What’s up, storytellers? I’m C. R. Rowenson, the magic engineer, and it’s time to talk about magic.
In this article, we’re going to be digging into the magic of the Mistborn trilogy and looking at how you can build a similar magic system of your own.
We’re going to be using the Magic-System Blueprint to analyze the core attributes of primarily Allomancy so that you can see how it fits into the setting, into the world, and how you can imitate that in your own story. Most of this article is going to focus on Allomancy, but I am planning on taking a really quick look at both Hemalurgy and Feruchemy at the very end.
This article will not cover the underlying patterns or the iconic power matrix of the metallic arts found in the Mistborn trilogy. If you want to know more about that structure and how to use or imitate it, then be sure to check out my other article called How to Structure Your Magic System Like Allomancy.
Now let’s get started.
While the seed crystal is an important piece of the magic-system blueprint, whenever I’m analyzing somebody else’s magic system, I try not to presume what inspired them and where their ideas came from. Any time you’re analyzing or building a magic system, it’s important to stop and determine what angle you’re examining the magic system from. So we’re going to leave that blank and focus instead on the perspective.
In our case, we really only have one option, because I’m not Sanderson. I’m not best buddies with Sanderson, and as much as I would like to have some insider secrets for you, I don’t. That leaves us with our experience as the audience, so that’s the perspective we’re going to take here.
Not only can we use it to draw on our experience while reading the books, but this perspective will help us imitate the experience and build a system that is interesting to our readers.
Type of Magic: Hard-Rational
First up are the types of magic, and it should be no surprise that all the magic in Mistborn is a hard-rational magic system. Hard-rational magic systems are a huge part of Sanderson’s draw, and honestly, his voice.
At the very beginning of the book, he writes the metallic arts as mysterious and unknowable force, but that changes quickly as we go through the book. In fact, in a single chapter, we go from knowing very little about Allomancy to knowing approximately 80% of the entire magic system. Which is why this is such a great example of a hard magic system.
Once we know what the magic can do, there are plenty of nuances and applications that aren’t immediately obvious. But we can figure them out. Once we know a piece of information, extrapolate the principles to predict creative applications of the power.
In fact, if you read through those chapters where Vin first learns about magic and stopped reading, you can actually foresee all the applications and clever uses Sanderson weaves into the rest of the series. Once you know a piece, you can rationally apply it everywhere else, which is why it’s a rational magic system.
If you want to know more details about what makes a hard, rational magic system or you want to learn about the other types of magic systems, I highly recommend that you go check out my article on Four Universal Types of Magic Systems.
The transference of Allomancy and the other metallic arts sits near the bottom of the spectrum, which is pretty standard for a traditional magic system.
Except for Hemalurgy, which is its own thing, you’re born with the power, or you’re not. Even you have allomantic powers, it’s not guaranteed they will ever awaken. Most Allomancers have to go through some pretty grueling stuff for the powers manifest.
And once you have the power, there’s no moving it about or transferring it from one person to another. At least, not in the original trilogy. OK. There is one exception. But that’s with Ellend. He was dying, and as far as we know, that was the last time that could happen in those circumstances, so I’m still going to say that this is low transference.
While we see a lot of allomancers (both mistings and mistborn), we know that the number we see is not representative of the entire population of the world. Allomancers are pretty rare in the setting. In fact, their very rarity is a major factor in how the noble houses behave and even influences the underlying structure of their society.
Additionally, the concentration that we see in Luthadel, the capital where most of the story takes place, is much, much higher than anywhere else in the world. Combine it all together, and you’re looking medium, medium-low in the spectrum.
If you’re reading this, you have no idea what the heck I’m talking about; I have another article you can check out. If you want to know more about the Magic-System Blueprint and the individual variables, you can check it out right here.
Source: External & Renewable
I have the magical source for Allomancy pegged as an external and renewable source. Let’s start by looking at the renewable portion, because that is by far the most obvious of the two.
To use their powers, allomancers must consume metals and then burn them to produce the magical effects. That means they have a finite reserve of power to draw on. Once the metals finish burning, they’re done. They can’t produce any more magical effect until they find and consume more metal. It’s a finite source that, once depleted, can be refilled. If it was a truly finite source, then once gone, it would be gone forever.
That clearly makes it a renewable source.
Of course, this may or may not be true when considering the world overall. There may be a finite amount of metal in the setting, and once that’s all been consumed by allomancers, there’s no more magic, but we don’t know. There might actually be some magical means of recreating and refilling the metal reserves of the world. It’s certainly true for some metals, but it might not be for all the metals.
As for the internal/external portion… That is definitely up for debate. I think it’s external, and let me tell you why.
The power is in the metal, not the Allomancer.
You need the ability to burn metals, but without the metal, there is no magic. Therefore, there is an external thing that these magic-users need to go, collect, harness and use in order to produce their magical effects. Therefore, as far as the magic-users are concerned, the source is external to their body. That means it can be removed, hidden, and taken away.
There’re still some arguments to be made for internal, but I find it more useful to think of this in terms of an external and renewable magic source.
At first blush, it might seem negative. They’re consuming the metals and they’re being destroyed, right? And if the metal is the source of the magic, then that is a decrease in the total magic in the world. Therefore, the flux has to be negative, right?
Well… Kind of.
The thing is, we’re not just concerned with the metals. We’re concerned with the entire magic system, which includes the genetic portion of the system. And as we go through the series, we learned that the power of Allomancy comes from an even greater power source which can’t be created or destroyed. It can just be adapted and changed, which is why overall, the magic of Allomancy is more of a neutral flux than anything else.
Again, all of this goes out the window if you’re Ellend or if you’re using Hemalurgy, but we’ve got to draw a line somewhere, right?
Next up is naturalness, which sits right around the middle of the spectrum. It has some stuff pushing it one way, and it has some stuff pushing it the other way.
The things pushing it down on the spectrum to lower naturalness, or the fact that it’s only used by humans. We don’t see Allomancy really anywhere else in the world. There aren’t any monsters using it. There aren’t any natural phenomena duplicating those effects. The mist is a bit of an exception, but that is a big spoiler and ties into the origin of Allomancy, so I’m going to stand by my statement.
What pushes the system further up the scale? For one, it’s tied closely to the natural laws and phenomenon of the world. When you have the push and pull metals, those connect heavily with physics. When you have the things that amplify physical attributes, they’re taken to an extreme, but they are just extensions of what we naturally have.
That connection to the world and reality around it, combined with how it’s only existing in some specific places, brings it right about to the middle.
Ease of Use: Medium-Low
Now, ease of use. For Allomancy, the ease of use is actually medium low. And before you get upset, I’ve got two words for you —
Or is “skill cap” one word? Is it hyphenated? Whatever. You get my point.
Assuming they have the ability and they have metals in their system, Allomancers can use the magic instinctively without even knowing it. In fact, that’s a big plot point in the beginning of the first book, when Vin doesn’t realize she’s using her powers. In fact, it almost gets her killed.
What brings this down in the spectrum is just how important skill is. A skilled Allomancer will always beat an instinctive Allomancer. That’s a huge part of the story. That’s why Kelsier manages to go toe-to-toe with the Steel Inquisitors, who are arguably much, much more powerful than he is. It’s his skill with pushing and pulling of metals allows him to hold his own against an opponent that should be able to squash him.
And that is why, overall, the ease of use is actually medium-low.
Reliability & Consistency: High
Reliability tops out on the spectrum because when somebody burns metals, it will produce an effect. That is never in question. The magic doesn’t flag or fail. In fact, the only time it doesn’t work is if it is being actively countered or interfered with by other types of magic. If you burn pewter, you’re going to get the pewter effect. Burn steel and you’re going to get the steel effect.
As for consistency, it doesn’t get much higher than this.
It doesn’t matter who you are. The magic performs the same. The strength may vary a bit from person to person, but the actual mechanics of the magic and how all the other variables never vary. It doesn’t matter who you are, the magic is always the same. Always.
That’s the Magic-System Blueprint for Allomancy specifically.
So how do you use this?
When you were building your system, keep these settings in mind. You don’t need to do a duplicate of Alamance, but making sure that you’re keeping your consistency high, your prevalence in the same area, making sure that you’re keeping it in the hard-rational quadrant, keep those settings the same and then change everything else about your system. And you will now have a magic system that can fit into your story, into your world similarly as how Allomancy functions in the Mistborn trilogy.
Again, I can’t stress this enough. This doesn’t mean it’s a duplicate. It can be a wildly unique system. But by mirroring these settings, you can apply it and use it in the same ways as a storyteller. All right.
Now we’re going to take a quick look at Feruchemy and Hemalurgy. I promised, didn’t I?
Feruchemy Prevalence: Low
The first difference for Feruchemy is that prevalence is much lower. It’s about as low as it can get. The Terrisman, the hereditary owners of the Feruchemy birthright, haven’t been hunted to extinction, but it’s pretty close. There are even breeding programs in place to minimize the number of people born with Feruchemical abilities.
Which flows nicely into flux.
Feruchemy Flux: Negative
It depends on how you want to look at it, but it seems pretty negative. Every day the amount of Feruchemy is probably decreasing in the world. There are rebel factions that are actively working to renew and maintain the Feruchemical bloodlines and their Feruchemical abilities, but we don’t know how successful they are. Over the course of the trilogy, we meet two, no, three Feruchemists, two of which die. That’s negative flux if I’ve ever seen it.
Hemalurgy Transference: Medium-High
Hemalurgy has three settings that are a little different. The primary one is transference. That’s the entire point of Hemalurgy is that you can use it to steal power from one magic user and imbue it into another. That’s what it does.
Hemalurgy Flux: Positive
Then there’s flux, which is positive, at least for most of the story. If you really look from the beginning to the end, it’s negative. But for most of the story, it’s positive.
The amount of Hemalurgy that is being used in the world continues ramping up as we go towards the climax of the series. There are more steel inquisitors, more Koloss, and more agents of Ruin being created by forcing Hemalurgy onto specific people.
It’s so gross and I love it so much.
Hemalurgy Naturalness: Medium-Low
Then there’s the naturalness, which shifts lower on the spectrum. This may seem a little odd because it’s based on blood and blood is extremely natural and fits well in the world’s order. But the applications, the visuals, and the details of how it works are bizarre and disturbing. The steel inquisitors survive horrible trauma and do things when they really, really shouldn’t be able to do.
All of that drives it lower on the naturalness spectrum.
Ultimately, this is all subjective. You may disagree with some of these settings, and that’s fine. The important thing is that you know where you think all the variables should sit. That way, when you go to build your mirrored magic system, you know where to put your own settings.
If you want to know more about the magic-system blueprint, I wrote an entire book on what the tool is, how to use it, how to adapt it, and how to change the various facets of your magic system to get exactly what you want. Unsurprisingly, the book title is The Magic-System Blueprint. You can buy it now on Amazon. If you’re looking to build or improve your magic system, give it a look.
Not only does the book go into more detail about the components discussed in this article, there are also several examples that I use throughout the book so you can get a better grasp of what they mean and how to apply them. Allomancy is one of the exemplar systems. I also look at the magic from Lord of the Rings, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and from Stargate, because I love Stargate!
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