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.
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.
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.