Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fantasy magic systems: what’s been done

1. Dichotomy or trichotomy

Magic is Good/Evil or Light/Dark. Sometimes, there’s a Neutral as well, like the White/Red/Black system of magic in DragonLance.

If the reader can tell in advance that those who use Light magic are good and those who use Dark magic are evil, the story will either need something really good to balance it out – or it’ll have to be written as a deliberate, self-aware take on fantasy tropes, perhaps as a parody. Flipping the system so that the Dark magic is good and the Light is evil has also been done – for instance, in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, the darker jewels are more powerful.

2. Gender-specific

In the Wheel of Time series, female magic-users can channel the One Power safely, but males go insane. In Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress, male wizards use the good Vigors while sorceresses practise the evil Vagaries. Both series have been criticized for their take on genders, and I would personally not try this unless I was sure I could handle it very carefully – and that I could bring something new to the table.

3. Elements.

Fire, air, earth and water. This one has been done more times than I can count; the first example that came to mind was David Farland’s Runelords series. One concern I have with this system is that practitioners of the various types of magic are often affected by stereotypes. Fire mages are fiery-tempered, earth mages are stolid, good-hearted people and so on.

It can also be problematic if most or all users of one type of magic are evil, while those who use another type of magic are good. If people don’t choose the kind of magic they have, if they’re born with it, it would be unfair to apply good/evil demarcations to the elements.

One thing I would like to see about this kind of magic is more exploration into how close a mage is to her magic, and how it adversely affects her. For instance, our heroine could be a powerful fire mage – but this means her skin is constantly hot. When she gets angry, it increases in temperature to the point where water boils when it touches her and her clothes burn right off unless they’re made of asbestos.

Some authors go beyond the four-elements cliché by adding a fifth element like Spirit or Heart. This can come off as very Captain Planet if an author isn’t careful.

Next up: what I would like to see more of in fantasy magic systems.


JH said...

This is a good post; the cliches of magic in fantasy fiction is something I've been thinking of for a while. I might even do a post about it myself.

As to what you said about elemental magic, in the Exalted RPG, there are five elements: the usual four, plus "wood," as the game borrows heavily from Chinese and other Asian mythology. The exemplars of the elements, called Dragon-Blooded, start to manifest the form of their elements as they grow in power: old Fire-aspect DBs snort smoke and have warm skin, Wood-aspects might grow vines or flowers in their hair, Earth-aspects make the ground tremble slightly when they walk, and even weaker DBs might have hair or skin coloration by element.

Loren said...

This makes me think: has anyone tried the traditional Chinese five elements?

Earth, wood, metal, water, fire

Or cardinal directions?

North, east, south, west

Or the planets?

Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn

Premodern European and Chinese astrology, alchemy, and medicine had featured elaborate systems of correspondence for planets and elements and body organs and body fluids and so forth. The days of our week and the element mercury (a.k.a. quicksilver) got their names that way. Etc.

JH said...

Doing that would require doing the work Tolkien did: digging into literature, myth, and history for inspiration. It's much easier to rip off Tolkien, or the people who ripped off him.

Marian Perera said...

Loren, your comment reminded me of an R. A. Salvatore fantasy where the heroine seemed to derive power from various semi-precious stones. I could be wrong, though, since I just flipped through the book. I burned out on Salvatore's Dark Elf novels and didn't really want to get into his books again, I'm afraid.

I also read a Diablo II character concept where the character used gold instead of mana to cast spells. That might be really interesting if it was developed further - different metals could have different effects, and there would always be the issue of carrying amounts of ingots or coins around and possibly being targeted by thieves because of it.

Marian Perera said...

Regarding the four-elements cliche, GunnerJ, I wouldn't mind reading fantasies which use their own elements, rather than the earth-air-fire-water combo. I used the trope myself, back when I wrote a story about unicorns and magical jewels and a princess, so you can imagine how I cringe to encounter it again.

Loren said...

Metals have already been done in premodern European astrology and alchemy. Some lists in order of correspondence:

The seven "planets"; Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn

The seven metals: gold, silver, quicksilver, copper, iron, tin, lead

The seven openings in the head: right eye, left eye, mouth, left nostril, right nostril, left ear, right ear

From Al Biruni's books; this central Asian medieval astrologer also lists oodles of other such correspondences. That site also has similar sorts of stuff from late-medieval/Renaissance European astrologers Cornelius Agrippa and William Lilly.

This sort of correspondence cosmology led to an argument that most modern people would find almost impossibly silly. When Galileo discovered Jupiter's for big moons in 1609-1610, a certain Francesco Sizzi responded that they could not exist, because the traditional seven "planets" correspond to the seven openings of the head: the eyes, the nostrils, the ears, and the mouth, and there aren't any openings left over for those moons that Galileo had discovered.

Loren said...

I've found another possible approach: division by function. Student of mythology George Dumezil had proposed that the Proto-Indo-European speakers had recognized a threefold division of human society (the trifunctional hypothesis):

Command or sovereignty is the priestly function; Dumezil divides it into two: an earthly one concerned with justice, and an other-worldly one concerned with spiritual and mystical experiences. Force is military, and production is food, making stuff, sex, and the like. J.P. Mallory in his book In Search of the Indo-Europeans mentions numerous cultural and mythological motifs that at least partially fit this schema; one of the best-known of these is the Judgment of Paris in the Troy Tale:
Hera (command) rule of much of the known world
Athena (force) becoming a great military leader
Aphrodite (production) - the love of the most beautiful woman in the world

How might this translate into a magic system? Perhaps a division of magic spells into these categories:
Knowledge (command)
Strength (force)
Vitality (production)