Savvy Saturday – Systems of Magic (I)

Magic is an integral part of nearly all fantasy stories. It gives fantasies a sense of wonder, a way in which the world is different from reality, and a source for fascinating drama, mind-blowing action scenes, good character development, and extreme world-building. Any author who wants to write a magical fantasy, then, needs to either choose or create a system of magic. There are several different types of common systems that can be chosen, and several different common ways in which magical systems can be created. What are they, and how do you choose? That’s what the topic of today’s and next week’s Savvy Saturday blog posts will be about. This week, let’s look at three of the most commonly chosen systems of magic, how they work, and their benefits and drawbacks.

Commonly chosen systems

Elemental Magic

 Fire, water, earth, and air, sometimes with light, dark, electricity, or metal thrown in for good measure, make for a standard and easily accessible system of magic. Mages may be able to access only one of these elements, or more than one. They may have personality types, physical characteristics, or a personal history that reflect their element, or they may not. Often, mages can actually manipulate the element in question (e.g. a fire mage calling fire to hand and throwing fireballs), and they may also be able to use the element to accomplish other tasks (e.g. a fire mage having super physical speed through use of the element’s power). This system of magic is attractive due to its mirroring of distinctive sources of power found in nature. It has a feel of realism to it that speaks to readers on a primal level. We have all felt the power of a storm or a fire – it makes sense that in a magical world, that power might be able to be harnessed and used.

One benefit of using this system of magic is that readers will already likely be at least slightly familiar with how the system of magic “should” work, so there is less mental effort involved and slightly less explanation needed on the part of the author as to why and how the system of magic works. On the other hand, because it is so commonly used, deviations from “standard” elemental magic will need to be explained more, and it is harder to create an elemental magic system that feels different and unique from other worlds that already exist. Books that use elemental magic should ensure that they have unique characters and compelling plot, as the system of magic is going to be more familiar (and less of a unique draw) to readers than other systems might be.

Life Force Magic

A second, and equally popular, type of magical system to choose for a fantasy world is one in which magic stems from the life force of the mage him- or herself. In some stories, everyone in the world might be able to harness their life force to do magic, while in others, only special individuals are born with the power. In some stories, life force magic is always corrupting and destructive (one has to use up life force to accomplish magical deeds), while in others it is a natural non-destructive ability like flexing a muscle. Particular rituals may be needed to unlock one’s magical potential, or to transfer life force from one individual to another, or to impart one’s life force into the action which one is attempting to accomplish. (For instance, spells might require the use of the mage’s blood to seal them or give them power.) Like elemental magic, life force magic is perceived as natural – there is a power and mystery to life itself, so it makes sense that in a magical world, that power should be able to be tapped into and used to accomplish great things.

Similar to elemental magic, one of the benefits of writing a story involving life force magic is that it is intuitive and natural for readers to understand. Drawing from a well of power inside oneself, or stretching a magical muscle the way one would stretch one’s arm, is an easy picture for authors to paint and for readers to adopt. However, as before, the popularity of this magical system means it can be difficult to write a magical world that feels unique and different. This magical system also does not lend itself as well to creating different natural visible classifications of mages; if all mages draw their power from the same source, differences would need to be created and pursued by the mages themselves rather than imposed externally. This can be a source for differentiation of a world, and thus a good and useful thing for an author, but will then need to be explained well to readers.

External Artifact Magic

Another common source of magical system is one that is based on sacred or powerful objects external to any individual. Magical swords, rings, rocks, crowns, trees, feathers, and so forth are in some ways the easiest form of magic for authors to work with. They may have specific external powers (e.g. a ring that controls the weather), or powers that enhance the wearer in a particular way (e.g. a ring that increases an individual’s intelligence). They may be sentient, semi-sentient, or simply things without any will or awareness. They may have an unending power, or be very finite in scope (e.g. a ring that grants three wishes). Artifacts of this sort may be explained away as having been created by a long-lost civilization, or be gifts of the gods, or be created by mages who have power of a different sort.

Benefits of artifact magic include being able to have ordinary people accomplish things that otherwise would be impossible, thus giving readers an added sense of relatability with characters. In addition, the existence of artifacts can be good plot devices or character development tools, as characters or kingdoms seek to gain, destroy, or otherwise interact with artifacts and the individuals who own or seek to own them. Drawbacks of this form of magic include its potential lack of internal consistency. Authors would either need to establish what artifacts can do and what they can’t, or risk having a world seem contrived and not make sense. The introduction of too many artifacts can also lead to power-glut or the temptation to make magic solve everything. If too many solutions to a world’s problems are the use of external magic, it detracts from the power of a story’s characters and their arcs and internal struggles. Readers want to see how people solve problems, not how people find cool things to solve problems for them.

Which of these three magic systems most appeals to you? Have you seen examples of them in use? Are there other benefits and drawbacks that you see? Leave a comment below!

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