Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.
Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.
There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.
Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.
Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.
This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.
For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.
What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.
Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.
Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?
In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.
In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.
Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.
Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.
This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?
It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?
Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?
Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.
It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.
What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.
Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.