5 Great Animated Magic Systems, by Brian J. Branscum

Today we have a guest here at the World-Maker’s House! This week’s post is by speculative fiction writer Brian J. Branscum. If you enjoy this post, be sure to drop by his blog here or his Twitter here and let him know!

Now I present to you:

5 Great Animated Magic Systems

By Brian J. Branscum

Magic is a key component for most fantasy stories—both in literature and in TV. It functions well as a tool for the protagonist, a source of conflict, and a potential goal to achieve for both heroes and villains alike. A creative magic system can make a story stand out from the others, and I wanted to go over a few that have worked well in the Literary World.

Elemental Bending (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

The four elemental forces has been cliché since the days of Aristotle. Several fantasy and sci-fi stories have utilized it in some fashion (Fifth Element, Final Fantasy, and even Harry Potter). Some utilize the trope well, others don’t. But of them, probably one of the most creative powers comes in the form of Bending from the Avatar franchise.

Manipulating the elements isn’t as simple as waving a hand. It takes martial practice, using the motions and styles of several Eastern martial arts to “bend” them:

  • Northern Shaolin for Fire
  • Tai Chi for Water
  • Ba Gua Zhang for Air
  • And Hung Gar for Earth

This plays well into the show’s action, as magic isn’t just two guys standing and throwing spells at each other. The motions are fluid and intense, like watching a Jackie Chan movie—except now the elements being thrown about.

Magical Girls (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)

The price of a wish may be greater than you think. In the world of Madoka Magica, if you’re an adolescent girl with the potential for magical powers, a little puff ball named Kyubey will appear before you asking you if you’d like to become a magical girl and fight the evil witches that appear and plague the world. In exchange, he’ll make any wish you have come true.

The system itself is interesting because the magical powers the girls have reflect from the wishes they make. (Such as Sayaka, whose wish to heal the man she loved resulted in her increased self regenerating powers).

But it comes with a price, one that violates the girls’ spirits and has the potential to lead them to terrible fate. (But I won’t give any more away because of spoilers.)

Semblance / Aura (RWBY)

In the world of RWBY, the Hunters and Huntresses are able to draw out the manifestations of their soul, called Aura, in order to combat the fierce creatures of GRIMM that seek to do people harm. Aura can be used both defensively (like a force field) and offensively (in the form of enhanced physical capabilities).

The way Aura projects itself from Hunter and Huntress varies. This phenomenon, known as their semblance, takes on forms unique to each individual. These powers can include the ability to move superfast, the ability to channel and absorb electricity, or even the ability to control polarity or magnetism.

The utilization of Aura allows for several fantastic visuals and new and interesting methods of combat that vary from person to person—as each Hunter and Huntress thought up in the RWBY universe has both Semblances that are flawed and useful for each individual.

Alchemy (Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood)

In the fictional nation of Amestris, certain scientific minds have learned to utilize the mystic art of Alchemy to change the physical makeup of objects in their world. So long as they follow the basic principle of equivalent exchange (to obtain, something of equal value must be lost), they can change and manipulate any object to serve their purpose—from creating dolls to summoning functioning cannons for warfare.

The power is unlike that which comes from Magical Girls and Hunters and Huntresses, who draw power internally. The Alchemist acts more of the conduit for change, drawing power from another force to change the make-up of the object.

“Spoilers”

The story also plays around well with the idea of the worth of a soul, as we later discover that the powerful relics known as Philosopher Stones are made of dozens of human souls. These human souls are then exchanged so that the user can perform alchemy out of the laws of equivalent exchange. However, equal value is still being lost, because each time the stone is used, a soul is lost from within the stone.

Death Note

In some cases, the magical property doesn’t require an apparent sacrifice. No slowly killing the soul or requiring materials. All it takes is a notebook and writing someone’s names. And better yet, you don’t even need to sell your soul, you just come to realize you have no fate after death. And guess what, you can now kill anyone you please.

That is the horrifying power of the Death Note.

But the more you use it, the more it destroys your mind. Your capacity for empathy drains away as the ability to kill becomes as simple as copying the teacher’s words in class. Worse yet, in the hands of a genius with a god complex, it could spread an age of terror to those who even have the thought to commit a crime.

If you know any other great animated magic systems in anime, animation, or CGI, list them in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

The Basics of Magic Systems: Part 1


Magic is an enormous part of what makes fantasy so fantastic, and while I believe one can create a fantasy (and a good one) without magic, I more firmly believe that it is nearly always better with magic than without.

This talk on magic will come in two parts. In this one I’ll talk about what magic systems are, how to classify them, and how they are used in fantasy. In part two I’ll give you some steps and tips for crafting your own magic system.

A magic system is a set of supernatural (or magical) effects and the rules specific to said set of effects.

That’s my definition, which isn’t law, but helps us out when we think.

In the world of Harry Potter, the readers, along with Harry, become familiar with Expelliarmus, the Disarming Spell. This particular effect is the disarming of your opponent. The rules are as follows: a person must 1) be a wizard, which in this story means a person with innate magical power he or she was born with, 2) have a wand, and 3) know and recite the incantation. This is an example of J. K. Rowling’s magic system.

Think of any magic system in any fantasy story. You will likely be able to pick out effects and rules. Some systems, however, have noticeably fewer rules (and often much more vague rules) than others. This is where we start categorizing magic systems.

Hard Magic vs Soft Magic

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All magic systems lie along a spectrum. One end of the spectrum is what many (including Brandon Sanderson, to whom I give credit for much of my magic-related knowledge) call “soft” magic. On the other end is “hard” magic. Both are equally valid forms of magic, but they are used in very different ways.

A hard magic system is one that has an internally consistent set of rules and logic that it follows throughout the course of the story, and never breaks. At some point in the story the readers will have learned these rules and understand how the internal logic of the system functions.

The aforementioned Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancy, from Mistborn (a spectacular read) is a great example of a hard magic system. Allomancy gives the user (the Allomancer) supernatural powers like super durability, super strength, super senses, and the ability to telekinetically push and pull metals, among others. In order to use these powers, however, the Allomancer must ingest metals, usually in the form of dust stirred into an alcohol solution and held in a small vial. Different metals grant different powers. Tin, for example, enhances all five of the user’s senses.

The most basic rule of Allomancy is essentially “no metal, no power,” though there are many, many other rules that make the system more complex, and throughout Mistborn Sanderson explains in detail how to use Allomancy and what it feels like.

I like to think of a hard magic system in this way: you want the reader to know how to use this magic, well enough that they feel they could actually be a magic-user if they were in your world. I could totally be an Allomancer, because Sanderson showed me how, and I know his rules. I know how to cast Expelliarmus, and if you’ve read Harry Potter, so do you.

The other side is the soft magic system. Its rules are a mystery to us as the readers, and almost always to the characters as well. These kinds of magic tend to exist to create a sense of wonder, whimsy, or awe in the reader, and give them that fantastical feeling that comes from fairy tales. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are perfect examples of soft magic. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it is so very wonderful I can’t help but be in love.

Nearly ever (if not every) Studio Ghibli film showcases soft magic systems. Spirited Away? Incredibly soft magic. Why does Yubaba have three weird green heads just hopping around in her office? Because magic. That’s it.

Many magic systems fall somewhere between these two extremes. While I used Harry Potter’s magic system as an example for hard magic, in reality it sits much closer to the middle of the spectrum. There are many rules that are given to us and explained, but some things in Harry Potter are simply there because magic is cool. They are never explained, and serve to create in us a sense of wonder. Why can brains strangle people? Because magic, and because it’s really cool.

Most of us are bound to like one type of magic system more than the other, and that’s perfectly acceptable. All of my favorite magic systems, both to read and to write, lean more toward the hard magic end of the spectrum, and yet I am in awe over Studio Ghibli every single time I see their very, very soft magic systems. What it comes down to when you create your own magic system (which I’ll talk about in part 2) is what’s best for the story you’re trying to tell.

Magic in relation to the world

Magic never exists in a bubble. If someone is using this magic, you can bet your golden dragon egg it will affect something. Even if your protagonist is the only person in the entire universe who can use this magic, it will affect the protagonist, the people around the protagonist, perhaps even the actual, physical landscape around the protagonist—to sum it up, every single thing your magic system or its users come into contact with will be affected by it.

If everyone in your advanced magical future society is telepathic, no one is going to be carrying around a cell phone. They don’t need to, they can hold long distance conversations with their brains. Now, if the laws of your system state that telepathy has a range of 15 feet, then you have a different story. If telepathy had that limited of a range, would anyone ever really talk? With their vocal chords, face to face?

Carrying on with the same examples as before, the wizarding world of Harry Potter has a ton of crazy magic that is used for the convenience of the users. Magic can wash their clothes and dishes, act as a transporter, and can even function for long distance communication. The result? Wizards have no washing machines or dish washers, they have no telephones, they don’t buy plane tickets to get to their cousin’s wedding on time. They just cast a spell, or send an owl, or use Floo powder.

Magic affects everything. People, places, technologies, cultures. Keep that in mind.

Magic as a plot device

Magic can be a really good plot device, but only if you know how to use it well.

Be careful when you decide use magic for the sake of the plot.

If your characters can use magic to get out of every single predicament and overcome every single obstacle, we (your readers) are going to get bored. It’s much more fascinating that Frodo can’t put on the Ring without being seen by the enemy than if he could simply use it whenever he wanted and just “invisibled” himself out of every conflict.

Brandon Sanderson, with whom I agree in almost every respect regarding magic systems, presented it very nicely in his lectures on magic systems (which you should watch as soon as you finish reading. Just follow this link).

Magic should create more problems than it solves. This is especially true when dealing with soft magic systems. Since there are few to no visible rules for the magic, it seems cheap for that magic to solve the protagonist’s problems. It’s like a deus ex machina. We don’t like that. We like it when that magic turns the protagonist’s parents into pigs and sweeps her off into a bizarre and unknown world.

A hard magic system is much easier to make work as a problem solver rather than a problem maker. Still, it can’t be used to solve all the problems, and it’s much better when it continuously creates at least as many problems as it solves.

To bring back another example, we can look at Allomancy. Pewter is the Allomantic metal that enhances the users physical abilities and strength. They can work and fight for longer, carry more, run faster, tolerate more pain, hit harder, and are just generally much more physically powerful. By itself this can get boring pretty fast. But in order to activate Allomantic powers, one must first ingest the metal, in this case pewter, and then they must use their innate abilities to do what Sanderson calls burning.

The Allomancer burns the metal inside of her and gains the powers assigned to that specific metal. The burning process, however, consumes the metal, and once she’s run out of pewter all the exhaustion and pain and stress that she was putting her body through without feeling it comes crashing back into her, and it’s awful. Once she runs out of pewter, she’s vulnerable. That raises the stakes, creates conflict, and makes the magic far more interesting than it would have been without any weaknesses. Which brings me to my last topic.

Strengths and Weaknesses

A magic system is just like a character. It has traits and flaws and strengths and weaknesses, and if there are no flaws and weaknesses it’ll make for a boring magic system, just as a flawless character is a boring one.

Now, a magic’s weaknesses might be different than a magic’s flaws. These terms are really just arbitrary things I like to use to help me think about it. Brandon Sanderson does something similar, but whether he does it the same was as I do or not, I can’t remember. Just bear with me as I use these words, and if others use them differently, feel free to do it their way. Disclaimer over.

In my process, a flaw is something within the magic system itself that makes it weaker, balances its strengths, or creates loopholes that, generally, hurt our protagonists (loopholes that help them can and often are a good thing as well, but are part of a different conversation).

A weakness, on the other hand, is a more external sort of thing. For example, Superman’s powers are a magic system. Yes, it’s not technically fantasy, but it is a magic system. That system’s weakness is Kryptonite. It’s flaws are… well, there’s probably a flaw in there somewhere.

The point is, weaknesses are like a hole in the armor that someone can shoot an arrow through in order to bring the system down. One of the armor’s flaws is that it gets rusty when you sweat, and thus impedes movement when you wear it too long.

Within flaws and weaknesses are costs and limitations. These are rather self-explanatory.

A cost is, well a cost. What does it cost me to use this magic? The cost of Allomancy is metal. You must pay in metals, for Allomancy consumes metal.

In Eragon the cost is physical. If you try to do too much with your magic, it could kill you, because the physical toll of the magic is so high.

In the animated television show Adventure Time, magic is part of a trio: magic, madness, and sadness. Once you have all three of these things, you are a wizard. The more of one of these things you get, the more of the other two you have to accumulate. Powerful wizardry is a tragic thing. Some of Adventure Time’s most beloved characters are people who went a little too far into magic and lost far more than they gained.

Limitations are simply what a magic cannot do. Certain Allomantic metals allow the user to move metals with telekinesis. This power, however, is split into two metals, and each is very limited. Steel allows the user to push metals directly away from their center of gravity. Iron allows the user to pull metals directly toward their center of gravity. Use of “steel-pushing” and “iron-pulling,” then, becomes much more of a task than simply moving metal with you mind, and takes more creativity and cleverness to use well.

Limitations in magic allow your character to shine as a person, for when their magic fails, their character stands.

Once the pewter runs out we see what she’s really made of. Without her supernatural strength we can see her internal strength shine.

These are all guidelines. They’re just things to help you think about magic. None of it is law, and not every single magic system needs to have carefully set out laws, weaknesses, flaws, costs, and limitations. These are pieces of a puzzle that has no one right answer. You get to take these pieces and make whatever picture you want.

In the next post I’ll give you some tips and pointers from my own experience in making magic systems.

For now: read a lot, write even more, think hard, sleep well.
Good luck,
Have fun,
Don’t die.

I’ll see you next time!

An Unofficial NaNoWriMo Pep Talk: Two Bad Reasons to Not Participate

It happens tonight.

The great shadow of NaNoWriMo looms ever nearer, and at the strike of midnight tonight it will become November 1. Thus begins the trek to 50,000 words.

A quick explanation for those who don’t know: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. That comes down to 1,666.7 words every day for 30 days. People all over the world do it, and people often get together in person or on the official website to write together and encourage each other.

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I’ve done a lot of convincing the past month. It happens every year. Someone, often myself, would have several excuses to explain why we should not do NaNoWriMo, and I must convince that person, often myself, to participate anyway. I’ve managed to convince myself (and a few other people) to participate in NaNoWriMo for the sixth year in a row.

There are a couple reasons I’ve heard from multiple people multiple times, and these are the ones I’ve had to take down, year after year:

“I don’t have time.”

Not with that attitude, you don’t.

Seriously. If you don’t make time for the things you want to do, you will never have time to do them. In order to accomplish something, you must set aside a certain amount of time for that something, thereby sacrificing everything else you could have done with that time.

In other words, you have a limited amount of time, and more things to do than you could possibly find time for. Something has got to give. Maybe it’s cutting that nightly TV viewing out and replacing it with a 40 minute writing session. Maybe it’s something else. But you have to chose what to do with your time. There’s no way around it. There’s no shortcut. You either make time, or you don’t, and only you can decide to make it.

This is the big one:

“I’m not good enough.”

My word, I’ve heard this so often.

“I’m not a good writer.”

“I can’t develop good characters.”

“I don’t have good ideas.”

“I’m just not good enough.”

For what?

What do you need to be good enough for?

That’s not a rhetorical question. What do you want? What is it that you’re striving for, for which you believe you’re not good enough? Are you not good enough to be published? Not good enough to make an impact? What are you not good enough for?

If you can’t answer that question, you probably don’t need to be asking it. If there’s nothing you need to be “good enough” for, then you don’t need to be “good enough.” Stop telling yourself you do.
If you can answer, you need to sit back and ask yourself one more question: How can you reach “good enough?”

You won’t. You will never reach “good enough,” because there is always more to learn, always more to do, and never a point where you’ve learned everything there is to know. The closest you can ever get to “good enough,” is “better.” Stop trying to be good enough. You don’t need to be. Just do everything you can to become better than you were before.
Take care of yourself. Learn. Practice.

That last one? That’s what NaNoWriMo is. It’s practice. You cannot, no matter what, be “not good enough” for practice.
NaNoWriMo is a bunch of people who love stories, together taking on the task of practicing every day for a month. We don’t care whether or not you’re “good enough,” because most of us don’t feel “good enough” ourselves.

Let me tell you something. This year will be my sixth attempt at writing a novel during NaNoWriMo. For the past five years I have fallen short by about 25,000 words. That’s half of the target word count. And yet, I still participate.

Because NaNoWriMo isn’t about winning, at least not for me. It’s about persevering, even though it’s hard. It’s about doing the thing I love most with thousands of other people who love it as much as I do.

It’s about getting on the road and trekking, slowly but surely, toward my future of being a better writer.

Lack of time and energy, lots of work, school, fear, grief, insecurities; they can all be real and valid obstacles, but none of them are big enough to stop you from doing what you love.

The road of betterment is paved with practice. NaNoWriMo is where I step on that road.

And it’s not a lonely road I tread. Walk with me. You won’t regret it.

All the Ideas in the World: Beating World-Builder’s Block

One of the most common questions writers are asked is this:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

And it’s a good question. Everything, from your Facebook status to the New York Times #1 best-seller, starts with an idea.

We in specific fields will find versions of this question such as, for me, “Where do you get ideas for your worlds?” The most prevalent strain of writer’s block is a block of ideas, where you just can’t seem to find any ideas at all.

Apart from being one of the most frequent questions, it is also one of the most difficult to answer, because the real answer is that ideas come from everywhere and anywhere, all the time, and that answer, while true, is far from satisfying.

In my travels across the Internet I’ve discovered a lot of posts and articles about beating writer’s block and getting ideas, but most of them tend to be incredibly vague, and therefore not all that helpful.

You might be surprised (I certainly was) at the number of articles that told me that if I simply took a walk for about five minutes and did some yoga, I would suddenly have all the ideas in the world. Unfortunately, when you have an awful case of writer’s block yoga is a little too tame a prescription, at least for me.

And so, I’m going to try and help, with specifics and hopefully some new insights, to answer the question, “Where can you get ideas for your world-building?”

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1. Discover your process

Part of the difficulty of the “idea problem” is that the answer is different for every person, because every person has a unique brain and creative process. And so, I begrudgingly inform you, you have some work to do. You need to discover your own process.

A good place to start is to look at your interactions with what I consider the core trio of the  novel, especially the fantasy novel: character, plot, and world. Most of us will find ourselves gravitating toward one of these more than the others. This is where you start. What is the chronological hierarchy of these three things for you? That is, in what order do you naturally think about and create them?

I personally am a world-builder. I first create my world, then my characters, and finally my plot. Do you first form your characters, then use them to flesh out the world? Does everything stem from an exciting plot concept? Or do you start with a cool creature and build an entire universe, cast, and story around that one entity?

If you start with characters, then your world can come from them. What are they like? Ask yourself what kinds of historical events, natural environments, and social cultures would cause this kind of development in personality.

Are they overly attached to sentimental objects? Perhaps their culture believes that the souls of the dead linger on inside their favorite belongings. What foods do they like? Make those foods a part of your culture, either a delicacy, or a common food for a certain social class, or perhaps this food is culturally taboo and creates a rift in their relationship with their family.

If your strength is in your characters, use your characters to develop your world.

The same goes for plot. If you have a cool plot idea, figure out what world the world needs to be like in order to support that plot? Suppose you want to write a story about a young man who, the day after his father’s death, wakes up with his father’s memories.

There would likely have to be some sort of magic in this world. It could also be memory related. Perhaps memory transfer magic is common among the higher class, but non-existent in the middle and lower classes.

Our middle-class protagonist, then, has some things to answer for. Or rather, his father does.

All three are connected. World comes from plot and from character, but the world creates and influences those things as well. You can start from your strong point, whatever that is, and go from there.

2. Be inspired by tropes

This might be a little more controversial than my first statement, but hear me out. Tropes are tropes for a reason. They’re used over and over again because, whether they’re overused or not, they’re doing something right. So look to them for inspiration.

Fantasy is chock-full of kings and queens and lost princesses and banished princes. You could try for something entirely new and have an Athenian-style democracy, or you could do something similar to the trope but reworked, like a constitutional monarchy instead of an absolute one. Maybe all you need to do is let the queen be the absolute monarch while her husband has the title of prince.

Dragon slayers and dragon riders are all so common. What if dragons were a common pet? So common, in fact, that the royalty deem themselves too good for dragons? Maybe the princess likes the guy she’s in an arranged marriage with.

You don’t have to avoid or subvert every trope ever. You can even use some tropes the way they are. Just try to use them in ways that are new, and most importantly, true to the story you’re dying to tell.

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3. Read

This goes for all ideas, not just world-building ones. If you find yourself suffering from an especially potent case of writer’s block, stop writing for a day or two, stop racking your brain and beating your imagination with a bat, and just read something. It can be anything, from a novel to a blog post or magazine article. It can be something new or something you’ve read a hundred times before.

You might even go back and read some of your old writing. It can be truly inspiring, either from your past brilliance or just from seeing how far you’ve come. If you’re entirely new to writing and/or world-building, all the more reason to read! For fantasy and world-building fans, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books are spectacular. Read in your genre and out of it, but don’t stop reading.

Admit to yourself that it’s okay to take a break from writing. Relax. Have fun. Most importantly, let your mind wander. It might find what your looking for.