I make fun of this system of magic a lot, so let’s see what I can make of it beyond that.
1) When adding new elements, beware of tweeness.
This is actually the number one reason that I look at elemental magic cross-eyed: many authors go beyond the common circle of fire, air, earth, and water, and they do it in cutesy, schmoozy, weird ways.
The addition to the elemental circle is almost never a physical part of the world, the way the other four elements are. Instead, it’s “Spirit” or “Heart” or “Dream.” This is supposed to account for the “spiritual” or “mental” part of the world.
- Come on. Come up with something that doesn’t stink of crystals and incense.
- Why can’t the physical elements have mental and spiritual counterparts? What would emotional fire be like? Maybe twee, too, but at least it’d be a change of pace from “Spirit” mages, who tend to wander around with twee wise looks on their faces and give twee psychobabble lectures.
- It would be possible to come up with a different circle of elements based on other parts of the world. Fire, earth, water, and air are common, but there’s no reason that someone needs to invent that system in another world. Perhaps your own imaginary culture is very heaven-oriented, and chooses as the elements sun, stars, moons, and cloud. Perhaps the sky, earth, and sea are considered elements, and nothing else is, because nothing else is a place that humans can travel through. Perhaps snow and ice are important to northern cultures, but not to southern ones.
If you’re trying for a serious tone, the twee addition to elemental magic ruins it, especially when it has nothing in common with the other elements. Restrain yourself.
2) Relate the elements one to another.
The only elemental “relationship” I’ve seen explored in any depth in most fantasy is the opposition of fire and water. Fire mages can’t sail on ships without getting sick, or water mages burn more easily, or fire and water mages have always been deadly enemies. The rare attempts to bring in air and earth don’t amount to much. (Matter of fact, earth magic is just rare, period. Those hero/ines who have earth magic almost always have something else as well, or the author concentrates not on the rock and stone and soil, but the person’s connection to animals and plants. This can be a problem. See point 4).
For example, there are places where the elements might blend, or share their dominion. Is a volcano in the domain of earth or the domain of fire? Is lightning fire? Most authors say yes because it can start fires, but on the other hand, pure lightning is electric force, and it moves through the air and strikes the ground. What about mist, fog, snow, and other forms of water that need the addition of air and cold to make them active? Is light always going to be in a fire mage’s province to create, even if it’s only a reflection from a different source, the way that moonlight is? Elemental mages would have a reason to know some science that other people in the world might not, so they could know that the equation isn’t as simple as moonlight= light= fire. And if you start blending the elements, and then including other elements in the circle, you get a new bunch of them that need to be defined and explored.
Same with the way that humans conceive their relationships to each other, really.
3) What is the mythology/religion/customs/traditions/laws of this society as they pertain to elemental magic?
Many fantasy worlds develop to an amazing level of sophistication in technology and other parts of their cultures without developing a complex religion or mythology. It’s puzzling. Once people have some leisure to sit back and think—whether it’s only a tiny part of the society, such as a privileged class, or whether everyone in it, thanks to magic, manages to do something other than search for food and defend themselves against enemies all day long—they often start meditating on the world around them, and producing explanations for it. Then other people argue the explanations, and provide alternative explanations, and schools of thought and philosophy and religion, and maybe heresy too, are born. It doesn’t require widespread literary, either, just people willing to talk and people willing to listen. There were dozens of small and flourishing Christian heresies before the Church stamped them out. People can get passionate about beliefs that don’t have to do with twenty-first-century moral concerns. In a world where the existence of elemental magic is true beyond a doubt, then the people around the elemental mages will talk and debate and discuss and build edifices of thought incorporating or centering on it. It’s a fact, and so it will get used to prove things and disprove things and support things and tear things down.
It shouldn’t sit all by itself in isolation. Nor should the only customs concerning it be absolutely childishly simple—for example, that you don’t bother fire mages. Not everyone will be prone to heed the warnings, and if something dire happens because someone violates the barrier, then the stories that spring up to explain it won’t all be the same, either.
Address this in your society, please. The part of a fantasy world that often most needs crafting is the worldview. An author can know everything about the way her people behave and talk and dress and go to dinner parties, and still have huge gaps in her plotting if she ignores the way they think and conceive of the world around them. In fact, I believe that’s a major reason so many twenty-first-century morals are stuffed into the gaps; the author has nothing else to plug them with.
4) (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?) Limit them!
Elemental mages are some of the most powerful in fantasy. A fire mage who does get her author’s go-ahead to command magma and lightning as well as fire is no joke. Neither is a water mage who can call on the sea, or an air mage who can deprive you of oxygen, or an earth mage who causes a mudslide or earthquake. (Poor ignored earth mages).
And then a lot of authors will go and make their protagonists into the kind of people who command two elements even though everyone else only commands one, or all four when everyone else commands just two, or the most powerful mage of her kind EVAR, compared to whom everyone else is weak and puny. So then the fire mage commands the sea, too, and the wind, and the earth (as if she cared). And then there are people hurling cataclysms around, and hefting catastrophes, and helping along cacophonies of force, and I’m hurling up breakfast.
You should know what elemental mages can and can’t do. Yes, include the “can’t” as well as the “can.” Once you have established absolute rules, don’t break them. No, not even for your protagonist. Force your mages to work within the limits rather than suddenly sprouting new talents or levels of strength, which is also common.
And, for heaven’s sakes, don’t claim everything that could be vaguely under the umbrella of that element as a power for your mage. As I noted above, this is most common with earth magic. “Earth mages” are most often those people who can speak to animals and make the trees obey them, maybe march into battle. Yet, um, why? Trees are nourished by sunlight and air and water, too. Animals fly through the air and swim in the sea as well as walk on land, and they need to breathe. If anything, it seems that plants and animals would be gray areas where the elements blended, or not under the control of any single element at all. In the rush to categorize, you risk making your mages too powerful, and your world incomprehensible.
5) Know how they work with governments and the magic-less.
Once again, most authors hew to extremes. The elemental mages are a tiny group who only seem to use their magic to defend themselves and in the final war with the Dark Lord, or they rule and use their magic to—well, benefit themselves, I suppose. (The ruling mages often do surprisingly little magic).
Yet there’re lots and lots of places for people who can work with the physical forces of the world. Wind and water mages would be in demand not only on ships, where some authors do put them, but to give crops good weather, provide pleasant days for large festivals, turn aside or dissipate storms, purify drinking water, move streams around or dam them, clear away this blasted fog, put this blasted fog in place so that it can blind the enemy or keep rival ships from sailing, calm this stream from flooding, coax that stream into flooding so that it can provide rich soil, make this hydraulic system work… There’s lots and lots of uses. Earth mages could restore soil, make it richer, help crops grow faster, call animals in for slaughter, prevent earthquakes and mudslides or clean up after them, insure that transported plants survive and acclimate to new soil, and do other things depending on what power you’ve given them. Ironically, though fire mages are the single most common kind across books, they would seem to have the least use in day-to-day life. Stop wildfires or lightning fires, control the natural flames that need to burn to clear out forests, light candles and lamps, help people start fires for cooking food or warmth, tend the forges, and after that I’m already running out of ideas. Other uses would be mostly destructive, and thus limited.
The next time that you’re looking for things for elemental mages to do, or thinking about what kind of daily life they’d have when they weren’t participating in battles, think about this. The mages themselves shouldn’t be isolated, any more than their magic should be in people’s minds. Intertwine them with the basic fabric of the world. Let them have lives to get disrupted, rather than ones they can drop at a moment’s notice to train the protagonist or accompany her on a quest.
6) Don’t ally all natural inclinations to talent.
Not all fire mages need to be quick-tempered. (Also, not all of them need to have red hair. Can we please stop that?) Their magic is part of them, but it’s only the prime part of their life if an author makes it that way. Think about the talents you have, and the many, many desires, thoughts, wishes, irritations, ambitions, and tasks you have that your talent doesn’t impact on. The obsessive writer—hi—still has to eat and drink and rest and go to school or work, and she still wants ice cream and fresh fruit and new books and other things that she can write without. Real people don’t begin and end their lives in a sphere where nothing else but one facet of their personality exists, at least not without enormous outside coercion.
So you could have an elemental mage who doesn’t consider her magic to be a prime part of her life, or doesn’t spend all her time fretting that she’s not more powerful, or walks across the room and gets a bucket of water instead of conjuring one, because that’s simpler. You can have weak mages who are not jealous of the strong one, because they live in an environment where more things than mere strength at magic are valued, or they personally value something else. You can have strong mages who still don’t want to use their magic because they just aren’t interested, thanks, rather than because something dark in their past made them horribly afraid of themselves.
Perhaps because it is so common and so powerful, authors writing elemental mages seem to fall into this trap much more often than authors who work with other systems of magic. Please. Remember that your people have bodies and minds and tempers and inclinations of their own, too.
7) This can lead to more nature-oriented stories.
If you have elemental mages working with the natural world, and knowing more about it than the average man on the village street, they can become passionately fond of it for its own sake. I think this would be neat, because the average presence of nature in fantasy gets reduced to helpful or hostile animals—of which my favorite are the Randomly Attacking Wolves that show up in the woods, spring at the hero, and then run away—quickly described landscape that does not actually affect the protagonist in any emotional way, and the occasional starry-eyed, “Animals are good, don’t eat them!” pseudo-Wiccan girl, or wise witch who works with non-specific “herbs.” Weather, especially cold, can be escaped by walking into an inn, disease is non-present, and the most commonly described sights and sounds are human. (Smell and taste, like earth magic, are shamefully neglected). Wounds and stains, authors’ last-ditch attempts at connecting heroes to reality, often vanish between one page and the next. This is a good reflection of the authors’ urbanized lives. It is bad for convincing people that this is a living fantasy world, especially a low-tech one.
So consider what might happen to an elemental mage who does not consider herself separated from nature, the way that so many people do; who doesn’t care about clothes as much as she does about trees; who thinks not only of the humans who are threatened if a Dark Lord rises, or the sentient other races like elves and dragons, but also the deer, the fish, and the insects; who thinks before she hurls around the awesome power that she can wield, about how long the land will take to recover from the impact of fire or flood, quake or tornado.