Elemental magic is fun and makes it easier to both create rational rules for your magic system and give it a memorable theme. However, many worldbuilders have gotten into trouble because the elements they chose didn’t feel natural enough. Let’s cover what an elemental system needs to engage audiences and maintain believability. For our purposes, any system using categories to determine what magic can do qualifies as an elemental magic system. Those categories don’t have to be traditional elements like air and water.
Is Your System Orderly or Chaotic?
First, choose how you’d like your magic categories to work. This determines the feel your system has and how careful you need to be when choosing categories.
The most common option for elemental systems, this means there are a specific number of elements in existence – usually less than a dozen – and every person who casts magic uses one or more elements off the list. Elements are presented as being inherent to magic and part of the natural order of the universe. This makes them feel mystical, which many fantasy writers like.
The downside is that ordered elements have to be chosen with utmost care so they feel like natural laws and not like the arbitrary choices of the worldbuilder. Elements that don’t feel natural will break audience immersion and ruin the otherwise mystical experience.
An easier option is to forgo any semblance of order. Instead of using a neatly curated list, make your elements feel random. No one knows exactly how many elements there are because new ones are always popping up. Maybe most people wield fire or water, but this one guy on record could only control mayonnaise. People are still trying to figure out why air hasn’t shown up. Some elements, such as ice and water, overlap, and some elements are incredibly powerful, while others are all but useless.
Chaotic elements feel like scientific phenomena that appear without mystical meaning. If your mages have inherent powers tied to one or more elements, then these chaotic elements will feel similar to a superpower system. The difference is that a chaotic elemental system includes repetition in abilities, whereas the assumption in superpower systems is that everyone has a unique power. While chaotic elements spare worldbuilders from sweating over their elements list, they may not feel as magical as ordered elements. On the other hand, they work great for creating silly and humorous powers.
This option can feel mystical while avoiding the difficulty of ordered elements, but it won’t fit every setting or theme. Instead of elements generated by mystical laws or natural phenomena, your elements can stem from a specific source of magic in your world. This way you can use the source of magic to explain why elements aren’t perfectly even. However, the match between each element and its source does need to be simple and intuitive to readers.
For instance, you can build a pantheon for your setting and match an element with each god. Maybe the king of the underworld gives some people death magic, but none of the gods want to give people life magic. Maybe magical elements come from different types of ley lines in the earth, and some ley lines happen to be more common and therefore create magic in higher abundance. Just avoid making your magic sources feel like stand-ins for ordered elements, or the rules for ordered elements will apply.
Which Elements Are Included?
If you haven’t already, it’s time to choose your elements. Since ordered systems are the most common and have the most requirements, let’s focus on how to choose elements that work in that scenario. For chaotic and sourced elements, simply pick your theme and stick to it.
Pick a Theme
Obviously you can use air, earth, fire, and water. It’s a nice, even set that your audience won’t question, but your magic will have more novelty if you pick elements that haven’t been used so much. To do that, you want to start with some kind of theme that makes the elements fit together.
- Body & mind theme: mind, body, heart, and spirit
- Creepy body theme: blood, bone, bile, skin, and muscle
- Celestial theme: sun, moon, stars, sky
- Water theme: ocean, river, lake, cloud, rain
- Gem theme: ruby, emerald, sapphire, diamond, etc
- Energy: magnetic, kinetic, electric, thermal, gravitational
If your elements are just an eclectic assortment, you’ll have a lot of trouble defining a set that won’t feel arbitrary. Similarly, you need to stick to your theme. You can’t just throw “earth” in your water theme without making the whole magic system feel contrived.
Once you know your theme, it’s time to make sure your set of elements will feel natural.
Is Your Set Complete?
The first thing your audience will do is ask about parts of your theme that aren’t covered by the elements you’ve introduced.
- In my creepy body theme, what about organs?
- If you only mention four gems, what about the rest of them?
- If you have animal and plant elements, what about fungus?
Many themes could include things that are too small and obscure to make good elements. In that case, you can group those elements with others, find an excuse to discount them, or simply mention that they exist but aren’t important. For the creepy body theme, you might say that since hair is dead skin cells, hair either counts as skin or doesn’t count at all because magic is based on living cells. If you have plant, animal, and fungus elements, you can say there is technically magic for other kingdoms like Protista and Bacteria, but humans don’t find those elements very useful.
Is It Even?
A good set doesn’t have two elements that are closely related while everything else is only distantly related. For instance, if you were using colors and your set had red, yellow, and blue, you can’t add just purple. Purple and blue are right next to each other on the color wheel, while yellow sits on the other side. This is why Frozen 2 got flack for creating an elemental system composed of air, fire, earth, water, and Elsa’s ice. Since ice is frozen water, why isn’t Elsa a water elementalist?
The more closely related your elements are, the more elements you’ll need to make sure they feel even. If Disney wanted a set that included ice, water, and fire, it would need to add many more elements like steam and lava.
Are Elements Equal?
Last, elements should have the same level of specificity unless you purposely create multiple tiers of elements. If one element is earth and another is quartz, then you have a problem because quartz is usually considered part of earth. Similarly, an element set of air, earth, fire, and ice will feel strange because ice is more specific than the other elements.
This will also help you manage the power level of your mages, because in many cases, a more general element will give mages more power. Ordered systems are generally expected to have elements that are even in power. However, if you do want different power levels, you can do so by creating subcategories. Maybe some people only work with electricity, light, or heat, whereas people attuned to the whole fire element can use all three.
What Can Mages Do With Their Element?
Next, it’s time to make the magic match the element. Simply giving mages the ability to control their element is an oldie and goodie. For some systems, it also works to create a literal relationship with the element that doesn’t include controlling it. Maybe a water mage perceives things through water. After sticking their hand in a lake, they can discover everything sitting at its bottom. Magic will feel more mysterious if you use subtle abilities instead of big flashy fights.
In many cases, using elements in a literal sense is too constraining. You probably want to give your sapphire mage something to do other than make wicked bling or lob gems at their enemies. Instead, create a symbolic relationship between an element and the magic it bestows. You want the symbolic connection to be as simple and intuitive as possible. That way it feels more natural, doesn’t take much explaining, and is easy to remember. Sapphires can be many colors, but people know them as blue, and an English-reading audience* is likely to associate blue with sky, water, cold, calmness, and intellect.
Don’t give your sapphire mage a power for each of those things. A common mistake in elemental systems is going too far and associating each element with a whole grab bag of powers. It will inevitably come off as complex, arbitrary, and hard to remember. Choose one power per element, maybe two related ones. For a sapphire elementalist, either calmness and intellect or water and cold would fit together intuitively.
The more separate abilities you associate with each element, the more you have to sweat over the whole thing. If you start with sapphires bestowing water control, and then you add that they can calm people down, now all the other gems need their own emotional effect that fits them symbolically. Keep doing that, and pretty soon you’ll be struggling to make everything feel natural. As much as I love the elemental system in Avatar: The Last Airbender, this is where it breaks down. Why do water benders also have healing? None of the other elements have anything like that. Just giving each element an elite skill turned out to be a challenge.
If you have elements with little symbolic association or you just want to break free of standard symbolism, you can make up your own. Where possible, base it on an iconic characteristic of the element that many people are familiar with. For instance, bones provide structural support for the body. In my creepy body elemental system, bone might allow people to create structures such as houses.*
For something like ley lines that have little existing associations, you can assign your own symbolism. Just be sure to follow all the rules of creating a nice set of elements. You can make water, earth, and sky lines, but don’t make water, red, and hidden lines – those things don’t go together. The powers need to match in the same way. A common complaint with the Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is that the powers assigned to various metals and alloys feel arbitrary. Some can be used for pushing and pulling, some allow the mage to rile up or calm down other people, and some give people super senses. The set is too eclectic.
If you’re not using an ordered system, you have more room to create eclectic powers, but differences in powers still have to be explained by differences in the elements or their source. If magic comes from land masses, the big land masses could bestow stronger or weaker magic than the small ones. Maybe an island chain of active volcanoes bestows lava powers. Again, the connection should be simple and intuitive. Storytellers usually make everything too complicated, so pay conscious attention to that.
What Limits Does Magic Have?
No article on creating a magic system would be complete without reminding you to place rigorous limits on what mages can do. The best depictions of magic give characters small and specific powers, and then they let characters use their powers in every way possible. Poorly thought-out depictions grant enormous powers and then make characters forget about them entirely so the plot can work.
We have another article on creating limits that are useful for all magic systems. That includes imposing costs and consequences on magic or making spellcasting more difficult and involved. For this article, let’s just cover limits that are useful for spellcasters who have control over an element, since that’s common in elemental systems.
The primary issue is that getting total control over common substances is too powerful, especially when it comes to physical violence. A typical water elementalist could easily kill someone by submerging them, freezing them, or extracting the water from their body. If Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t a children’s show that used visual tricks to avoid killing anyone, the four nations would be covered in bodies.
To fix this, set firm limits on a mage’s control over their element. Consider:
- How pure does the element have to be before it can be controlled? Or for fire elementalists, how flammable must something be before they can burn it?
- How much of their element can a mage control at a time?
- How far away can it be? Do they have to touch part of it?
- Can they conjure their element or must it already be around?
- Can they heat it up, cool it down, or break it? Or do they have to use it as-is?
Limits that apply to all of your elements will feel more natural and be easier to remember. However, you can also declare limits on a per-element basis if you need to. Maybe air elementalists can’t move air in enclosed spaces and earth elementalists have to be touching the ground. If all else fails and easy violence is still an issue, you can declare by fiat that human bodies are untouchable because of the power of spirit or some such. If you keep the rule simple and don’t dwell on it, your audience will forgive the contrivance because it’s obviously necessary.
Elemental systems can be easy and fun to use, but they require a little discipline. If you add more elemental abilities every time the plot could use some quick magic or you want a character to do something cool, you’ll end up with a system that’s confusing, contrived, and overpowered.
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