How Do I Keep My Magic Separate?

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Sorry for pestering you with questions lately, but I could once again use your advice. I have a world with two factions at war with each other and a magic system based on magical pigments. One side uses written words to alter people/things in specific ways. The other can transform people/things into the thing they’ve drawn. Both have pros and cons: the written magic is more flexible, quicker, and requires less drawing skill, but the drawn magic is more powerful and less taxing. But since they both have different strengths, I’ve begun to wonder why each side doesn’t learn the enemy’s magic to be able to choose between both kinds depending on the situation or on individual talent/innate power. Is my premise flawed or can I make it work ?

Thank you,


Hey Camille, Oren here, great to hear from you again!

That sounds like a fascinating conflict. I love it when factions with different magic systems fight; it’s just such a great way to create contrast. It’s also great that you’ve thought about the differences between the two systems.

As to why they haven’t learned each other’s magic yet, there are two broad ways you could handle that.

1: They Haven’t Had Time Yet

In this scenario, the two factions are only just starting to interact, or perhaps it’s the magic systems that are new. Either way, the different styles of magic will likely propagate eventually, but that’ll take a while. Not only will the two sides seek to safeguard their magical secrets, but if one group is an expert in written magic, it’ll take them time to learn how to use drawn magic effectively, and vice versa.

You can see this dynamic happen with technology in real life. My favorite example is conflict between the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and various nomadic peoples like the Huns, Avars, Pechenegs, and so on. At first, the Byzantines used a primarily infantry, melee-based army like the Western Empire of old had used for centuries, while their new enemies favored mounted archery. After a century or two, the Byzantines had also adopted mounted archery. It took time to learn both the techniques and the actual technology to make this possible.

2: Something Inherent in the Magic

If the first option doesn’t fit with your story, then you can build a limiter into the magic itself. Perhaps written magic requires a special ink that can only be made in Country A, while drawn magic requires communion with animal spirits that only live in Country B.

How you portray your magic will determine how believable this approach is. For example, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, we only ever see firebenders in the Fire Nation, earthbenders in the Earth Kingdom, etc. This gives the impression that each bending type is only born into a specific population, though there’s no explanation of how or why.

Conversely, if you show that anyone can learn either type of magic with enough time and practice, readers will start actively wondering why the two sides don’t use both kinds of magic. At that point, option one is probably the only way for you to go.

It’s possible you could use some kind of social prejudice, but that has some hard limits. Sure, people from Writing Magic Country might look down on drawn magic, but if drawn magic has practical applications, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries it anyway.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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  1. Cay Reet

    Other possibilities I can think about are:

    You can only practice one kind of magic. If you practice written magic, you can’t you drawn magic, too. That’s pretty weak though, and will probably invite people to ask questions as to ‘why is it impossible to write and draw?’ – especially as writing, strictly spreaking, is the drawing of symbols.

    You need different tools to write and drawn and your tool has to connect to you. Both types of mages have a familiar. Writing mages have a bird familiar and can only do magic with a quill made from a feather of their bird. Drawing mages have a mammal familiar and can only do magic with a brush made from their familiar’s hair. Now, technically, you can write with a brush and draw with a quill, which gives you a way out, if you decide that your hero will be breaking up the big divide at some point.

    • Humanmale

      Perhaps practising one form of magic causes permanent or at least lasting changes in the user that prevents or at least makes difficult the use of the other form. Like, if you learn written magic your neural structure or your soul or your magical aura changes. That might lead to telltale signs of what magic you’ve been using like tics, or moods or off colour aura or somesuch.

      Perhaps a particular resource is needed to learn the magic – can’t learn drawing magic without contemplating the sacred frescoes of Oq.

      Either if these would generally prevent the other side from learning your magic while leaving the door open for special people to be able to learn both.

    • Lorenzo Gatti

      There’s the realistic argument of plain specialization, without gimmicks. Beginner wizards find learning one branch of magic in depth easier and more useful than learning not enough of both; expert wizards might know everything there is to know of their chosen branch of magic, but lack a second lifetime of learning to study the rest; exceptionally talented luminaries, or someone with an unusual background (the sort of characters that become protagonists of novels…) might combine both styles in groundbreaking ways.

  2. wink ;)

    To expand on “They haven’t had time yet”, it might help if the paper/parchment was consumed in the magic so that one faction can’t study the other’s spells afterwards.

    You could also have the factions use completely different written languages, like English vs Chinese. An English reader would need to do a massive amount of studying to learn how to write a Chinese scripted spell.

    Conversely, if the art style/technique had never been seen before by the other faction, it would be very difficult to reproduce. For example, maybe you need specific color mixing techniques, or use pointillism, or vanishing point perspective, or M.C. Escher like impossible geometries, etc. If you’d never seen that style of art before, and it was consumed immediately when cast so you can’t study it, how would you ever learn to reproduce that kind of art?

    • SunlessNick

      In the same way, the writing mages might have to use a particular style of calligraphy, so even getting hold of their regular writing wouldn’t help study the magic.

  3. Kenneth Mackay

    It could come down to different ways of thinking – the written word mages think mostly in words, while the drawing mages think mainly in images.

    While people born with drawing magic talent will exist in written word territory, and vice versa, the techniques for spotting such raw talent and training its user until they develop a useful skill level simply don’t exist yet.

  4. SunlessNick

    Sure, people from Writing Magic Country might look down on drawn magic, but if drawn magic has practical applications, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries it anyway.

    Off the top of my head, I think a social prejudice would go the other way – if drawing magic is both more powerful and less tiring for the user, it would have an easier time making a vice of written magic’s speed – linking it to imprecision, perhaps.

  5. Ken Hughes

    Also, they shouldn’t be *really* separate — unless having a hard distinction is important to your world.

    If they’re only different magical skills, it’s inevitable that each side will make some use of the other’s, even if it’s only in limited ways. Their culture, military doctrine, and so on favor one, but the other approach should be creeping into it over time. It’s the nature of knowledge (and the human need to exploit it) to combine with different knowledge and find the best mix for each situation. So having small uses and signs of change about the foreign magic shows that these are organic societies. (And no matter what, both sides are trying to “know their enemy” enough to see their weaknesses.)

    Unless there’s a much bigger reason holding them apart, anyway. But would you want that because it strengthens the story, or just for convenience?

  6. Jenn H

    You could make it a plot point that people are trying to either learn both types and/or trying to combine them.

    It could be that both types are really hard to learn, so it would be a big investment in time and energy to learn how to do the same thing two different ways. It also might be harder to learn one after learning the other as the approaches require very different ways of thinking. Both factions would be reluctant to share their knowledge with the other side as well.

    You can have characters attempt to combine the two types, either out of curiosity or possibly desperation. You can then show how things might go wrong.

  7. Richard


    Political or religious differences between the factions?

    I’m sure I don’t need to give real world examples of how seemingly trivial (to an outsider) differences in religious dogma or practice can lead to huge schisms that last for centuries…..

  8. koeleria

    Trade secrets. Magic is a learned skill and lots of time and training is needed to become proficient. The only way to get the training is to join a magic guild. Magic is power, so a magic guild won’t want to share their knowledge with just anyone. The guild will punish unauthorized teachers and practitioners. Because the two guilds don’t share, they have developed different techniques. Their techniques aren’t easily duplicated, even by a practitioner of another technique.

    Trying to steal each other’s methods will be part of the war. Maybe even the cause.

    • koeleria

      Trade secrets don’t stay secret forever. But you can combine them with Oren’s suggestion that they haven’t had time to copy each other yet. Then the reasonable amount of time needed to copy each other can be extended.

      Alternatively, the two societies have gotten along really well for a really long time. They didn’t need to copy each other’s styles because if someone from the painting people needed a writing mage they could just hire one. And vice versa.

      They haven’t merged styles because while their societies were friendly, the mage schools were competitors. And it was more profitable to market yourself as an excellent mage of your own school rather than be a second rate knockoff of the other school. This will change once the war starts and the opposing side can no longer be hired.

  9. koeleria

    What if the Painting Mages and the Writing Mages are different species? They would perceive the world in very different ways, making it difficult for them to understand what the other is doing.

    For example; writing magic is controlled by subtle variations in ink color that all look the same to the painting mages. The ink might even be in a part of the spectrum the painters can’t see.

    Or the brains of the two species process images in a very different way. Realistic painting is a sort of optical illusion that makes a flat surface look 3D. But the tricks that make a painting look realistic to one species might not work on another. From a Writer’s point of view a Painter makes some scribbles and suddenly a cow appears. But to a painter, they drew a photorealistic cow in order to make a cow appear.

  10. Lord Degarius

    The limitations around doing each type of magic could be placed on the pigments themselves. The same pigment cannot be used for both drawing and writing magic spells.

    Then on how each faction do not know how to create the other faction’s pigment can be explained via extreme secrecy. A historical example that can be used is Chinese porcelain. For centuries, Chinese producers kept it as a very tight secret and only via reverse engineering and espionage Europeans were able to reproduce it.

    As mentioned in other comments, even the techniques to do magic with a pigment might not be easily replicated just by observation. Mastering one of the magic techniques might require long dedication that many would be discouraged to invest in. Is like in real life when studying a university degree in different fields – most people would do one or two top, but three and onwards starts to be too much of a time/effort/cost investment.

  11. Mara

    I would find it most believable if they have an aversion of using the other type of magic. Just like in all the good magic vs. black/evil/forbidden magic conflicts where the good side would never dare to use black magic/forbidden magic.
    If either culture regards the other type of magic as evil, they wouldn’t dare to use it.
    They could have prejudices as in the Stormlight Archive, where only the women learn to read and write while the men only learn to read basic symbols.

  12. Erynus

    I think a more straightforward way would be Jealous Gods.
    If each magic type have an Entity that grants the use of their magic, and both entities are oposed, then noone can master both types. “Faith” should be a big part in any magic system, not faith on any superior entity, but the belief that you can do what you intend.
    Then each type of magic would be a kind of prayer, written or drawn, to the correspondig god (or spirit, guardian or essence) and is it on its powrr to answer the call or not, based on how well the wizard has behaved (making sacrifices or following a specific code). It is a way to enforce a moral alignment by practical means. If you are a sinner, you won’t be able to do magic.
    And in addition it let you transition from one style to another by changing a character’s actions, providing character arcs.

  13. Robert Stewart

    Something to consider is that reading, writing and the comprehension of both is a fundamentally left brain function and they are logical in their construction. Painting and drawing skills are fundamentally right brain functions and is mostly based on the perceived relationships of shape and color. Drawing and painting are skills that can be taught to anyone regardless of initial talent, most people are not great artists because they haven’t figured out how to “see” an object well enough to draw it. Art school is just teaching you how to do that. Just like most people are not writers because they have not practiced how to do it properly. I would urge you to purchase a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. There is some interesting information on why people stop drawing at an early age and never start up again. There’s are exercises to help crack through the blocks your brain builds to “seeing” something so that you can actually draw it.

  14. Jason Duncan

    Perhaps the ability to form language and focus magic are mutually exclusive for some or the ability to imagine shapes or color while focusing magic impossible for others. Maybe focusing magic negates the ability to have magically charged thoughts transition hemispheres in the brain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425548/

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