It’s time to divide your magic into categories, but what should those categories be? What should they be based on, what powers should they grant, and, most importantly, how well will they fit on an online personality test? Those are all questions to ask of an elemental magic system, and that’s what we’re talking about today. We discuss how many elements a system should have, how to choose them, and why everyone expects four element systems to have a secret fifth element. Plus, what is “beast keeping” anyway?
Generously transcribed by Viviana. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I am Chris, the mage of plot arcs, and with me is…
Wes: Wes, the mage of red pens.
Oren: I am Oren. I have the four elements of gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism. By their powers combined, I am the standard model of physics.
Chris: No! You can’t get multiple elements!
Wes: Yeah, boooo!
Oren: Look, I’m going into the standard model state, okay? I could do anything in this state.
Chris: Look, if you’re the avatar or the chosen one, you have to have all of the elements. You can’t just have a separate set of them.
Oren: Look, these are the four fundamental forces, okay? They’re fundamental. You can’t have forces more fundamental than these ones. Yes, I know the standard model doesn’t actually include gravity. I looked this up, but I wasn’t going to let that fact ruin my joke.
Chris: So yeah, this time we’re talking about elemental magic.
Wes: And so right off the bat, we have to answer the question of what is an element, don’t we?
Chris: Yeah, what is elemental magic, and are sandwiches involved?
Oren: The element of sandwich. It’s definitely- See, I think people are always being like, ‘We could use the actual elements of the periodic table.’ You could, if you’re a coward. What you should do is the elemental groupings of the periodic table, because then you can be an alkaline metal bender and an alkaline earth metal bender, and those will be different, and it’ll take five hours to explain. Then you can be a lanthanides bender. I don’t know what a lanthanide is, I just know it’s one of the categorizations on the periodic table.
Chris: Can I be a noble gas bender?
Oren: Yeah, get that helium.
Chris: I can make people’s voices really high, but I do have trouble exploding anything. Anyway, a magic system could be considered elemental whenever magic is sorted into categories that determine what the magic does- loose definition. So anytime you see a magic system that is sorted into those types of categories, you could call it elemental. Obviously it’s elemental if we have the traditional magical elements like fire and water and there are some trends like elemental systems are more likely to be a little more rational. Not always. They can definitely be very arbitrary, but because there’s such a big tradition of people just controlling their element, we can sometimes be more likely to logically see what a mage is capable of doing and not capable of doing and extrapolating a little bit better. I think partly because an element just narrows it down enough. If you have your mages and they can do absolutely anything, it’s almost impossible to make it rational because there’s no way you can sort all of that out into, ‘Okay, this is exactly how I got this effect.’ If you have all the effects under the sun included in your magic system. Whereas giving it elements oftentimes does narrow down what mages can do. It doesn’t mean they’re not overpowered, but sometimes it narrows it down.
Oren: Yeah, and if you have a story where it’s established that characters can control fire, air, earth, water, whatever, it’s less likely that you’re going to be tempted to suddenly have one of them cast a scrying spell because which element is that? It’s not like you couldn’t figure out a way to do it, but the temptation will be reduced.
Chris: But Oren, I want healing, so I was thinking my water mages would heal people.
Wes: The human body is mostly water anyway, Oren.
Oren: Gosh, man, I’ll never stop being annoyed that Avatar has all of these very substance-based magic effects that are all based on controlling the thing, and then healing, which just does a bunch of unrelated things and they all fall under water for some reason. You should need earthbending to fix bones. Hot take.
Chris: It would have been cool if only the Avatar could heal, because you’ve got to use all the elements together or something.
Oren: I like that, yeah. What I honestly would have done is I would have had different benders specialize in different kinds of healing. That’s what I would have done, and granted, it would have been a little harder in a cartoon. In a book, I think it would have been a lot easier, because you have more time to explain how they’re doing it.
Chris: I would say that’s if you decide you really want magical healing, and that’s the only way you’re going to get it, because I will advise against the, ‘Oh, and people with this element have this power, and then this power, and this power, and they’re not really related to each other, and now we have to give everybody with the other elements the same goodies to make it feel even,’ and so every element is just like a random collection of powers that is really hard to remember, and often feels arbitrary itself. So I would say resist adding too many additional related powers that aren’t really intuitive onto your element, if you can help it.
Oren: You can also start getting thematic elements if you want. Fire magic is out of hand pretty fast, like Legend of the Five Rings does that with its magic system, where fire magic, yeah, it’s got the obvious stuff of actual fire, but it also makes you smart.
Chris: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
Oren: Fire magic to get smarter, and air magic makes you better at bows. And I don’t mean because you’re using wind to guide the arrows, that would actually make sense, that air is associated with bows, so if you’re an air shigenja, you can become good at bows.
Chris: Don’t want to make it seem miscellaneous like that. Don’t get me wrong, if you normally have martial artists that control air, earth, fire, water, and you really want healing, and you give them each one healing power, it’s not going to kill you, but pretty soon it’s easy to start adding more and more miscellaneous stuff like that. And also, even the healing powers by themselves just feel a little bit contrived. They don’t quite fit in naturally. So anyway, some advantages of elemental systems are that everyone loves magical categories that you can put people in.
Wes: It’s so true.
Oren: Yeah, that makes a good personality test.
Chris: That makes a good online personality test, everybody will love it. You can get diverse magical effects while also keeping magic manageable. Doesn’t mean it will be manageable, but it’ll be a little easier, a little more possible to make it manageable.
Oren: It’s easier to balance because if you have one element that flies and another one that shoots long-range deadly attacks, you can more easily make those not the same kind of magic so that you don’t have to deal with ‘Why does he just fly up and shoot lightning bolts down forever?’
Chris: And then you can also use it to create interesting theming and world-building, depending on what kind of elements you choose. Because we’re not just talking about air, earth, fire, and water here. You can basically make anything into your elements.
Oren: Yeah, although I had an interesting observation that as I was thinking about what can be elements, I noticed that, so first you want whatever your elements are to feel equivalent.
Chris: So you’re talking about a set of elements as opposed to what qualifies as an element?
Oren: Yeah, that’s what I was… Should we talk about what qualifies as an element first?
Chris: I don’t have notes on that, but that’s what I thought you were going to say. It would be a little strange if you’re like, ‘I’m the element of mugs.’ I guess they’re supposed to feel at least a little bit magical and mysterious. Or not a noun that’s not a specific object. An abstract noun, whatever it’s called.
Oren: If it’s going to be an element, you want it to feel fundamental in some way. Because an actual element in real life is a substance that is the same atomically. You don’t get it by mashing different kinds of atoms together. It’s all one kind of atom. So that’s the general vibe you’re going for. It shouldn’t feel like a very specific part of the world and if it does, you’re usually going to have a lot of elements. Like I was thinking, earth and sky, those feel like elements.
Chris: Yeah, I will say though that if it has a magical connotation, for instance, you would have ruby and sapphire mages. We associate gems with magic and it’s easy to make them feel mystical.
Oren: But like, salt and sand, for example. Those could potentially be elements, but they wouldn’t be your only elements. That would feel really weird. That would feel like you’re leaving a bunch of stuff out.
Chris: So before we get into talking about a set of elements, I just want to mention that there’s more than one way to do this. And when we’re thinking about elements, we’re usually thinking about a specific kind of elements. But there’s actually other methods. So I call this ‘ordered elements.’ The idea of ordered elements is that you have a specific set that kind of represent the metaphysics in the universe in some way. They feel fundamental to how the universe works. Which is why they have to be chosen very carefully, which is what Orin has started to talk about. So that they feel natural. Because if they’re asymmetric, or the set doesn’t feel right, then it’s going to be really contrived and the magic’s not going to be that believable. So, they’re finicky. But there’s other ways to do it, for instance, you can have what I might call ‘sourced elements’, where you pick things in your world that are a source of magic and then you use the explanation that those things are just naturally different, and so the magic that comes from it is naturally different. So, for instance, if you had a set of islands of different sizes and different traits, and then each island had an island spirit, or had an island magical essence, and then the people of that island could channel it, the big island might not be the same as the little island. Maybe one is more powerful than the other, and the number of elements that you have would feel random because that’s how it’s just naturally occurring in your world, right? So it doesn’t have to feel neat and orderly that way.
Chris: Another way you can do it is what I call ‘chaotic elements’, which feels a little bit more like a superpower system, and more like scientific phenomenon, and a little bit less mystical, which is why I don’t think it’s used very often. But you can just say, you know what, this is all really random, we don’t really understand it, but this one person can channel water and the other person can channel mayonnaise and there’s some repetition, but we have no idea how many of them there are, and they just seem to occur at random. It can be used for a little bit more jokiness, but also just without that, without having a mayonnaise mage, it also just feels a little bit more scientific. But the point is that you’re setting the expectation that it’s really random and eclectic, and that, for instance, a more powerful person might be able to do water and all that entails, and a less powerful person might just have ice, for instance, so they can only deal with water when it’s in its frozen state. But the most popular choice seems to be, again, going with kind of like universal metaphysics that are supposed to vent something mystical about the universe.
Oren: Yeah, that’s where your classic fire and water, night and day kind of elemental systems come from. Those feel like somehow part of the existence in some capacity.
Wes: Less element and more fundament.
Oren: Mmm, fundament, that’s good, I like that.
Chris: So as Oren was saying, you wouldn’t have a system that’s just salt and sand, because that doesn’t feel complete. Which is one of the requirements, is that it feels like it’s a complete set and it’s not missing obvious things. Because if you have salt and sand, then you’d have to ask why you don’t have dust or something else like that in there, because it doesn’t feel like a complete set of all the things that are like that.
Oren: Or dirt, right? Why isn’t dirt one of them? Or any of the other things that can dissolve in water. Why isn’t sugar an element? A common one that I see in client manuscripts is elements that are mismatched, that don’t feel as broad. Instead of fire and water, you’d have something specific like fire and rain.
Oren: Rain is just a little too specific, right? Fire is very broad, whereas rain is a specific instance of water. And that just seems overly limiting if you’re only doing a two element system.
Chris: And, in most cases, you’re looking for elements that are also equally powerful. And oftentimes broadening the element makes for a more powerful magic worker, depending on how your system works. Usually if you’re going for more of a mystical set, you’re not looking to make one randomly more powerful than the next one.
Oren: Right, because remember, people need to be able to identify whichever element they think is best and they’re not going to be able to do that if one of them is just the loser element.
Chris: Yeah, you don’t want somebody to take your internet quiz and then be sad about the results they get, okay?
Wes: That’s right.
Oren: I’m only a rainbender. I hate it. I’m just going to look up the answers next time. I wanted to have fire!
Chris: And they should be equally distant or related to each other. So if you have plants, and then you have lava and steam or something, it’s just one of those things is not like the other. I like to think about it like a color wheel, where it would be very strange if you had blue and teal and green and then yellow. And that was your set.
Wes: That would be weird.
Chris: That would be weird.
Wes: Are there expectations with these, if you have an elemental system, that they have their opposites? Like if you say ‘elemental magic’, that carries a connotation that, like, fire and water are opposites. And then if you talk about light magic, then there must be dark magic. If there’s order magic, then there must be chaos magic.
Chris: I think if you have an element that suggests an opposite, maybe. But in some systems, light mages would also control darkness. Because they would just take the light away, for instance. And some elemental systems do not have opposites that are inherent to the elements they chose. Like for instance, if you have a sapphire and ruby mage, what’s the opposite of sapphire?
Oren: It depends on how many elements you have. If you only have two, the expectation that they will be opposites goes up. That’s why you could have a fire and water system, but you probably wouldn’t have a fire and earth system. That would feel weird.
Wes: That would feel weird, yeah.
Oren: The two elements are fire and air. Really? Those are the two? Something about that seems wrong. Whereas fire and water, that’s more okay. You’re less likely to get people wondering, ‘Where are the other two?’
Chris: Yeah, or fire and ice.
Oren: Yeah, fire and ice, that’s another one.
Chris: So basically what you don’t want is what they have in Frozen 2.
Oren: Oh gosh, that was hilarious.
Chris: Where they have earth, air, fire, water, and ice. What?
Oren: It was really weird! She’s not water, because she’s only ice, so she can’t be the water one, but she’s also clearly too close to water to be the bridge between that they wanted her to be in the movie. It’s amazing how you picked a thing that wouldn’t work either way.
Chris: Yup, that does not work. That does not work at all.
Oren: So how many elements should you have? That’s a question. What’s the number? What’s the perfect number of elements, Chris?
Chris: Okay, I will say that part of this is, do you expect the audience to remember all of them? Because I do think that in some cases, I’m going to go over some examples, including Owl House. Owl House has more than you can remember, but that’s not really important, because you’re not expected to remember all of them. If you want people to remember, I think six is even pushing it a little bit, but you might be able to do six if they’re really intuitive. Otherwise, I think the more you have, the harder it might be to just make your set feel natural. You might get to 12. You can have subcategories, right? So if you wanted, you could take air, earth, fire, water, and then subdivide them into three forms each.
Oren: Because then I don’t have to remember all the subforms, but I can probably remember the base four.
Wes: If each has clear opposites, you only really need to remember half.
Chris: And that would probably help you make a larger set that feels more natural and help it feel a little bit more intuitive. But yeah, I mean, if you had, of course, a chaotic element that’s naturally occurring, then you could have an infinite number if you wanted to. But the point is that you could have potentially lots, and then just don’t expect your audience to remember what they are. Don’t require them to and as long as you have it set up so they feel natural, you’ll be fine.
Oren: That just means that if you have a whole bunch, and you want to introduce a mage who has sound magic, then you’re going to have to remind your audience what sound magic is first. You can’t just have the mage show up and start doing sound magic and expect us to know what that is.
Chris: So I want to talk about some out there. And again, this is one of those things where I’ve had people submit questions asking me, ‘Hey, are my elements even?’ and the answer is no and then they don’t want to change it. Because usually when people have a really random set of elements that isn’t quite working, they’re just attached to having certain characters have certain powers, and they don’t really want to change it and that’s how they ended up in that situation in the first place. We originally conceived one character having fire and another having lava, and then we didn’t really want to add all the others in. And that’s how it becomes a problem. But one example that’s interesting is that they do surprisingly well with the Infinity Stones, I think, except for one. So let’s see if you can tell me which one I think needs to be at least renamed.
Oren: Is it Reality?
Chris: Oren, you were supposed to wait for me to list them first!
Oren: Oh, I’m sorry.
Chris: Especially since our listeners may not have them memorized.
Oren: That’s a good point.
Chris: Okay, so the Infinity Stones are Space, Time, Power, Reality, Mind, and Soul. These are surprisingly good. They’re very cosmic-feeling. And they’re called Infinity Stones, so that really fits the theme. But the problem is that Reality would normally encompass lots of those other things.
Oren: Yeah, probably all of them. It’s like having a system where your elements are eggs, flour, sugar, chocolate, and cake. One of those is just the other four put together. They’re not equal.
Chris: And it’s so weird! Because all you have to do is relabel Reality so that it’s Matter. Were they worried that’s too scientific for their audience? I think most people know what matter is.
Oren: Yeah, I feel like you might still have a problem if matter lets you turn people into slinkies but better naming for sure.
Chris: I’m not talking about how OP the Infinity Stones are. I’m just talking about whether or not those elements are balanced. But otherwise, I think they do surprisingly well. And it’s a set of six. And again, with things like Mind and Soul, just accept the fact that Mind is different even though technically it would be part of Reality. Or Matter, right? It would be part of Matter. There’s a cultural precedent there of thinking of Mind as being separate.
Oren: Although I would start to be unclear what the difference between Mind and Soul is. I’m not saying you couldn’t show that to me. If you told me those were the categories, I would not intuitively know the difference.
Chris: And I also think that you could take Mind out of here and change Reality and Matter and the set would work. So that it would be Space, Time, Power, Matter, Soul. Or just Matter, Mind, and take Soul out. And I think it’s okay to have both. It’s not bad. The set would also feel complete with just one. The Owl House magic system has about nine in here. It’s not the worst. The show gets away with it, but it’s a little rougher. So their elements are Abomination, Bard, which is like their music magic, Beast-keeping, Construction, Healing, Illusion, Oracle, Plant, and Potions. And I think the issue here is that we have two different types of elements. We have elements that are representing Plant and Abomination. They’re almost like different types of lifeforms and then Beastkeeping is… It’s not Beast, it’s Beastkeeping.
Oren: Do we ever see any Beastkeeping magic? I remember the Beastkeeping Master is just like a cat person and I think he scratches people. But I don’t remember if he ever does any magic.
Chris: So maybe it’s just Beast, in reality, not Beastkeeping. But see, the others are all like… Feel a little bit more task-oriented about activities that you do or crafts. So Bard is making music and constructing things and healing people. And Illusion even could be casting illusions. And then Potions, you’re making Potions. Even Oracle, I mean we can start to stretch this a little bit, is okay, we’re doing fortune-telling.
Oren: Potions is also weird thematically because in The Owl House, magic is like an inborn thing that you have and you do it out of you. Like it comes from you, specifically from your bilesack. And it’s potions work with that. Because potions are like things that you make. Is this one of those settings where someone else can follow the same instructions but if they don’t have the magical energy, the potion won’t work? Because that one just feels a little odd. Like by default, Potions feel like a thing anyone can do if they have the right ingredients.
Chris: Yeah, the other problem that happens with potions in many cases is can the potions do everything?
Chris: So all of the other elements are limited in the tasks they can perform, but potions are just like the magic way anything can happen. Pretty soon, potions become really OP.
Oren: Anytime the author needs like a magical effect that doesn’t fit into one of their other elements, ‘I guess there’s a potion that does that!’ and it’s like, alright, just keeping a long list of all the things potions can do.
Chris: So yeah, if I were to look at the Owl House magic system, I would probably think about either the task-oriented things like construction or the kind of nature or life oriented things like plants and abominations and do one or the other.
Oren: I guess if we wanted to explain why they don’t really make sense, we could say that Belos invented them and Belos isn’t very smart.
Chris: Yeah, don’t get me going about how it does not make sense that anybody would ever choose to get the mark and restrict themself because there’s no advantage to doing that. I don’t care how convincing Belos is, he would not convince people to put on a mark that permanently takes away most of their magical ability. It’s just not a thing that would happen.
Oren: Look, he’s a very good public speaker, okay?
Chris: That’s not a thing! No one is that good at public speaking.
Oren: He can sell you timeshares.
Chris: Yeah, he locks you in a room, doesn’t let you go anywhere.
Oren: Until you agree.
Chris: He lures you in with a free gift and then gives you a sales pitch and then just doesn’t let you leave.
Oren: There’s like a pile of snacks but you’re not allowed to have any until you sign.
Chris: Oh no. So there’s Winx, which does pretty well, the new Winx show. Fire, water, earth, air, and then it has light and mind.
Oren: Light is the odd one out in that exchange. Mind feels like the secret fifth element that everyone expects a four-element system to have now, but light is like fire but less. They did eventually establish that light can do illusions and stuff, which fire can’t do, but, by default, light just seems like weaker fire.
Chris: In the show, it feels better than it looks on paper because it’s like light and fire, aren’t those kind of closely related? Fire can create light, so what’s the advantage of light? In the show, yeah, they can create entire illusions, make things invisible, and it feels very distinct from fire, which is just you can start fires. So it works a little better in the show.
Oren: Plus, with fire, you get to be the main character. I was curious what either of you thought of the Mistborn elements, the eight, I think it’s eight basic metals, the metal powers.
Wes: There’s lots to come from, right?
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a tricky one, because first of all, choosing metals, there’s lots and lots of metals, and it doesn’t work because he uses it to, ‘Hey, we’ve discovered more’, right, as the books go on. So it’s incomplete because we don’t actually know about all of them. So it’s useful that way, but even trying to pick which metals to use is a liability when creating a system like that. And I think he did the best he could, but also the set of powers, I think that’s the biggest problem, is just the set of powers that they convey are too eclectic and don’t feel what they match. In a system like this, where you have, okay, like a sapphire or ruby mage, for instance, that’s probably not elements where you’re just going to give people direct control over their elements. This is not bling mages, necessarily. Usually what you’re going to do is match it symbolically to whatever power it gives. And so if you do that, you also have to be careful that those powers feel as natural as the elements that you choose, and that the symbolism is very intuitive. Keep it simple, easy. So after he chose a specific set of metals, he also had to figure out what powers those metals represent. It was honestly just a very tricky thing, and so it’s not really surprising that it came out feeling a little arbitrary.
Oren: To be honest, metals often have very similar properties. And so it’s, okay, why is tin the superior eyesight metal? What makes tin related to eyesight? And it’s like, iron, that’s the one that pulls things towards you. It’s like, alright, iron’s magnetic. That sort of makes sense. Pewter is the super strength one. And it’s like, pewter is not a very strong metal. That doesn’t feel strength related.
Chris: It works a lot better if you choose elements that have symbolism, right? Because for at least rubies and sapphires, we associate them with colors. In actuality, sapphires can be a whole range of colors. They’re not necessarily blue, but we associate them with the color blue. So then you can use color blue symbolism to choose what a sapphire mage could do. Or if you have a mage that’s like sun, moon, stars, sky, or something like that, you can think about, okay, what is the symbolism I’m going for with my celestial theme? And choose appropriate powers based on that. But to just choose metals that all feel similar. That’s a big ask.
Wes: The more specific you’re naming it, the more arbitrary it feels for sure. And it gets away from, I think, everything Chris has told us about the point of an elemental magic. If we’re choosing, like, You’re a potassium mage!’ Okay, great. It doesn’t, I don’t know. The more associations you can have with your elemental term, the better. That’s why, like, fire, life, death, order, chaos, all that stuff, I think you can just fit. Things will make more sense under those broader umbrellas.
Oren: Yeah, although I admittedly do love the idea of sapphire and ruby mages. Instead of having thematic powers, just having to pelt each other with different kinds of gemstones.
Chris: No, they have a bling contest! It’s like a beauty contest for whoever makes the best bling.
Oren: Whose jewelry is coolest?
Chris: Obviously the sapphire mage, because they can make so many different colors.
Oren: But I like rubies. Rubies are my favorite. The rubies always win in my heart, Chris.
Chris: One last thing that I thought would be good to talk about before we go is, again, you don’t necessarily have to make it about having direct control over the element, even if you’re doing earth, air, fire, water. It’s very popular. It gets really powerful, though. It’s especially easy to kill people. Too easy to kill people. Which means that you can put limits on it. Like distance, and do you have to touch it, and do you have it to start with whatever that will help. But other ways, besides the symbolic way, is you can have it, like, some other type of affinity. Can you survive an element, like a fire mage being able to walk into fire? Can you sense things inside the element, or through the element, like a scryer dipping their hand in a puddle, and then seeing things that are close to a nearby lake? You could navigate or travel through it, flying or breathing underwater. That kind of thing.
Oren: In that case, I want to be a microplastics bender.
Wes: You can go everywhere!
Oren: I am all-knowing and all-consuming. Or all-permeating, really.
Chris: So I would just, again, think a little bit about what kind of relationship people have to their element, and you can do control. Sample your options a little bit first before just going for one.
Oren: I think it is time to end the podcast on that note, now that we’ve covered all the elements. There aren’t any we didn’t cover. Don’t write us.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast, consider supporting us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/mythcreats.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, there’s the popular writing software Plotter, which you can learn more about at plotter.com. Then there’s Kelly Macleod. Next there’s Amon Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek. Talk to you next week.
Chris: This has been The Mythcreant podcast. Opening-closing theme “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Johnathan Coulton
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