Q&A

How Do I Limit What Elemental Magic Can Do?

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I’m having trouble creating a magic system that is balanced. I am attempting to make a system in which magic comes from energy within and is directed through will. It has an elements style theme (fire, water, earth, air, shadow, light, etc). However, I find a problem with some of the elements being too powerful. One could easily control the water in someone’s body or suffocate someone using air. How do I prevent things like this?

-Hadeel

Hi Hadeel,

That’s a great question for a tricky situation. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender use animation to show fire pushing people away instead of burning them and other generally unrealistic things. Narration gives readers a lot more time to think about the choices that characters are making, what their options are, and whether elements are working in a logical way.

I can see two options here.

1. Use more detail and realism to place appropriate restrictions on each element separately. This requires more explanation in the story and requires you to do it for every element, but it also is configurable on a per element basis and possibly easier to work into scenes you already have. However, you have to be careful to keep restrictions from feeling too arbitrary.

  • For water, you’ll probably want to specify that it has to be relatively pure, whereas water in the human body – or the moisture inside something like a plant – is out of reach of your water mages.
  • For air, you can specify that mages can’t force big pressure changes or move air in a small enclosed space. Outdoor air is easier to move than indoor air, and air inside lungs is out of the question. Mages can’t just suck the air out of something – air always replaces air – just move it.
  • For fire, it could be tough to burn something that isn’t naturally pretty flammable, so humans can’t be combusted. Burning clothing, etc., could still be very dangerous, but people who are prepared could wear special clothing.

2. Restrict what all mages are able to target or not target, so it’s difficult for them to kill a bunch of people as soon as they feel like it.

  • Maybe they can’t control anything that’s very far away from them.
  • They might even need physical contact – a mage dips a toe in a river to control the river, and if a splash of water breaks away they can’t control it anymore. Maybe they can still hurt people with their element but only if they touch the person’s skin.
  • Perhaps they have to do a ritual on a part of their element before affecting it. Water mages carry water they can manipulate, or fire mages have a lantern with a blessed flame, and they can only influence fires originating from that flame.
  • You could also let mages do pretty much anything with their elements, but then say they can’t do magic directly on a person because of inherent human spirit yada yada. That’s a sort of handwavium, but since readers will probably understand the need for this restriction, I think you could get away with it.

I hope that gives you some ideas that work for your story!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Runewritten

    This is sort of a variation on that last bullet point.
    Maybe everyone has some unconscious bodily sovereignty over the elements within their own bodies, just like we have unconscious control over the rest of our bodily processes. This prevents others from manipulating the elements directly within you, because your body has that built-in, unconscious resistance to outside influence. Perhaps a true master of the elements can overpower that resistance, or the ability for a villain to even do so is a huge mystery, but otherwise, it’s a no-go.
    You could still indirectly suffocate someone by creating a vacuum around their head or something, but that could be easy to move away from without also being restrained.

  2. Jeppsson

    Another possible limitation: The more of an element you try to move/control, the harder it is, and you pretty soon hit a limit where you just can’t move as much. So maybe the mage dipping a toe in the river can create a little current close to his foot, but he can’t control the whole river. An air mage can make one of those small whirlwinds, or a small gust of wind that blows some tiny light-weight object away, but he can’t make a hurricane. And so on. Maybe you can control a bit more of the element if you train really hard to do so.

  3. Dave L

    Depending on the story and characters, another way to limit magic is w/ skill/natural ability/training

    Sure, the really powerful mages can control a person by controlling their blood, but your protagonist can barely control a glass of water

    Good: Nice character arc as they learn to control and master their powers. Good spinach as they see others more powerful. They may have to fight the big bad w/ brains/sneaky stuff rather than overpowering through more powerful magic

    Bad: If this is a long series your protagonist WILL become overpowered

  4. Cay Reet

    Another idea: using elements on different levels is more difficult. Like, doing a lot with brute force is easy, so stirring up a storm isn’t too hard for a trained mage, but manipulating it very subtly, such as pulling the air out of someone’s lungs, is very difficult and takes a lot of training and a very high magical talent. That limits such feats to certain mages who have both the training and the talent – and, of course, want to cause someone to die. It’s often more easy to learn to work with the basics of something and create big changes than to work it subtly and do small changes with it.

    • Bellis

      Which would then lend itself to more societal control and regulation, if the schools are regulated and required to incorporate ethical groundrules. Similar to how martial artists learn NOT to hurt people and are on average more self-controlled than someone who isn’t trained.

      Maybe teaching or practicing magic without the proper certifications is even illegal (like practicing medicine without the proper training would be illegal irl) – thus a villain who learned backstreet magic might come as a surprise! Or maybe the regulations are unjust and need to be rebelled against? There could even be a conspiracy that involves a secret (military?) magic training camp with unsanctioned methods. So many possibilities!

  5. SebL

    Another way is having physical consequences for using their magic (either as a “natural” secondary effect, or as a mystical feedback). A fire mage trying to burn paper will be fine. A fire mage trying to burn something less flamable will both take more time, and develop a slight fever. A fire mage trying to burn a human body will take even more time, and develop very high fever, and may well pass out before he manages to do it.

  6. Camille

    Another way to play it would be not to put limitations on the magic itself, but show the way society has found countermeasures for it. Maybe a water or air mage can kill someone with a thought, but nobody would be fool enough to leave their house without the amulet making them immune. Maybe babies are tattoed protection sigils at birth. Maybe everyone wears fire-retardant clothing. Humans are resourceful !

    • K

      Iterating on Camille’s idea here, because, yes! Exactly!

      Maybe the elements ARE imbalanced! Perhaps air is strong because it can offer some degree of flight, but maybe water is usually useless outside of niche functions (like staying dry in the rain). How does that affect the society and the culture? Do people with shadow abilities have to go the extra mile just to prove themselves as honest as others, despite having abilities preferred by thieves?

      If there are “useless” or “weak” elements, the protagonist overcoming and finding a powerful, unique use for one might be the sort of “wow” moment a pivotal turning point needs. Consider how Sanderson does this in the Mistborn books, where some of the abilities are low-powered and one-dimensional, until certain characters start finding clever uses for them.

      • Julia M.

        Water would be amazing for farming and irrigation.

  7. Julia M.

    You can have that happen, but it takes a LOT of concentration. Also, it takes a lot of power. That way, when your protagonist eventually becomes super powerful, if it is a long series, they won’t be able to do that, because they would have to let their guard down in a fight.

  8. Tony

    Avatar: The Last Airbender did establish that waterbenders can physically control other people by bending their Precious Bodily Fluids™, but that they can only use this “bloodbending” technique during the full moon (though The Legend Of Korra introduced REALLY powerful and talented waterbenders who can bloodbend at other times). Korra also established that airbenders can indeed suffocate other people, but the guy we see doing this wasn’t raised in the airbenders’ traditional pacifist culture, so he’s kind of the only airbender WILLING to do that.

    • Rose Embolism

      To follow up on Tony’s point, I recently saw a great podcast where te host pointed out that we shouldn’t look at the elements in Avatar like we do modern elements, but in terms of mystical associations. As in water bending has healing and affected by the tides because that’s the mystical associations. Bloodbending is difficult because controling the blood in a person is even more extreme than healing them (and also kind of goes against the nature of Waterbending). Likewise for Airbending, drawing air out of the lungs is probably a master skill.

      Thinking of elements not in modern but traditional terms may help.

  9. LeeEsq

    Make it so elemental mages can only manipulate the element in its natural form and they need the amount of the element they want around to work with. So water elemental magic only works on pure H2O and not blood or orange juice and need at least a glass of water handy. Likewise, fire elemental magic needs at least a candle or torch around for fire magic. You can’t create fire from nothing. This makes air and earth magic the most readily available, followed by water, and finally fire. The size of available natural element effects what you can do. So a candle or even a torch might not be good enough to create a fireball.

  10. A.R.

    I didn’t even know I needed this.

    In my books, there are some people who can control elements to various degrees. I hadn’t even thought about the full ramifications and limits, because they aren’t prominent characters yet. I think I’m going to give them similar limits to the first bullet point on option 2 plus Cay Reet’s idea. I mean, it makes sense even nonmagically– writing tiny letters is more difficult than random scribbling.

    Jeez, you think you have a magic system figured out…

  11. SunlessNick

    You could also say that life is a process combining all the elements, and therefore no elemental spell is “complete” enough to directly affect a living being.

  12. Rose Embolism

    I have to love the opening statement “…and other unrealistic things.” ignoring the completely plausible reality of someone waving their arms and creating fire. :’)

    Really, given tge arbitrary nature of magical systems, it’s fairly easy to come up with equal limiting factors. Consider where the magic comes from for a start: if it’s powered by the soul, then perhaps directly affecting the shell of another soul is very difficult. If it comes from the gods, then they may have all kinds of limitations on its use. If it comes from demons, it may be easy to harm people, but will also come back to bite the user. If it’s Issaac Bonewitz’ Real Magic, than magic is ruled by real-world physics, and the wizard will have to supply the energy for that from their own biological systems–setting someone on fire would probably leave the wizard near-death from exhaustion.

    Finally, if the elemental magic comes from mystical associations, then what it may accomplish may be limited by all kinds of external correspondences: “I could set his heart on fire, but well, he’s eating beans. Also, he’s wearing black, AND it’s a Wednesday in November. Not going to happen. Check back in August when Mars is in ascension.” Consider this table for an example:
    https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/five_elements_chart.htm
    Consider looking up the magical concepts of Sympathy, Similarity and Contagion

    Finally you could really look at elemental powers in terms of the old mystical and symbolic associations, possibly to the point where a master of an element may produce that element, but that’s just a side effect of what the elemental magic is for. Consider the table above, or look at this one:
    http://arcana.wikidot.com/classical-element
    (Note: as always, I recommend being careful when using elements from real-world religious systems). So being able to produce a burst of fire might be impressive but useless, the real magical work being able to purify something (healing?) or increase drive and passion.

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