Are "elemental" magic systems cliché?

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I've been trying for a while to come up with a magic system for a story I'm writing. I've tried a few things but what I keep coming back to is a system based on the elements, where everyone has only one type of magic represented by something in nature, e.g. fire, ice, water, stone, lightning, etc.

But for browsing the internet I've started to get the impression that this kind of system is used a lot. Does that make it cliché? Would it remain cliché if the system wasn't based on simply Earth-Air-Fire-Water as it's usually done and instead based on a wider range of 'elements' (I have 12)? Would it be better for me to put my thinking cap back on and come up with something more original?

Thanks for your help.
 

astrodragon

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I've been trying for a while to come up with a magic system for a story I'm writing. I've tried a few things but what I keep coming back to is a system based on the elements, where everyone has only one type of magic represented by something in nature, e.g. fire, ice, water, stone, lightning, etc.

But for browsing the internet I've started to get the impression that this kind of system is used a lot. Does that make it cliché? Would it remain cliché if the system wasn't based on simply Earth-Air-Fire-Water as it's usually done and instead based on a wider range of 'elements' (I have 12)? Would it be better for me to put my thinking cap back on and come up with something more original?

Thanks for your help.

To be honest personally I've always found it a cliche, especially when the mage can only use one element (this is not usualy explained, it just...is...)

Now having them specialise in one element or school, to me, makes much more sense and allows more playing with the system...
 

Reservoir Angel

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Now having them specialise in one element or school, to me, makes much more sense and allows more playing with the system...
This. This is what I'm going for with mine. Then again I'm basically ripping off Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood's alchemy system as opposed to the more traditional magic, but still.

For example in that show, alchemists can theoretically work with any substance, but a lot of them specialise. Like the very first antagonist of that show is referred to as "The Freezing Alchemist" because he specialises in freezing water into ice in various ways to attack people. There's another guy referred to briefly as "The Flame Alchemist" because his alchemy works with fire.

Also that brings in a thing that for elemental magic to be viable, I think, it needs some kind of weakness. Using the above examples, the Flame Alchemist can't use his alchemy when it's raining. Because water cancels out fire.

The whole "people can only use one element" thing never made much sense to me. I can buy it in something like Avatar (the animated series, not the James Cameron film) because they establish that elemental magic isn't a thing everyone can do, only certain people and it seems to be genetic in some way. So in that way people only being able to work with one element makes some kind of sense.

Plus again, they have weaknesses and strengths. Waterbending grows stronger during a full moon, for example. Firebending is stronger during the day and even stronger still with Sozin's Comet but disappears completely during an eclipse. Earthbenders (mostly) need to be in physical contact with the earth they're bending. Just little things like that.

So it's not entirely an unworkable system, it just needs a bit of explaining to make it viable. It's been done, sure. But so has pretty much every magic system.
 

Kricket

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Personally, I love elemental based magic. It makes sense to me. And I like astrodragon's idea with a mage specializing in one of the elements but can still use others in some small degree.

Plus, if you have 12 different elements you have a lot of room for creativity.

And, as Angel said, giving each element some kind of weakness makes it ring true for the reader.
 

rwm4768

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Maybe you should try putting a twist on the system (which you might already be doing with twelve types). In Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, the magic system is based on furies, which represent elements, and I found the magic system was fresh enough for my liking.

Of course, to me, the magic system is not the most important aspect of a fantasy world. I want characters I can care about and interesting things happening. A creative magic system is a plus, but not a necessity. In one of my series, I have an elemental magic system, but people can use any of the elements.
 
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I don't think they're cliche. Although if you use the standard 4/5 Elements from the Western system, then there's a lot of books already out there you have to compete with.

I would love to see some Elemental magic with a more creative system.

The Chinese system is still under-utilized, for example.

In one story, I used stone, water, and wood as the elements.




As far as only be able to use one Element, it's a reasonable mechanic for limiting Elemental magic, but it can come across as sort of arbitrary in a lot of stories.

That said, I think a creative reason for it, such as the afore-mentioned Avatar system could make it reasonable or even integral to the story/world.

I think some major reasons for the single-element system are poarizing various factions, allowing for a special multi-element protag, and that it's just plain easier to establish what a character can do if each one only controls a single element. Otherwise, the protag or antag could be pulling moves out of their ass--or at least seem like it--because it's hard to establish limits on something as huge as any element or combination of elements.
 
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Raventongue

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It could be cliched or not, depending on what you do with it. I think nearly everyone can agree mages only being able to use one element is overdone, but if you've got more than 4 elements, you're very likely fine.

Even the four classical elements don't need to be cliched. Think of something for a fire mage to do that doesn't directly involve fire- or perhaps they're just codenames for specific types of mind-based magic.

Or weave it into the culture in new ways. All mages of this element are high society, only poor people use that element, only sexual deviants combine two, whatever works.

<rant> Whatever you do, do not draw all sorts of concepts from Wicca, layer them over a 4-element system, and then make it conveniently sexist and generally insulting to Pagans when you yourself are a strict right-wing Christian. I'm lookin' at you, Robert Jordan!</rant>

With 12 elements you're more likely to have characters skilled in multiple elements simply because more will fit. Use that to your advantage, like maybe you can't use lightning 'til you've mastered metal or something.
 
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Something I've always wished to see is political rivalry among elements. And not: "Water mages hate fore mages." simplistic bullshit.

Or class rivalry. Maybe wind and water mages are popular with poor farmers, while the military elite prefer fire and metal magic. Maybe artisans are big on metal and wood magic. Priests might prefer wind and fire magic for the heavenly associations of light/fire/lightning but dislike earth and water magic due to their associations with the profane or decay.

I know some of those are pretty cliche connections, but you rarely even see that much attempt at creativity with elemental magic in published works.
 

Raventongue

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Something I've always wished to see is political rivalry among elements. And not: "Water mages hate fore mages." simplistic bullshit.

Or class rivalry.

Check out the book examples on the TVTropes page for "Un Equal Rites". You'll probably find a lot of things you'll want to read, since by definition that whole trope is about political and social differences/relations within magic systems.
 

Maldeus

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Yeah, elemental magic systems are clearly not popular with the current zeitgeist.

People actually have a limited amount of space to take in new concepts at any given period of time. Something that introduces no new elements at all is obviously bad, but if one specific element (no pun intended) of your work is very formulaic that just gives you more leeway to be creative someplace else without worrying about leaving your readers without an ability to relate with your world.
 
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Buffysquirrel

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I think they probably are cliched, but that doesn't matter so long as you deal with them creatively. I was writing my magic system which uses rings at the time LOTR was being filmed, and it was all, you can't use magic rings! Eh. I did anyway.
 

CrastersBabies

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Personally, I love elemental based magic. It makes sense to me. And I like astrodragon's idea with a mage specializing in one of the elements but can still use others in some small degree.

Plus, if you have 12 different elements you have a lot of room for creativity.

And, as Angel said, giving each element some kind of weakness makes it ring true for the reader.

I like it too, especially when you expand the elements. To me, cliche is the loaf of French bread in the character's bag on the movie screen. You roll your eyes because apparently everyone buys French bread and they don't put it in a bag, right?

Elemental magic is what you make of it. How will you use it? How will it be triggered? How will a mage connect with it? There's a lot to work with, a lot of ways to make it unique. It's fantasy. You're already working with some well-mined areas here. That's a given. You can find ways to make it your own.
 

Billtrumpet25

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To be honest personally I've always found it a cliche, especially when the mage can only use one element (this is not usualy explained, it just...is...)

Now having them specialise in one element or school, to me, makes much more sense and allows more playing with the system...

Well, that's been done, too, to a certain degree. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series is a big example of this, with the concept of "furies", and the idea that certain people and certain talent.

Basically, if it can be executed in a completely unique way, then go for it. If not, I would go back to the drawing board.
 

Billtrumpet25

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Maybe you should try putting a twist on the system (which you might already be doing with twelve types). In Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, the magic system is based on furies, which represent elements, and I found the magic system was fresh enough for my liking.

Ha! You beat me to it! I thought about Jim Butcher, too. :)
 

Channy

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I think magic and elements has so much room for flexibility that it will never truly be cliche. Make it your own, add some new elements to it. Obviously if you had the systemical Big Four, it'd sound lazy. But with your 12 you have planned, you've obviously put thought into it.

I'm using a quasi-magic system myself with people who've been genetically altered, enhanced to embody that element. But to throw a wrench into the cliche system, I added a Shapeshifter, a Regenerator, an Amplifier.. it doesn't always have to be physical elements. If you go to SuperHuman Powers on Wiki, you can get all sorts of ideas for powers that you hadn't thought of. Maybe an Earth weilder doesn't just have the ability to grow trees or create fissures in the ground... Earth and nature are very nurturing elements.. Creating life.. maybe they can have a touch of quintessence, empathy with humans. Air and Water are also very connectable elements.
 

Jinnambex

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Its been years since someone has commented on this, but I had a Beta Reader tell me that they find "4 element" magic systems as a turn off. But the beta commented on this as if they knew my whole magic system when I started with the very basics of it. So they judged it before they got to know it. Is there a way around this? Maybe have one of the characters make a joke about the simplicity of magic and have a mage scold them for their ignorance?

IDK

Anyway, here is my magic system in a nutshell:

-In the beginning of my world's creation, anyone could do practically anything, if they had enough power. Magic was only limited by the user's innate power and the Seven Realms of Magic:
*Elemental=fire, earth, water, air
*Light=energy, lightning, light, temperature adjustment
*Force=waves, aura, telekinesis, fields
*Mind=illusion, ***mind combat***, sensing, taming animals, connecting of nonphysical planes
*Body=physical alterations, shapeshifting, strength modulation
*Spirit= Charms, enchantments, summoning, invigoration
*This last category is only accessible to the God of the book, which is Ayzu=Basically God Power.

So this is very complex, and as you can imagine. A great war was started, and fueled by endless magic, it was not good at all. After the world was basically destroyed, the God of my novel made a new world and a new order of magic. He took his four best generals (angels) and turned them into swords. He placed the swords in the new world, which limited magic to only the four elements. The other five realms (excluding God's power) was bound to the language of the angels, which was called the First Language.

-So now in this new world, magic is not in everyone, actually very few people, and it is limited by the Elemental Realm of Magic (Which you can do naturally if you have magic) and the First Language.
So in my book, my mages do have 1 element that they can just do, but if they learn the First Language (spells) they can still use all sorts of magic. I have energy checks and balances and side effects as the cost of the magic, but the truly unique part of my magic system is that the characters can also do some innate things with their mind, the coolest of these being, mind combat.

Mind combat takes place all in our heads. Let's say two mages are about to fight. If one mage wants to take control of the other's body, they would fight in mind combat. Basically the two are pulled into a mental-physical plane in their heads where they actually fight each other. If one mage kills the other, than in the real world, the victor will now have control over the other's body. Also, time does not pass in the real world when in the mind realm.

MY ULTIMATE QUESTION IS THIS, BECAUSE IT MADE ME SAD WHEN MY BETA JUDGED MY MAGIC SYSTEM BEFORE EVEN GETTING TO EXPERIENCE IT, IS MY MAGIC SYSTEM NOT UNIQUE ENOUGH?? I know that everything above is really complicated, but I've had 30+ people read my story front to back and they all seemed to get it. So I explain it bit by bit, and I started with the 4 elements. That's when my beta judged it. What does everyone think??
 

Cobalt Jade

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Jinnambex, I think it's unique, especially the angels being turned into swords. I'd be your beta!
 

Once!

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It's a highly personal thing, but I am turned off by magic which reads as if it belongs in a computer game. If it's too precise and numerical with this and that school of magic with levels, then I feel like the author isn't showing me a new world. They're showing me a new computer game world.
 

Jinnambex

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It's a highly personal thing, but I am turned off by magic which reads as if it belongs in a computer game. If it's too precise and numerical with this and that school of magic with levels, then I feel like the author isn't showing me a new world. They're showing me a new computer game world.

Ya I agree. I don't have schools of magic or levels. No numbers or anything. The only measure of one's magical aptitude is the strength of their Will (In my book, a mage's ability to do magic)

Basically what I tried to do with my magic system, was take Avatar the Last Airbender and mash it with the Inheritance Series. Then I took a cheese grater to DragonballZ, where they know how to practice in their minds and in a timeless zone. Put all that in the oven of my mind, and you get my magic system.
 
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neongrey

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Elemental stuff is just a premise, really. How you go about it is where you run into cliche. With what you're doing, I'd be wary of it 'feeling' video gamey, but that's gonna come down to execution. I think you're probably ok thus far.
 

Jinnambex

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You had me at DragonballZ, lol.

Elemental stuff is just a premise, really. How you go about it is where you run into cliche. With what you're doing, I'd be wary of it 'feeling' video gamey, but that's gonna come down to execution. I think you're probably ok thus far.

Nossmf ----> :banana:
neongrey----> Its not video gamey. :)
 

Jade Rothwell

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I think you've put enough of a change on the common elemental magic aspect that you're fine. Elemental magic IS pretty common, but it can be done well. Like in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
 

greendragon

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it depends on how you work it. For instance, Mercedes Lackey uses it for her Elemental series - to great success, in my opinion. Same with Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. They modify it to match their settings and personalities. I think having the same boring set up is bad. Having a creative take on it can be good, depending on how well you define it and how well you describe that definition in the books. It doesn't have to be fully fleshed out in the books, but it should be in your mind.

I tend towards 'affinities' in my magic-users, but they can do other magics. One person has a specialty in healing, but she could do shielding if she worked hard at it. Just doesn't have much talent at it. Her father can do it much better. Or another might do curses/blessings particularly well.
 

nossmf

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That's how my twin mage brothers are in my WIP; one is an expert at mind magic but can cast fireballs if his life depends on it; his twin casts lightning bolts without a thought, but has to really concentrate to perform telepathy.
 

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