by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder refers to a genre of films he dubbed “genie in a bottle” stories. These are films where the protagonist is endowed with some special gift or ability that they believe will solve all their problems. Of course, in the end the magic usually backfires on the character and reinforces the age-old theme that you can’t use shortcuts to solve your problems. Here are three principles to follow if you plan to bestow magic on your main character.
1. The Magic Should Address a Need You’ve Already Established For The Character
It’s important that the magic you give your character provide a solution for a problem you’ve spent time establishing as an issue in their life. Certainly, the fun in these stories is watching the character receive and then use the magic, but failing to build a landscape in the first act where the magic is truly useful can be detrimental to the overall arc.
In Shallow Hal, we are given a front row seat to watch Hal’s judgment of others based on physical appearance. The writers waste no time letting us in on what a problem this is for him. When Tony Robbins grants Hal the unusual gift of seeing people physically based on their inner selves, Hal’s problem appears to be cured. Of course, things become complex when Hal loses the magic and is forced to appreciate the inner beauty aside from the physical appearance of a woman he has already fallen in love with. In the end, Hal must embrace the beauty inside of someone being superior to all else, which is where the true magic lies.
Jim Carey’s character in Liar, Liar faces a similar issue. However, while Hal’s magic makes life enjoyable, Carey’s magic turns him into a lawyer unable to tell a lie – something that turns his world upside down. The humor of watching Carey react to such a predicament only works because we spend the first act of the story establishing how his life is structured around his ability to lie so effectively. His miracle weight-loss drug fulfills the deepest desires of Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor, but only after we’ve established that he has some serious social problems resulting from his weight.
It’s essential we establish the character’s blind spot before we let a genie appear on the scene.
2. The Magic Should Intoxicate Your Character & Rob Them of Their Better Judgment
Jim Carey continues to enchant as a character endowed with magical abilities in Bruce Almighty. The humor here rises from watching Carey play God and clumsily grant prayer requests. It’s worth mentioning that the film also contains a crucial element for making this type of magic work in a story – rules. When God gives Bruce his powers, he insists on two things. First, he can’t tell anyone he’s God. And second, he can’t affect free will. Even with these limitations, Bruce becomes drunk with power using his magic to part a bowl of tomato soup and blow a woman’s skirt up. It quickly becomes clear that the world is not a better place under Bruce’s rule.
In Office Space, Peter Gibbons falls into a magic trance that frees him from the concerns of corporate life. The extent of his intoxication grows more and more humorous as Peter eventually ends up fileting a freshly caught fish on his desk at work. The lack of concern quickly becomes a lack of judgment after he rationalizes theft from the company, roping his dear friends into his downward spiral.
In the best stories, our protagonist will not only sail their own ship into the abyss, but take others with them. The closer their relationships with those they entrap, the higher the stakes will be in the story.
3. The Magic Won’t Solve Your Problems and Must Be Given Up
After the protagonist abuses their powers, there’s only one solution to return life to normalcy – give up the magic. In stories such as Bruce Almighty, the magic must literally be given up. In other tales, the sacrifice is more metaphoric. Drew Barrymore gives up the magic of her perceived youth in Never Been Kissed, while Dustin Hoffman gives up his magical celebrity status in Tootsie. In E.T., the magic of E.T.’s presence must be given up by Elliott. In Mean Girls, the magic of popularity must be given up to return to a peaceful life. Even Dorothy must give up Oz to return home.
With every example, the theme is the same. Magic won’t solve your problems. There is no way around the difficulty, only through it. Shortcuts just don’t work when it comes to things that matter. Stories where characters fulfill our own fantasies by taking magical opportunities or abilities out for a test drive touch a place in our psyche that will always itch. There’s also a comfort in being reminded that while these fantasies are fun, they won’t get us where we need to be. Only hard work can do that – a truth that every committed writer knows well.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.