We all know what separates fantasy from every other genre—magic systems! And not just any old magic systems! No, these must be cool, unique, complicated, fully explained, excruciatingly detailed, never-been-seen-before-by-anyone, never-even-conceived-of-until-you-put-it-to-the-page, constantly-blowing-everyone’s-mind-with-their-uniqueness magic systems!
Maybe it’s just that, as fantasy writers, that’s sometimes what we feel like we need to write. It’s no secret that fantasy is a crowded genre. No matter where you are in your publishing journey, it’s easy to feel the pressure of having to stand out. There are already so many books out there, and you start to wonder how you could ever set yours apart.
Perhaps you saw somebody say one time that they’re so tired of magic systems that involve “X” element, and that’s exactly the element you’re working with. And now you’re convinced that everyone who sees your book will throw it out a window in a fit of rage. Or maybe you’re looking at your magic system and thinking about how, because it’s based around an idea or element that’s already been done at least one time by at least one other person, your whole book is boring and worthless.
But that doesn’t have to be true. Not every writer loves building a magic system that’s incredibly complicated and literally-never-been-done. Some people love creating intricate magic systems (and we have a post about that as well) but it’s also okay if that’s not you.
This post is about how sometimes, it’s not about how “special” your magic system is. Sometimes, what really hits readers in their heart and soul isn’t whether or not they’ve ever seen this magic used before and how many rules it has, but what the magic means–what it means to the characters, and therefore, what it means to the readers.
To show you what we mean, let’s take a look at three great stories that all use elemental magic systems.
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED WHEN THE FIRE NATION ATTACKED!
Already, we know a little bit about how elemental magic is used in a way unique to this world. The world of Avatar is divided into four nations, each inspired by an East Asian culture, and each of whom contains people who have the ability to bend one of four elements—water, earth, fire, or air. Setting up a world this way immediately sets up questions: what would these four nations look like, and how would they get along? An elemental magic system that sets up its world differently would have a drastically different plot and focus.
But a huge thing that really draws us into the story is what magic means to the characters. To the main character, Aang, mastering all four elements is the only way for him to save the world, which makes the magic in the premise absolutely essential to the plot. But it’s also essential to Aang as a character. His people, the airbenders, were massacred, and his airbending magic is his only remaining connection to them. His people were also pacifists. This immediately raises one of the most compelling questions of the entire show–Aang may learn to master magic, but how is he going to use it to overthrow a violent and powerful conquering nation? How does he want to use it? It’s questions like these that keep us hooked. It’s questions like these that give the show a richness and complexity–not just from how the magic system is built, but how it interacts with these specific characters in this specific world.
TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard
Truthwitch has six elements at the core of its magic system. There’s the traditional earth, air, fire, and water, but in addition to that, aether and void as well–each with further subdivisions. For example, tidewitches are a subcategory of waterwitches, and windwitches are a subcategory of airwitches. But while the dozens of really specific magical powers might not necessarily seem super interesting at the surface, the story is about the conflict that results from having these powers. And while the powers can get characters out of trouble, they’re more likely to be the reason they’re in trouble in the first place.
Safiya, a Truthwitch, is able to discern truth from lie, but because it’s a rare and powerful witchery, she has to keep it hidden to avoid being captured and used for political gain. Iseult, a Threadwitch who can see the emotional threads of people around her, often feels disconnected from her cultural roots because her powers manifest in a way that’s different from her family’s. And while the individual powers themselves are interesting, it’s the specific relationships they have with their magic–and the relationship their magic has with the other’s magic–that makes it fascinating to read about. Safi and Iseult aren’t individually chosen ones, but together their powers indicate that they are a chosen duo who will restore balance to the world.
CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE by Tomi Adeyemi
This book is set in a West African-inspired land where magic is all but gone. By orders of a cruel king, all magic users were killed, and those who remain are in hiding and terrified of being discovered. Already, CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE has set itself apart with a different setup and a different way for its people to relate to magic. The magic users in this world only control a certain element, such as Burners, who control fire—but there are additional schools of magic from the “usual four”, such as Reapers, who control souls.
But what makes us really connect with this book is its heart and soul, its main character Zélie, and what magic means to her. Zélie’s mother was killed for having magic. When the book starts, her people still live in fear. To Zélie, embracing her dormant magical power means taking back her voice and rising up against her oppressors. It’s complicated though, because letting out the magic she’s tried so hard to hide is a scary thing to do. It puts her at risk, and it also puts the people she loves–characters we also love–at risk, too. We’ve read books with elemental magic before, but it doesn’t matter, because the details of Zélie’s life are related so lovingly and vividly, and we immediately understand why we want her to succeed. We’re not rooting for “some girl who uses elemental magic.” We’re rooting for Zélie, a character we come to know. We’re rooting for her to take back the power we know is hers.
Now, all of these are very different stories set in very different worlds with very different themes and conflicts and characters. And honestly it’s a bit of a disservice to their nuance to boil them all down to their similar sounding elemental magic systems. The conflicts in the world arise from the characters’ complicated relationships to the magic in the world, not necessarily from the powers themselves.
To give another quick example, the show Heroes was all about people developing superpowers due to random genetic mutations, which on paper really just sounds like the X-men. But though the two worlds had incredibly similar powers and origins, what matters more is the kind of story they were trying to tell. The X-men movies are about people who have powers figuring out what role they want to play in defending a world increasingly prejudiced against mutants. Season one of Heroes was about normal people discovering they had superpowers that made them a target for a serial killer, and having to keep navigating their normal lives despite having to also save the world.
This isn’t to say that just because you’re using a familiar magic system it’s okay for your magic system to be underdeveloped or confusing. Magic systems, no matter how simple or complex, need to be explained and consistent enough for the reader to grasp. The point we’re trying to make is that if your story and characters are well-developed, layered, and emotionally engaging, magic can simply be another layer of conflict for characters wade through on their emotional journeys. And it won’t matter if your magic system sounds like every other magic system because your story is unique and rich, and works on more than one level.