Although magic is not a requirement for fantasy settings, they are a staple of the genre. When it comes to how new and unique a novel’s magic system is, well, they can be just as varied as fantasy as a genre. Yet there are a few categories that most magic systems either fall into or meld together. Below, I’ll discuss all five and use examples to explain how each author adapted them to make it fit their own story.
For more updated definitions and examples, please see Five Branches of Magic Systems (Revisited).
-usually draws from either four or five elements (water, fire, earth, air, and sometimes spirit). Either a person can only use one type of magic, or the elements can be combined in some way or another, etc.
The clearest, best-known example of this would likely be Avatar the Last Airbender. Each nation had people who could bend one element and a single person, the Avatar, who could bend all four. In this setting, there were only four elements, though there was an inclusion of a spirit world–whose rules are far more murky–and special abilities of certain, incredibly skilled benders such as lightning (fire), metal (earth), and blood (water) bending.
But! In terms of books! The Wheel of Time includes an element-based magic system in which certain channelers can learn how to weave the elements into specific functions. For this universe, spirit is one of five elements. There is the ability to make single-element weaves like fireballs, but most weaves are far more complex. For example, to amplify one’s voice primarily uses air, but a touch of fire can make it more effective. Healing, especially by the most skilled or Talented in that area, often uses all five. There are differences to what male channelers and female channelers can do–for example, women are often weaker at any weaves including earth–and while a Talent does not usually make a channeler profficient in a single element of a weave, it allows them to perform specific types of weaves better than others–such as Healing or the making of gateways.
-a varied magic system; practically any ability is on the table. Usually, there is some element of uniqueness to each person’s “superpower” so that even if two people share similar abilities, they are not quite the same.
While one would expect to find this primarily in superhero novels, there are actually a plethora of examples even in epic fantasy. The best example of this in its more basic form would be Marie Lu’s Young Elites series. A blood fever sweeps across the nation and the surviving children wind up having magical powers. Some such examples are manifesting illusions (Adelina), wielding fire (Enzo), manipulating emotions (Raffaele), and controlling animals (Gemma). All Young Elites are physically marked in some way or another by the fever, making them stand out in a crowd.
Another such example, the Graceling Realm series, has a bigger variety of superpowers, many of which are purported to be useless. There are many Graces that are similar to each other. Mind-readers and fighters are the two most-discussed groups. Yet even these seem to have some amount of variety, as one mind-reader can read a person’s desires while another can only sense what one is thinking about in regards to them. Some are Graced with singing, with holding one’s breath for ridiculously long periods of time, or for being able to sniff person and know exactly what kind of food they are most craving at that moment. Like in the Young Elites, Gracelings are physically marked as well, but it’s simpler: when they’re young, their eyes settle into two different colors. Sometimes, it’s two shades of the same color. The inclusion of useless Graces helps set this world apart, as some of them try to find some use or another for their Grace while others try to live a normal life despite them.
Even series like the Grishaverse and Strange the Dreamer have a somewhat loose connection to the superpower category. Strange the Dreamer has a small cast of magic-users, but their abilities are unbound to any technical rules. One pukes out moths whose eyes she can see by, and another can call clouds to them. For the Grishaverse, there are five categories of Grisha, and, like in Avatar the Last Airbender, a person can only fall into one category. There are tailors, who can completely alter someone’s appearance; squallors, who can generate storms; durasts, who make really strong armor; and so on. Yet, due to the varied nature of the magic–unbound as it is by an element or any other particular thing–it could still be considered “superpower” magic.
-uses incantations (chants), spells, or potions of some way. It is your traditional witch or wizard, albeit often with some twist.
Harry Potter is the most obvious example of spellwork magic. It literally includes witches and wizards in its vocabulary, and at Hogwartz, the students learn how to cast spells with their magic wands and make potions with magical ingredients. Not everyone can use magic; it separates the witch and wizarding world from the non-magical Muggles.
Yet in terms of more epic or high fantasy, one can also look to the example of the Inheritance Cycle. Though the magic relies most heavily on spellwork from the Ancient Language–allowing for anything from fireballs to scrying (communicating over far distances)–there are prophecies and potions used in the text as well, primarily from Angela the witch.
I found The Magicians twist to be even more interesting, as, especially in the TV show, the magic relies heavily on not just the words (which could come from any language, alive or dead) but also on the intricate finger motions required for a spell to work. It was something of an art form, different from the flailing of hands and arms that usually accompanies spellcasting. For a less obvious example, however, while I have admittedly not read Brandon Sanderson’s work outside Wheel of Time, his Mistborn series utilizes the burning of metals to grant specific abilities. As it involves the use of some natural elements in order to grant extra abilities, it would qualify as spellwork magic as well.
-some form of animal bonding is used, whether it’s an animal companion or the ability to shapeshift into some beast.
When it comes to animal bonding, there are none more tightly connected than those found in His Dark Materials. At least, when it comes to Lyra’s world. Everyone here is born with a daemon, the animal personification of their soul. There do not appear to be any unbound animals, nor are there any humans born without an animal daemon. Killing a human invariably kills their daemon, and killing a daemon kills a person’s soul so that they usually do not survive long afterwards.
But animal bondings do not always need to connect one person to one creature. Wargs in A Song of Ice and Fire can sometimes see through many different animals, although there are ones they are closest to that they often use to see out of.
As for shapeshifters, the traditional choice is human/wolf that creates werewolves (or even werecats, as seen in The Inheritance Cycle). However, this does not have to be specific to existing animals. In Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, dragons have a human form that they can take. This human form can result in half-human, half-dragon children, who generally cannot take dragon form although they usually are “deformed” by some dragon characteristics. These half-dragons have superpower magic, allowing for abilities like literal gut feelings, sensing out other half-dragons, skill at climbing, growing unnaturally large, and so forth.
-certain characters are able to enter an off-world location, one with rules that differ from their own.
Multi-verses are something of an anomaly for fantasy. When it comes to magic systems, they certainly are one of the rarest. How is it even a magic system, and not simply a part of the setting, you ask? Well, the ability to walk between worlds is usually confined to specific characters, often making it something of a magical trait.
The best defining example I can think of is the Shades of Magic series. Anatari are rare people who can walk between four different worlds. They likewise carry the ability use blood magic for other means, paired with a spell to trigger the magic. Other people are able to use magic as well, but only Antari can walk through worlds.
His Dark Materials and Chronicles of Narnia are, of course, other examples of multi-verse magic, as each world is different from the last, with different rules, and the only constant is that certain people can step between one and the other.
Less obvious ones would be the likes of Inkheart and Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. Inkheart requires a magical voice to bring things to life, including the ability to walk from the real world to worlds of make-believe. They can bring others with them. For the DoSaB series, there are slits in the sky that allow for people to travel from one universe to the next. (I believe Laini Taylor connected the series to her new Strange the Dreamer series, technically putting them in the same universe.)
Obviously, not all magic systems fit neatly and clearly into a specific category, but I spent a lot of time combing through magic systems I’m familiar with to make sure I wasn’t missing some obvious categories. It, of course, falls to the author to blend and twist any form of magic system so that it reads as entirely their own, rather than some trope tossed in for good measure.
If you can think of any magic systems that don’t seem to fit anywhere in these five categories, hit me up in the comments. Or, if you have read a book that really knocked your socks off with how unique its magic system was, I would love to hear about those too!
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