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Magic System

Themis

New Member
Hi!
My favorite world, that I've been working on for quite a while, was mostly built around the political system that I've developed. I'm now stuck at trying to figure out how to incorporate magic into it. so far in what I've written I've used elemental magic - a system in which people with magic each have control over a specific element - either the four classic ones or a fifth one which I just dubbed the quintessence, and is sort of emotional, based on Aether in Greek mythology (the spark of life). I'm just worried that it's overdone or cliché and that it isn't interesting enough. I would love feedback on this, or ideas for creating new magic systems.
 

K.S. Crooks

Maester
Perhaps look at creating unique powers for the elements. Maybe people can only use magic on themselves, or using one element causes the opposing element to change as well, or something else completely different. Also consider that the characters and story need to be more unique than the magic. If you switched magic to any other tool or weapon people are not be concerned with it being unique. For my own stories the uniqueness of the magic is dependent on the amount it plays into the story.
 
You can explore

  • The different ways magic is used.
  • The different limitations to each type of use.
  • The relative strengths and weakness of each type of use.
  • The different costs to each type of use.

And so forth. How you answer these might help to differentiate your particular magic system from other elemental magic systems.

For instance, consider fire. How is it used? In your system, maybe there really are offensive fireballs. Or, instead, those who utilize fire can only draw fire into themselves and glow with it, to the point of radiating fire and setting fire to everything they physically touch. Heh. That's quite a different style of use than throwing fireballs. I'm sure you can come up with other possibilities.

Different limitations can take on a variety of shapes as well. Maybe only women can utilize fire magic. Maybe, instead, fire magic is something only prepubescent children can use; when they hit puberty, fire is blocked to them and they can only learn one of the other four elements, depending on personality. This could make for some interesting world building. You can come up with a host of other types of limitation, for instance distance of effect (can only cast offensive elemental magic up to five feet away, for instance) or strength of effect based upon how much sleep/rest the individual has had that day. On and on, the possibilities are endless.

You get the idea.
 
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Chasejxyz

Inkling
Your magic system is like, everything else in your story -- it only exists to serve your story. So: what does your story need it to be?

In Avatar, the 4 elements also tied to 4 different cultures, and the Avatar would cycle between them. The Fire Nation didn't want their war to be stopped by the Avatar, so they killed all the air people. And doing a genocide is a very horrible thing to do! But the Fire Lords wanted to rule the whole world so bad that they were cool with doing this. Controlling the elements is also heavily tied to emotional control, so a character learning bending also requires them to deal with their character arcs and grow as a person or something.

Meanwhile, in Harry Potter, the magic can do all sorts of stuff, it's never clearly defined, but it's always to make plot things happen. Like traveling through time is a really crazy use of magic! But it was needed in order to resolve that book in that way.

In my story, the ability to use magic has some class/social strata implications, so it is really tied to political power. People who don't have magic aren't able to represent their own interests because why should I listen to a dummy like that? But now the people who historically could never use magic now have it, so what would they end up doing with that? How are others going to react etc etc

There's no truly unique magic system out there, as they're all based on something that exists in reality, whether it be elements, writing systems, or whatever. Don't feel like you need to make a whole system and hammer out rules just because you're writing a certain kind of story.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Hi!
My favorite world, that I've been working on for quite a while, was mostly built around the political system that I've developed. I'm now stuck at trying to figure out how to incorporate magic into it. so far in what I've written I've used elemental magic - a system in which people with magic each have control over a specific element - either the four classic ones or a fifth one which I just dubbed the quintessence, and is sort of emotional, based on Aether in Greek mythology (the spark of life). I'm just worried that it's overdone or cliché and that it isn't interesting enough. I would love feedback on this, or ideas for creating new magic systems.

Okay...I read a *lot* - book a day, or close to it.

My personal take: Elemental Magic is overdone. Way overdone. Furthermore, step back a bit and think about it, it's also a misrepresentation of the forces actually at work.

So... your Earth Wizard lifts a boulder as part of his magic. But he could just as easily exert that same force to raise a wave on a calm body of water. Or reach way, way out and nudge off an oncoming cloud. All three cases, the motivating force would be telekinesis or its first cousin, just applied differently. This would also mean your Air Mage could probably levitate, say, a coffee mug or other solid object. Ice magic is a common feature of elemental water wizardry. Yet, doing so doesn't really 'create cold,' instead it 'displaces heat' - potentially a lot of heat, which has to go somewhere. Which would mean your water wizard has some degree of expertise with fire magic.

Of the common four elements, the one that comes closest to being 'apart' is Fire magic - except fire isn't an element, it's energy that can be used to shape matter in various forms - among other things. So, fire magic would be pyrokinesis.
 
The interesting thing about cliché's is that anything done well stops being a cliché. After all, elemental magic was already overdone when Avatar came out, and no one complained about the magic system in that. The reason it worked in Avatar is that is was very ingrained into the cultures and they added some cool visuals with the martials arts side of it.

There's three things you can do to prevent it feeling cliché.

Firstly, you could make the story not be about the magic system. If the magic only exists in the background but you write a political thriller set in your fantasy world, then the magic doesn't actually matter.

The second option is to it really well. Think how it would impact your society and culture. How does it play into daily life? Show that, and then it starts feeling real. Also, don't take easy ways out. If you split your world into four nations (or 5 in your case), divided along element lines, where the fire guys are the aggressive ones, then it will feel like an Avatar rip-off. So, give it your own direction.

The third option is to use it as a basis and give it your own spin. The magic system in The Wheel of Time for instance is an elemental one. However, it only has that as a basis and many casual readers will gloss over the elemental part of it. The reason is that it places little focus on the elemental part and turns it into something very different.
 

Akira444

Scribe
Magic itself in fantasy is a cliche, but it's done differently enough that no one calls it out these days. Elemental magic is no different, only certain series like Avatar and WOT put their own spin on it. The important thing is that you try to figure out how much impact your magic will have on the story and its characters. Will everyone use magic, can only one or two people use it, and how much of an impact will it have on the story?

There's nothing wrong with doing the five-element system, lots of stories do that, but be sure to switch things up so nothing will be too overdone. Quintessence can sort of be the one element that grants the user "mystical" abilities, like ordinary magic, and be the most difficult element to learn. Maybe even consider allowing your mages to control more than one element (but make it difficult enough that most mages only learn two or three at a time). Also, think very hard on what you can and can't do with your magic. What are the limits? What can a mage do normally and what can't they do without help? Is the difference of power between mages based on skill or some innate talent or potential? Take time to think this stuff out but rest assured that it's totally fine to do elemental magic so long as you try to change it up a bit to avoid the Avatar-pitfall.
 
Or, people who thought Avatar was cliche didn't bother to complain, they didn't pay any attention at all. Me!

A big key to avoiding the sense of Cliche is to target young people who don'tcare or haven't been around long enough to notice/care, heh heh. This is a big advantage for YA and MG.

The interesting thing about cliché's is that anything done well stops being a cliché. After all, elemental magic was already overdone when Avatar came out, and no one complained about the magic system in that. The reason it worked in Avatar is that is was very ingrained into the cultures and they added some cool visuals with the martials arts side of it.
 
change it up a bit to avoid the Avatar-pitfall.

Totally a side note (aside note?), but another huge pitfall is the confusion of media.

For me, Avatar works in its medium—cartoon/comic—and it might one day work in a related medium—live action w/ lots of vfx—but this doesn't mean the same systems will work as well without the visual cues.

I think a lot of new writers go astray when they take their own cues from the boat loads of movies and television they watch. Sure, if they are screenwriters—go for it? But what works on the screen may very easily flop on the page. (Manga, comic books, and graphic novels excepted, heh.)
 
It's hard to provide advice without knowing the specifics but one way to think of it is how your political system would be impacted by people having said abilities. There are for example probably agricultural benefits to having earth or water based powers depending on the scale of people's abilities. If a single person can for example plow a field many times faster than a farm with a draft horse could for example or if several people with water based powers could coordinate to redirect a river. There are some pretty significant cost saving measures there.

Perhaps fire users invaluable military assets. The best of them could be war heroes and war heroes can threaten the established power structure. Maybe air users can be used for fast communication if they are capable of flight either with some sort of kite like contraption or unaided. Communication is a major hurdle in technologically primitive societies. The ability to communicate across distances faster than a horse can gallop is pretty significant.

The first season of Avatar: Legend of Korra alluded to the idea that benders have a privilaged place in society but never really fell through with showing that which left the views of the antagonists in the narrative largely unjustified.
 

Akira444

Scribe
It's hard to provide advice without knowing the specifics but one way to think of it is how your political system would be impacted by people having said abilities. There are for example probably agricultural benefits to having earth or water based powers depending on the scale of people's abilities. If a single person can for example plow a field many times faster than a farm with a draft horse could for example or if several people with water based powers could coordinate to redirect a river. There are some pretty significant cost saving measures there.

Perhaps fire users invaluable military assets. The best of them could be war heroes and war heroes can threaten the established power structure. Maybe air users can be used for fast communication if they are capable of flight either with some sort of kite like contraption or unaided. Communication is a major hurdle in technologically primitive societies. The ability to communicate across distances faster than a horse can gallop is pretty significant.

The first season of Avatar: Legend of Korra alluded to the idea that benders have a privilaged place in society but never really fell through with showing that which left the views of the antagonists in the narrative largely unjustified.
Or maybe even have mages be used for disaster relief and control, like water mages for floods, earth or fire mages for volcanoes, and air mages for tornadoes and hurricanes. They won't be strong enough to fully negate these natural disasters, but they can lessen the damage they cause.
 
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