A Few Thoughts About the Word “Wizard”

Merlin, Gandalf, Harry Potter…wizards are staple characters in fantasy novels. Wizards are also common in fantasy-based rpgs, in video games, in anime, in movies, and pretty much everywhere you look these days.

As a fantasy author, I’ve always worried about using the word “wizard” in a novel for fear of crossing the line between archetype and cliché. In the shadow of great fantasy writers like Tolkien and Rowling, can a couple of fairly new indy authors use the word “wizard” in their book and not sound derivative?

Of course, Tolkien did not invent the term. The word “wizard” goes way back. According to the 1993 Edition of Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary, the word is derived from the Middle English wysard from the word wis or wys meaning wise. (Yes, John and I still possess a huge, hard-cover dictionary that mostly collects dust on the shelf because of all the easy-to-use, online sources. It’s still fun to pull it out occasionally.)

In the early drafts of our book 60th Hour, the character Seyarin was called the “Court Magician” specifically to avoid the use of the word wizard. However, “magician” tends to conjure (no pun intended) images of stage magic and illusion. That did not really fit with the “calendar magic” used in the book. When John and I were finalizing the novel last year, I spent a long time trying to find an alternate word and finally came up with Vaymancer. For a while, I had considered “daymancer” because it described how the magic functioned, but when I did a Google search on the term, someone was already using it. Because the magic in 60th Hour was based on the Vayal, the sacred calendar, I substituted “vay” for “day” and the new term seemed to fit.

In the novel John and I are currently writing, we face a similar problem. In the manuscript, the magical practitioners are called wizards, but I’m not sure whether to keep using that word or find another name to describe them. They don’t have any of the trappings typically associated with wizards — no spell books, magic wands, or pointy hats.

It is possible that the word “wizard” has become so common in modern literature that it is almost generic, like the word “detective” in a crime novel. Maybe it’s ok to use it now for any magical practitioner in a fantasy novel, even if the character does not resemble the wizards of “traditional” fantasy.

Frankly, I’m not sure. In the meantime, I am trying to think of another word that might work for the new novel. The first draft of the manuscript is still on track to be finished this month. If we are going to change the word, we need to come up with something fairly soon, preferably before starting on the second draft.

-Susan 3/5/2021

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