Lately, I’ve been thinking about how narrative structure, how what kinds of scenes and narrative beats are used to create meaning for the audience, affects and constrains what kind of magic and superpowers a story can have. Obviously, different kinds of stories need different kinds of magic systems. The distinction I want to consider for the moment is between rule-based systems that bring the focus of the story onto the world and society as a whole, and “one person, one power” systems where each individual has their own idiosyncratic power set, which focus on the interactions between characters.
By rule-based systems, I mean magic systems where the rules hold for all users of a magic. What magician A does is basically the same thing as what magician B does, either can explain anything the other does, and you can even take the magic system and give it an encyclopedia entry of it’s own. Think of the ‘Ars Arcanum’ bits and the end of Brandon Sanderson’s books. Because there are many users of the same magic, experimenting with it and finding their own applications for it, these systems pull the narrative focus outward, with the characters being the camera by which the world is revealed to the audience. The question these systems bring up is “how does magic fit into this world, and how is society built around the fact of its existence?”
“One person, one power” systems work like a superhero comic. Each user has their own magic, the magic is never mentioned apart from the user, and if you see the power in an encyclopedia, it’s in the entry of the user. These systems pull the narrative inward, away from the world and towards the characters themselves, and their interactions with each other. These questions don’t make the viewer ask how society deals with magic, but rather, it make them ask, “What do the characters do with their powers?”
The story the author is telling determines how the magic system acts. If the author starts out with a “one person, one power” system but keeps going into the history and cultures of the world, their going to find themselves explaining how the powers interact with each other and how the underlying rules link together. Conversely, a story that starts out by laying out the rules of magic and then goes on to focus on characters interactions, including violent interactions, is going to have an extraordinary number of exceptions to those rules. There are times when these are exactly what the author is going for. Sometimes you want to write a story about how seemingly unrelated phenomena are deeply linked to each other. Sometimes you want to tell a story about the limits of human knowledge and shattering all preconceived limits. But if you know that your medium or publishing house is going to push you to on style or the other, you should be aware of that.