Harnessing the Power of Nature: Elemental Magic Systems in Fantasy

Harnessing the Power of Nature: Elemental Magic Systems in Fantasy


Most Fantasy fiction includes magic to some extent. A story can have simple or complex magic systems, and one of the most popular kinds is magic based on natural elements.

In this article, we'll explore the concept of elemental magic, the upsides and drawbacks of using fantasy elements in your story, and an example from popular fiction.

What is Elemental Magic?

Elemental magic involves controlling and manipulating the natural elements, most often the primary four:

  1. Fire
  2. Air
  3. Water
  4. Earth

Elemental magic is often featured in ancient mythology but is also a popular choice in modern Fantasy.

Although most elemental magic systems resemble each other, they can vary in a few ways, such as:

1. The elements involved

For example, in Allomancy from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, characters control different kinds of metals, each with a unique power.

2. The extent to which they can be controlled

In Greek mythology, the gods' control over the elements is virtually limitless. Zeus commands the lightning, Poseidon the earth and seas, and Helios, who is the sun himself, the power of fire (he's capable of burning objects merely by staring at them).

In other fiction, the control is much more limited. For instance, the characters in such a story may only be able to summon one flame or control the flow of one river.

3. Whether elements are a minor aspect of the magic system

In the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore and Voldemort fight each other with elemental spells. Their magic powers allow them to control fire and water respectively.

Voldemort summons a deadly fire snake. Dumbledore follows by turning the fountain's water into a sphere and crashing it into his opponent.

Notably, the magical system in the Harry Potter series involves many more kinds of magic beyond elemental spells (which are rarely featured in movies or books). We can speculate that the choice of fire and water in this scene has a purpose, emphasizing the stark contrast between Voldemort's fire (the element of destruction), versus Dumbledore's water (the element of life).

4. How the characters acquire the ability to control the elements

The power to control the elements may be acquired through training or passed down through bloodline. This aspect of the magic system can create scarcity, giving the powers only to a select group of mages.

The Key to Elemental Magic: Interactions

Elemental magic systems have the power to feel like living, breathing systems. This is made possible thanks to the interaction between the elements, which is by their nature highly realistic. These exist in our world, and you can apply them to your fictional one too!

Let's explore the interactions between the elements:

Interactions between key four elements in nature

The diagram above shows the interaction between the key elements:

  • Water can extinguish fire.
  • Fire can scorch the earth.
  • Earth can obstruct air.
  • Air can evaporate water.

All magic systems can have complex interactions. Yet the simplicity and realism of choosing elemental magic with the four key elements can help you write your story faster and ensure consistency in your magic, by leveraging interactions that exist in our nature. 

I have incorporated the elements in my own fictional stories, and highly recommend doing the same, even if elements are only a small part of your magic system. To showcase how much effort this can save, consider the following:

Creating a brand-new magic system with unique spells requires creating complex hierarchies and interactions between the spells. This is very difficult.

Creating an elemental magic system that does not include the four key elements (perhaps you have a few more or a few less), requires you to create new interactions and adjust the ones we saw above. For example, if you introduce the element of metal to the key four, how does it then interact with water? This is slightly easier, but still quite difficult.

Creating an elemental magic system with only the key four elements allows you to leverage the existing interactions between them with no modifications required. This is much easier.

Notably, you should never base your decisions only on whether something is easy or hard. However, this is one aspect to consider, which is especially important if you are a new writer and want to experiment with easier story formats.

Beyond the Core Elements

While earth, air, fire, and water are the most commonly recognized elements, you may also include non-traditional elements such as:

  • Spirit: Representing life force and consciousness, spirit magic connects all living things and is often seen as the source of magical power itself.
  • Aether: Sometimes referred to as quintessence or the fifth element, aether represents the celestial realm, the stars, and the universe's energy.

Should You Explain Your Elemental Magic?

Sanderson's First Law of Magic states that:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

The rule above applies to all magical systems, including elemental ones. The choice is therefore whether to create a soft or hard magic system.

Nature's powers are virtually limitless — one may summon asteroids and comets, even entire solar systems. Remember to explain your elemental magic system if you decide to use it to resolve a conflict, or else, your story may end in a Deux ex Machina:

Deus ex machina is when a hopeless situation is suddenly solved by an unexpected occurrence.

An excellent example of an elemental magic system that follows Sanderson's laws of magic, and which has captivated audiences for decades, is Bending Arts, the magic system from Avatar: The Last Airbender.


In this article, we explored elemental magic systems: what they are, how to implement them, and what common mistakes to look out for.

When writing your next story, ask yourself:

  • Is elemental magic a good fit for my world?
  • Will it be the foundation of my magic system or only a small part of it?
  • Will I use the key four elements and their interactions, or add elements and interactions of my own? 
Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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