In books, movies, and TV shows, we use different words to describe people with magic. Sometimes the words specify gender or if the person uses magic for good or evil. But the terms and their meanings are not consistent across different stories and fantasy worlds. I wanted to compare the dictionary definitions of witch, wizard, sorcerer/sorceress, and warlock to how they are used in a few fantasy worlds that I am familiar with.

Most common dictionary definitions:
witch – A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
wizard – One who practices magic; a sorcerer or magician.
sorcerer – One who practices sorcery; a wizard.
sorceress – A woman who practices sorcery.
sorcery – Use of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits; witchcraft.
warlock – A male witch, sorcerer, wizard, or demon.

How these terms are used in fiction


In Merlin, the dragon Kilgharrah calls Merlin “young warlock.” Warlocks can sometimes be associated with dark power (see “demon” in the definition above), but the dragon never seems to think that Merlin might use his power for evil purposes. In Merlin’s world, then, “warlock” is synonymous with wizard or sorcerer (x). The prophecies call Merlin a “sorcerer,” and that is the general term used in the series for anyone who practices magic.

The Dresden Files

“Wizard” refers to a man or a woman with a substantial amount of magical talent. Sometimes “dark wizard” will be used for someone who uses magic for evil purposes. “Warlock” is the term for anyone who breaks any of the Seven Laws of Magic (x).

Harry Potter

“Witch” refers to a female and “wizard” refers to a male. In the Harry Potter series, “witch” and “wizard” do not carry with them a certain expectation of power or experience. Twelve year-olds studying at Hogwarts are witches and wizards and adults who work for the Ministry of Magic are witches and wizards too. “Warlock” usually denotes a person with high skill or achievement (x).

A Modern Witch

In this novel by Debora Geary, “Witch” refers to a male or female with any level of talent. No mention of any other terms for people with magical talent.

I like that writers use already-existing words for characters with magical talent, but at the same time, it can be confusing that these words do not have universal meanings. There’s another way of looking at this though: molding these terms to their specific worlds means that writers can form their own structures for how magical talent is defined in their stories.

When the Harry Potter books came out, what I enjoyed about them the most was that the characters had to learn and study magic, even to do something simple like levitate a feather. The children come into their abilities at age eleven, but they can’t automatically use magic to accomplish whatever they want.

It was completely different from the characters I grew up watching on TV, primarily Sabrina Spellman. Sabrina found out she was a witch when she turned 16. Yes, she had to learn certain things about magic, but most of the time she could point her finger, think of what she wanted to happen, and it would happen. Just like that. She studies for her witch license, but it’s a part-time thing.

Compare that to the world of Harry Potter, where children spend seven years in full-time magic classes learning charms, potions, transfiguration, and a dozen other topics. Most magic requires a wand and a Latin spell, and the more advanced work also requires disciplined concentration.

I appreciate magic as a story element in the Harry Potter books because the characters earn their skills. But for Sabrina, magic felt easy, and the complications came from non-magic sources such as friends, high school social norms, and her own desires.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Professor McGonagall sent all the Slytherins to the dungeons after the Death Eaters attacked Hogwarts. The scene is the same in the book and in part two of the film. Some fans made a fuss about it, saying McGonagall assumed all the Slytherin students were untrustworthy. I don’t see it that way.

Many of the Slytherin students’ parents were Death Eaters and supporters of Lord Voldemort. Chances are, many students’ parents were part of Voldemort’s followers who attacked Hogwarts. By ordering all the Slytherin students to the dungeons, McGonagall took them out of the fight. Those students didn’t have to choose between fighting against their parents or against their peers. They didn’t have to make a difficult decision in dangerous circumstances. McGonagall’s decision kept students safe and minimized unpredictability among them. That’s good for the students and good for the school. Sending the Slytherins to the dungeons was the best decision McGonagall could have made.

Minor spoilers for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the film).

The Harry Potter books are way too long and detailed to be adapted adequately to film. Even Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with a running time of 2 hours and 33 minutes can’t cram in all the important parts of the book. That’s understandable. Stories based on books must be told differently on screen. Even though Half-Blood Prince has gaps that can be explained only by knowing the book, it shows one thing very, very well: Harry and Hermione’s relationship.

Throughout the series, Harry and Hermione are best friends and always supportive of each other. Where Ron sometimes gets lost in himself or in the events around him, Harry always keeps an eye out for Hermione. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry likes Ginny but can’t be with her for fear of Ron’s reaction. Hermione likes Ron but he runs around with Lavender and pays little attention to Hermione for most of the film. Harry is the only one who is aware of Hermione’s trouble, as Hermione is the only one aware of Harry’s.

We see Hermione’s disgust with Lavender every time she leaves a room abruptly or snaps at Ron for being so oblivious. Hermione gets upset, storms off, or cries. When Harry sees Dean Thomas with Ginny, he doesn’t show an outward reaction. Maybe his facial expression changes or maybe he turns away, but that’s it.

Until the scene where Hermione sits on the hallway stairs and cries.

Harry comes to comfort her and Hermione asks him what it feels like when he sees Ginny with Dean. Harry doesn’t answer right away, but a moment later when Hermione cries into his shoulder, he says, “It feels like this.”

Harry and Hermione’s friendship is of the purest form, totally platonic. The books depict the same relationship, but it comes across stronger on screen. We can read that Harry and Hermione support each other, but the film does a better job of showing their compassion and sympathy.

Makes me wonder why some fangirls wanted Harry and Hermione to date and miss out on this perfect friendship.