Building a Magic System (WoT Setting Study #2)

Wheel of Time is known for many things, and for its readers, channeling is often touted as an impressive magic system. It is expansive, detailed, and well-thought-out. For those who are interested in a more present, harder magic system, the series offers as a template three major facets that differentiate channeling from other magic systems. I will describe, for those unfamiliar with Wheel of Time, describe the fundamentals of the magic system below, and then hop into the discussion of what sets the series’s magic system apart from others.

A non-spoiler notice: I will be talking about the magic system from the perspective of a person who has finished the series, but I will be avoiding any details that could be considered spoilers, especially of the plot variety. If you haven’t finished Wheel of Time yet, this post should be safe for you to read.

A Description of the Magic

Channeling is an elemental magic system involving the use of Weaves–essentially, patterns of elemental threads that, when completed, does a specific thing (anything from healing to making a fireball to lifting water out of one’s clothes). Some people are born with the ability to channel, some are capable of learning it, but most cannot see or use the One Power at all. (One Power and True Source are both names for the actual magic that one uses to channel.) Both genders can channel, but the experiences of both are vastly different; women surrender to the One Power to embrace the Source. Men, on the other hand, must fight against their more wild half of the Source. Channelers start off with a base strength, but do grow into more power as time goes on. There exists items wrought with the one power called angreal and sa’angreal, both of which magnify the strength of its user, and ter’angreal, which performs a task, sometimes requiring channeling, sometimes not, depending on the item.

Limitations

There are certain things that channeling cannot do, and certain weaves that are outlawed by the White Tower, the authority of female channelers. As is usually the case with non-necromancy magic, channeling cannot bring back the dead. Likewise, there are certain weaves that only certain Darkfriend characters know. The strength of a character’s magic determines whether or not they can perform certain weaves, as most weaves have a baseline strength requirement. The weave also must be completed; to abandon a weave half-way can either result in the weave simply disintegrating or possibly doing something else entirely, like explode. Should a channeler draw in too much power, they can “burn out,” making them incapable of using the True Source. A channeler can also be stilled (women) or gentled (men) by a group of other channelers, which likewise takes away their ability to use the One Power.

Cost of Use

No matter the gender, channeling extensively can make a character exhausted. They can continue to work while tired, but it is considered unwise because it is easier to make mistakes in laying out the weaves. Additionally, the male half of the True Source, “saidin,” was tainted by the Dark One. The book’s present-day male channelers go mad, although they are usually caught and gentled by female channelers before that happens, and then often wind up dying shortly after.

Writing Magic Incapable of Solving All Problems

Jordan approached his magic system with the intent that it should not be able to solve everything. So, although it plays a key role in the story right up to the end, no matter how big the stakes grow, there is no power creep. The series does that in a few ways.

Firstly, it is a magic system with a rigid set of rules. Female channelers go to the White Tower to learn most of the known weaves. Admittedly, many Aes Sedai (fully trained female channelers) have a few personal weaves that they had inadvertently used before coming to the Tower, and each Ajah (part of the Tower, there are seven Ajahs, each with their own specific goals and tasks) has more tha a few secret weaves of their own. But never does a “secret” weave do something that is beyond belief; often, many “secret” weaves perform similar functions to other “secret” or known weaves, although with a slightly different execution.

Secondly, the book’s present-day channelers are surrounded with artifacts that survived the Breaking of the World some centuries ago. A lot of knowledge was lost. Many weaves from before the Breaking are now forgotten, with rarely a passing mention in even the oldest, most obscure surviving texts. Additionally, the creation of angreal, sa’angreal, and ter’angreal is no easy thing; it requires a Talent for making them, and their uses are rarely obvious, especially in the case of the latter. Thus, no matter how wondrous some of the Aes Sedai magic is, the reader is always aware of the many things they are no longer capable of.

This latter concept will not work for all magic systems, of course, but in a more generalized sense, knowing what effect Time has on a world’s magic system also just makes the world itself feel more expansive. If a book is going for a harder magic system, one with rules, one that doesn’t necessarily want to chase after that mystical feel of softer magic systems, it will benefit the story to consider shifts in use or abilities as time passes, the general feelings towards magic in these different Ages, and perhaps in what capacity a character might stumble across these Old-Age uses. Research should not always be enough for a character. Some things should just be too old to know. This, the Wheel of Time series embraces proudly.

Considering the Visual Implications

Of the five types of magic systems, elemental magic is probably the most reliant on visuals. Channeling takes it one step further, because it is not restricted to fireballs and earthquakes. The weaves use threads of the different elements, all five of which presumably look different. Most art depicting channeling gives each of the elements a different color.

The discrepancy between who is able to see the weaves and who isn’t ultimately makes the magic system itself even more starkly visual for the readers. Channelers of the same gender can see each other’s weaves, but due to the schismatic nature of saidar (women’s half of the True Source) and saidin (men’s half), opposite genders cannot see each other’s weaves, and non-channelers can’t see any weaves regardless of gender. Yet for the reader, knowing the mechanics and being denied the actual visual part of it is akin to that feeling of being watched in the dark. Just because it’s not visible doesn’t make it feel any less real. (Except not being able to see the weaves of a character is infinitely less creepy.)

The visual nature of Wheel of Time’s magic system gives it presence on the page. The fantasy genre does not require a present magic system, of course. Look to Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire for some prime examples. But present magic systems have their own narrative purposes, and in the case of elemental magic especially, it’s very easy to slip into the traditional reliance of the outcome rather than the build-up. As in, when it comes to the visuals, it’s easy to attempt describing the fireballs over what it takes to create them.

It comes down to a discrete blending of elemental magic with a spellwork magic feel. Sure, there’s no incantations, no need for ingredients in the traditional sense. But the precise nature of the weaves, the order in which they are laid, the specific element needing to be laid, is reminiscent of a potion or spell. It’s not enough for a thing to be easily described; ultimately, the description of a fireball is not inherently interesting. But if making a fireball requires not just the flailing of arms but also of setting the magic just so, with vibrant colors to add to the mix, it differentiates this kind of fireball from the fireballs of other, less vibrant magic systems and thus helps give the system that presence on the page.

Magic Vs Culture

Quite often, magic is put at odds with the main culture of a narrative. Because of the power discrepancy between the average magic user and the average person, to have magic tends to be very isolating. Of course, narratives involving several different cultures do tend to explore different ways that each of those cultures could react to magic; in this, Wheel of Time is not alone.

There is, however, something to be said about the way in which the magic system interacts with the world as a whole and the world as individual parts. The White Tower sets itself up to be a source of knowledge, power, and respect across the main landmass of the series. People from smaller towns may think a channeler is associated with evil, and even certain regions and locations of power (for example: the nation of Tear, and the religious group known as the Children of Light) may strongly dislike Aes Sedai, but at least in the case of the latter, respect is still to be had. The Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light would still meet with the Amyrlin, the leader of the Aes Sedai. As would the lords of Tear.

Essentially, the magic system never defines any of the cultures within the series. Rather, the way that certain countries view Aes Sedai or channeling just adds another level of distinctness. Most of the mainland acknowledges the might of the White Tower, but the two major cultures that defy it interact with the One Power in their own way. The weaves may be primarily the same, or at least their function may primarily be the same, but the ways in which the weaves are viewed are completely different in certain cultures.

One, for example, views channeling as inherently dangerous, and to be born with the ability is to be turned into less than a person, viewed as a pet or a useful object might. In another, all female channelers are trained to be advisors of their people, but these advisors are not made up of just channelers. In fact, strength in the power does not give more weight to an advisor’s words; channeling has nothing to do with it. Rather, the older a person is, the more weight their words hold.

The series, of course, already delves deeply into the cultures of its people. But when magic plays a major role in the trajectory of the narrative, it’s importan to allow those cultures to likewise interact as they would with the magic system, to allow for a diversity of opinions. In the end, it does not fracture the reader’s view of the system; instead, it allows the reader to step back and appreciate the system both up close and from afar.


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