches related to the characters. It was refreshing to discover books where they mentioned Pagan holidays, celebrated the Full Moon, and worshipped many Gods and Goddesses without calling Them demons or making Them foolish.”  

When it comes to portraying witches in fiction, certain liberties may be taken on the author’s part. This is especially true for how witches are portrayed in stories where a community of other supernatural creatures exist, such as in McDougall’s Eldritch series along with Cloudy with a Chance of Witchcraft by Mandy M. Roth and Aimless Witch by Shannon Mayer. For the modern witch in a contemporary setting, however, there lies the challenge of portraying the witchy character in a positive way. While this character may have friends who recognize them as a witch, thereby not forcing the character to keep her talents a secret (note: the male term for a witch is warlock, and that’s for another essay), how she is ultimately accepted in society and portrayed overall may be the defining point of a story. In the novel Star-Crossed Witch by Deanna Chase, for example, the main character, Marion, is a member of a local coven and her friends accept her as a witch. She uses her talents to read auras to guide her career as a matchmaker but, at the same time, her portrayal as a witch does not stand out as a “negative” aspect of the story nor is it a warning to readers of danger yet to come. This is the type of balance readers who practice witchcraft in real life hope to see, as we have had enough of the negative stereotypes associated with witched in both television shows as well as movies.

      “When the television show, Charmed and the movie The Craft premiered in the 1990s, movie studios were finally seeking witches for accuracy,” Jaclyn explains:

“Although, there were things that irritated me. In Charmed, they would name demons after Gods (for example: Hecate was named after a demon who made a deal with a mortal to wed her son), and I feel that they should have had Piper wear either a pentacle or any other Pagan symbol instead of a cross. The cross was originally a Pagan symbol before Christianity stole it, but for the modern audience, the wardrobe department could’ve chosen something else. I love both, despite those flaws. For Charmed, the Paganism improved some during the later seasons. I see The Craft as a good cautionary tale for teens; be careful of what you wish for. The portrayal is getting better, but it could improve more. I’m tired of seeing teenagers gathered around Ouija Boards to conjure demons and the like. I roll my eyes each time someone either on television or in real life ask the spirits if someone has a crush on them and other silly questions. Spirits aren’t going to know or care. If an author or screenwriter wants to include a scene with an Ouija Board, they should show someone smudging it, asking questions other than cliched questions, and other proper ways to conduct a session. Instead of evil and manipulative, they should have the spirit be helpful or give vague warnings.” 

The reality is that just as there are good witches and bad witches in real life, there are good witches and bad witches in fiction. However, Jaclyn points out the importance of getting things right when it comes to a portrayal of a character playing the role of a “bad witch.” 

“The author should research every occult topic and make sure their witches aren’t portrayed as ‘silly’ or any other stereotypical way,” she explained. “Have the ‘bad’ witches but have them learn why what they have done was wrong. Like the Gods, everyone has a dark and light side. It’s normal and needed. Hocus Pocus 2 is a good example of balancing out the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ witches. Yes, it was a little silly, but still a good movie. To tell a good story, an author needs to add conflict; without conflict and breaking some of the rules, the story would be boring, but not at the point where it makes us [real-life witches] look evil or silly.”

Art imitates life, so naturally art would include the good and bad of every religion, lifestyle and culture. She warns, however, against one pervading stereotype today’s witchy novels can do without. “I don’t think there’s a place for the ‘devil worshiping’ type. It’s outdated and it feeds on the negative stereotypes.”  

Fiction which has evil witches should take care to not promote the idea that this sort of negative representation is realistic for all witches. In one of the stories in a collection of YA horror stories I wrote, which is currently in the submission rounds, my character has to battle an “evil witch” with supernatural powers in order to survive escaping from one of the rooms of a haunted house. In another story, a “good” witch warns about the dangers of abusing witchcraft for personal gain, something her sister, who is also a witch, is doing in the title story.

Catherine knows all about how the portrayal of evil witches in fiction can make for a good story. In her book, The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings, a collection of gothic horror stories, she has a character who is a reputed witch in her community which is up to no good. It’s all meant for the purpose of entertainment and she knows there can be bad witches just as there are good witches. “I love my fictional scary witches,” Catherine said. “I particularly love when one gets her own back – as in my story, Daft Old Bat (in The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings). In this short story, an old woman is taunted by a young lad who really should know better. She teaches him a lesson – the hard way. Yes!”

That ultimately captures the bottom line about witches in fiction: Use them as scary characters, or in a negative way, if it fits with the story or the book’s genre. Just as I used an “evil witch” to create tension and conflict in a short story, so, too, can such characters play those roles in a story if that is the effect the author wishes to achieve.

The trick is to make sure readers know that this “scary” or “evil” witch is not an accurate representation of what real-life witches are like.

We must keep in mind that fiction ultimately cannot portray an accurate picture of what witches are like in real life. We cannot rely on novels featuring witchy characters to tell us what witches are really like or to teach us about witchcraft. Just remember that there are bad witches both in fiction and real life, but there are also good witches, too. It’s the good witches we writers who practice witchcraft hope to see more of as a whole, because as long as fiction continues to push negative stereotypes about witches and witchcraft, we will continue to have negative stereotypes about witches giving readers the wrong ideas.

We may have yet to go before witches are more widely portrayed in a positive light in fiction. For now, however, every push in the right direction counts.

Dawn Colclasure is a writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband and children. She writes poetry, essays, articles, short stories and book-length fiction and nonfiction. She is the author and co-author of over four dozen books, among them 365 Tips for Writers: Inspiration, Writing Prompts and Beat the Block Tips to Turbo Charge Your Creativity and the horror novel, Shadow of Samhain. She is also a freelance writer, book reviewer and ghostwriter. She is also a self-publisher. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. She publishes the SPARREW Newsletter each month. A former Wiccan, today she identifies as a witch and continues learning on this new journey in life. Her writing blog is at http://dawncolclasureblog.blogspot.com/ and her websites are at https://dawnsbooks.com/ and https://www.dmcwriter.com/. She’s on Twitter @dawnwilson325 and @dawncolclasure.

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