Curse Your Characters! (Writing About Magical Curses)

If you’re writing a fantasy story, or any story containing magical themes, it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up including some kind of magical curse (also known as a jinx or hex) in the storyline somewhere. A curse can provide a straightforward backstory and motive for a character (not just in written works, but for D&D and other roleplay environments too), but it can also tie the character into the lore of the world and the overarching plot. It can also lead to the development of good conflict—both internal and external. 

As far as plot devices go, a curse works well for establishing a lot more than just the plot. However, it’s not always easy to include a curse in a storyline without it getting messy, confusing, or cliché. Once you understand the formula, however, you’ll be able to create a unique and interesting curse that will have your readers cheering the poor character (or characters) on from the sidelines. 

What Counts as a Curse?

A curse can be defined as something that negatively affects a character, group of characters, region, etc, in a way that wouldn’t naturally occur. It is often inflicted (usually by gods or supernatural entities) as retribution for some sort of crime or misdeed, and almost always exceeds the severity of the original offense.

If you want some examples, you can take a look at the many Ancient Greek stories that feature curses as major plots, such as Prometheus being cursed for giving humans the gift of fire without Zeus’s permission. He was chained to a rock and had an Eagle eat his liver, which would grow back each day to start the torment again. Medusa is another famous example—she was transformed by the Goddess Athena into that snake-headed monster that turns men to stone, as a consequence of breaking her vow of celibacy.

Curses are magical by nature, so you’ll need to have a good grasp on how magic works in your world before you can start thinking about the specifics of a particular curse. If you want to reference a guide for creating a magic system for your world, you can check out my other article: How to Write About Magic.

How to Curse Your Character

There are many things to consider when writing about curses, so it can be helpful to break the task up into manageable sections. This way, you can be sure you haven’t neglected any one element. 

Who Does the Curse Affect?

First and foremost, you need to decide who is getting cursed. Traditionally, the recipient of a curse is a single individual, but it can also extend to the person’s entire family, their descendants, their town, or any groups they are associated with.

Your character may be the original recipient of the curse, or they may not. They might have simply had the misfortune of being associated with a cursed person in one way or another, such as inheriting their parent’s curse or being the victim of collective punishment. Some also involve passing the same affliction onto anyone the cursed person loves or interacts with. 

What Does the Curse Do?

Curses can end up looking like whatever you want. A character could be doomed to have wet socks forever, or they could be forced to always taste anchovies. Characters could grow extra limbs, occasionally split into clones, or have hair that grows an inch a minute. More severe curses could result in a character causing depression or poor health to anyone who spends time around them, killing whoever touches their skin directly, or sleeping eternally. Really, there are no limits to what you can do. 

However, it is common for a curse to bear some resemblance to the crime committed. A person who stole food could be punished to always feel hungry, no matter how much they eat. A person accused of lying may lose their ability to speak at all. A person who has caused pain and suffering to others may get afflicted with wounds that can never heal. If you’re stumped for ideas, examine what the character does to get hexed in the first place, and you may find the inspiration you’re looking for. 

Who/What is Responsible for the Curse?

A curse has to come from somewhere, but you have a lot of options to pick from.

If your story operates under a hierarchy of gods, demigods, and other higher powers, that’s an easy source for a curse. The Ancient Greeks often wrote about the curses their various gods and goddesses would bestow on mortals, and it would make sense that only deities can manipulate fate and reality in the way a curse often requires. However, relying on the divine to dole out magical misfortune is not something that is going to work for every story—and even if your story has gods, you might not want that to be the only way a person can wind up getting jinxed. 

Similar to the above point, curses can be the result of meddling with other supernatural beings, such as fae, demons, witches, and more. Creatures that are generally known as tricksters, such as kitsune and imps, may end up cursing someone more out of boredom than to punish anyone.

Finally, curses can come from ordinary people in a myriad of situations. Curses could come from strong emotions, like despair or anger, and a truly impassioned person must only speak their intention aloud for it to become true (regardless of if they would regret it later). A person can even jinx themself in this manner (“I’ll be doomed if I lose this competition”). Similarly, a person on their deathbed may be able to use their last words to curse someone who wronged them in life. 

Additionally, even if cursing someone isn’t something everyone can do, it may be something people can learn. If magic is learnable, then it stands to reason that a person would be able to learn how to curse someone too, even if they have to dabble in forbidden magic to do so. 

Of course, you don’t need to use all of these ideas in your story. You might want to make it so only fae (or something else) can curse people, and that’s okay. Only you know what’s going to work for your story. 

What Triggers the Curse?

The trigger is the event or action that results in a person being cursed. 

There are a ton of reasons a person can get cursed, but by far the most common one is by doing something they aren’t supposed to, and getting punished by whoever (or whatever) is harmed as a result. If a person steals secrets from the gods, then naturally the gods would want to discipline that person to put them in their place. If a person traps a fairy in a cage, naturally that fairy (or the other fae) would want to punish them appropriately. If some rich politician has been extorting a town to gain wealth, then the collective ill will of the townspeople could set a curse upon him. 

Now, of course, the trigger for a curse is not always quite so justified or obvious. A curse could fall on someone undeservedly, or by simple misfortune. A person could get cursed simply for witnessing something on accident, or touching a cursed object (books are a common choice). They could end up the victim of a trickster, or they could stupidly stumble into a bad situation. 

If the character you’re writing about in the present is not the person who triggered the curse, you need to consider who got hexed initially, and why, and by whom. If it’s a generational curse started by the character’s grandmother, consider what she did in the first place. If your character fell in love with a cursed character and inherited their plight as a result, what did that love interest do to merit that?

How to Break the Curse

Often, the point of a curse is to force a character on a journey to break it—even if that seems impossible at the outset. 

Sometimes, the steps that need to be taken to break the curse are outlined from the moment a person gets cursed. A witch may reveal that only true love’s kiss would set them free (a favorite trope for Disney), or that discovering some truth or solving some mystery would bring about an end to their suffering. Breaking a curse may involve falling in love, righting some wrong that was committed, solving a seemingly unsolvable problem, or (in a more straightforward approach) killing the character who jinxed them to begin with.

Other times, the solution to a curse is not as clearly defined. A character might set off on a quest to break their curse with no actual idea how to do that, in which case, figuring out what to do in the first place plays an important role in the plotline. Other times, a person may just try to continue living their life as normally as they can, under the impression that their curse is impossible to break—at least until something spurs them into action. 

Even if a character is plagued by an eternal curse that can only be broken by completing an impossible task, a character can actually end up finding a loophole to take advantage of. For example, if the curse stipulates the only way to break it is to die, and the character dies and is resuscitated or resurrected, then technically their curse has been broken. 

Tips for Writing About Curses

Stories that revolve around curses often have an inherent moral objective. In the past, people would use stories about curses to warn others about the consequences of defying the law, the gods, or the social code, and this has left its mark on modern stories as well. 

In order to break a curse, a character often has to undergo trials that teach them something they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, often in relation to whatever they did to get cursed in the first place. For example, a person who was cursed for stealing can only break free by sacrificing something they love. In the end, they learn not to steal again, but not because of the threat of being cursed again—rather, they learn not to steal because they learn to understand loss and become sympathetic to victims of theft. 

Your story doesn’t have to include some subliminal moral messaging in order to be successful, but it can be helpful to understand why stories like this exist in the first place, and why they continue to resonate with people, even after millennia of storytelling.