Last Saturday Setup, we talked about establishing rules for magic and how important that was. This week, we’re going to discuss different systems for magic. This is equally important, though it is a much different discussion than the previous post on magic was. This time, we’re looking at the actual system the rules will function in, which will help you to further categorize your magic use in any given world as well as what rules to associate with it. So, let’s dive right in!
System One: Rational
Now, for this, different people have different definitions, but the general consensus is that a rational system of magic is one where there is an underlying rationale and framework for the magic. Sometimes these systems are also referred to as hard magic systems. The rules are more than just formalities necessary to make it work. In a system like this, they are the lifeblood and the indicator of a much larger structure at work.
Most of the time, a rational system is set up so that’s it’s easy to extrapolate from there. You’ve got your systems where things can occur seemingly at random or where things may not always go according to plan. Those aren’t rational systems. A rational system is something that hints at structures that might go back to something like physics (Avatar: The Last Airbender) or some other specific set of rules that won’t be bent (almost any superhero fantasy). Brandon Sanderson uses a rational magic system in Mistborn. The abilities are utilized by ingesting various metals, which then lead to different magical abilities or superpowers. While the individual themselves must have an inherent ability to use that metal in order to get results, the system is logical and rational because each metal can only do the things assigned to it, and no individual who isn’t Mistborn or specifically attuned to that metal will be able to use it to achieve those assigned things. There’s no mystery or question in it, no vagueness that leaves the reader wondering how this works. It is what it is, and it’s made very clear up front what it is.
Let’s break down an example from my work, Pathway of the Moon. Pathway of the Moon has a mix of hard and soft magic systems (We’ll look at the soft side in a moment). On the hard side of things, there is the system that allows for a few things to happen. First, an individual will either be Inherent (possess an ability) or UnInherent (no ability). From there, a clear set of rules governs the power distribution. With the exception of a few special cases, people control one part of one sphere or element. They can either have a specific ability in the mental or physical areas, or they can control some small part of an element (water, fire, earth, and air). No one gets more than one ability, though some may be more practiced in their area and therefore stronger than another or may contain stronger ability in the first place.
Take Amadeira, for instance. She’s one of two female leads in the epic, and her ability has to do with water. (Elemental Inherent). However, she can’t control everything related to water. Instead, she is able to manipulate existing water sources. Not create them. Just manipulate what exists. Someone else might be able to create water, of course, but then they would not be able to shape it to their will. Under this same idea, someone might be able to create ice from existing water or manipulate ice as it already exists. Still another might have the ability to create ice from thin air. This is a rational system though. There are rules, and with one or two exceptions (the special ones who can use dark or light for their ability), everyone follows them. Even the exceptions follow a set of rules and have an explanation for their existence.
Note that there can still be some mystery to a rational system in that not all rules may be explained. However, the key is that there will be subtle clues and hints toward those rules not revealed so that when something we didn’t realize could occur happens, we aren’t questioning how it’s possible. It just makes sense to us. A true rational, hard magic system will lay out all the rules for the reader because it’s necessary. So there is a slight difference in the terms rational and hard even though people often use them interchangeably.
System Two: Irrational
So with this system, it shouldn’t be assumed that there’s no logic or system at all. There usually is something, but this is more the Lord of the Rings style magic where nothing is exactly clear or predictable. We may wonder how Gandalf can appear at all the right times, but we accept that he can, not because we have reasons within the text but simply because he is Gandalf and that’s what Gandalf does. It’s mysterious and definitely goes unexplained, but it’s still accepted because, hey, that’s just the way it works around Tolkien’s world.
Systems like these are usually less focused on the rules. An individual may memorize an incantation to turn someone into a toad, but in a soft and irrational magic system, they can’t turn around and extrapolate out for a way to turn that person back from toad to human.
Worth noting is the fact that systems like this may often include plants or animals that contain some inherent magic of their own. People who use magic aren’t included in this as you can’t create a potion out of them and get something magical. But, just like with the spells, the system relies on memorization of the different potions and incantations because there’s no logic to it that can be discerned by reader or character. Trial and error is the key to the game.
These systems may also include old magic and artifacts. While both of these could show up in a rational system if the rules are clear and unwavering, they most often seem to show up in systems that are irrational or that utilize soft magic simply because these allow some level of uncertainty and mystery to the magic’s workings.
Let’s go back to Pathway of the Moon to talk about the aspects of the system that are soft irrational magics. While, arguably, Pathway of the Moon uses rules even for this second system of magic, it isn’t like the first one I explained. This one is much more vague and unclear. This system is for the UnInherents (those who can’t naturally use magic), and it is much more of a memorization, spells-based system. Certain types of plants and spells can harness the energy of the planet or, in the case of darker forms of magic, even the life force of people to generate various magical effects. While the system is supposedly only for UnInherents, Inherents may use it too if they go dark and are looking for the power. But the system doesn’t have rules that allocate who can achieve what amount of power or even if one spell can lead to another. Included in this are various artifacts both in the Aurelai Universe (the location where Pathway of the Moon and my published work, Bane of Ashkarith, take place) and in other universes. Most of my worlds contain this kind of duality in the system, which leads to the next point.
System Three: Dual or Hybrid Systems
Many fantasy novels these days are using a hybrid or dual system that blends or uses both of the magic systems described above. Pathway of the Moon falls under this. My book’s universe uses more of a dual system as there are, quite literally, two different magic systems at work: one rational and based more on magic with genetics and the other irrational with no clear system or basis in any set of rules that would allow extrapolation. However, this is a less common thing to see. Ordinarily, you will see systems that are a mixture of qualities from the previous two systems. This is why you can end up with a soft rational system or a hard irrational system. While the soft rational or hard rational systems may make sense to us, I’ll make a few quick notes about a hard irrational system. With a hard irrational system, you’re going to take the set of rules that are always explained and combine it with things that are impossible.
As stupid as the example is, think about My Little Pony (if you have younger sisters or daughters who liked this show, I’m sorry. I was subjected to watching it once or twice with my baby sister, and that was bad enough. Those of you who end up watching it over and over… That’s like your own personal hell, in my opinion…). In the movies and shows, the rules and limitations are always explained. But the reasons for it make absolutely no sense in that there’s no way they could possibly occur. Ever. They’re either impossible or just straight up unexplained. Therefore, it makes a great example for what I was saying about a system that falls between being hard rational and soft irrational. It becomes a hybrid best described as hard irrational, as weird as it may seem.
Hopefully, all of this makes sense and helps everyone creating a magic system to create one that fits their story needs and personal preferences. There’s a ton of leeway with the hybrid systems because it combines elements from the rational and irrational systems. There’s also the option to create a world with dual systems, as I did with Alcardia from Bane of Ashkarith and Pathway of the Moon. (Interestingly enough, when I created dual systems, you see more of the soft irrational system come out in areas of Bane of Ashkarith than you do in Pathway of the Moon, which focuses far more heavily on the rules and extrapolating from them.) Really, you aren’t locked in, though you do want to create what best allows you to implement and tell your story.
Have other tips or details on these systems? Have a question about implementing them or further inquiries about them? Feel free to leave it in the comments below! I’d be happy to talk about it a bit more in depth!