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So this is for my magic system since it's based on the real-world system. In my novel in the works named Successors magic works by bending the rules of science but not breaking them. Examples include Fire spells that draw heat away from your body so using it too much can freeze you and creating stuff out of thin air will cause wormholes to open or big explosions. This is to say, I'm taking a deconstructive look at a magic system.

With this in mind, how does white and black magic fit in? In real life, good and evil are very nebulous and dependant on viewpoints and there are objective good and bad actions that can be easily muddled. This requires ironing out especially considering how many magic spells I borrow from mythology and other sources.

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    $\begingroup$ I like philosophy, good vs evil, white vs black, order vs chaos, cooking vs arson, but what if Hannibal cooks people and fire destroys acres of diseased banana plantation? Is fire white or black magic? $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 21 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ Note: You may want to specify what you mean by 'white' and 'black' magic - in some settings black magic specifically refers to offensive/elemental magic while white magic refers to healing/support magic. $\endgroup$
    – Andrew Fan
    Jan 22 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ Just an example that might inspire: In Terry Goodkind's The Seeker series, "white" magic is additive (can create something from nothing) while "black" magic is subtractive (can make something cease to exist). It is introduced when the wizard Zed uses magic to grow his beard, but then must shave with an ordinary razor because he cannot use subtractive magic $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ Hi. I think it would be good form to explicitly link to the related question you posted on writing. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Jan 22 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ "Realistic" and "magic" are on the opposite end of the spectrum. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Jan 23 at 14:17

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While heat, wind and other physical phenomena are grounded in physics, and you can therefore use some physics to ground their magic in reality, the concept of black and white magic have to more to deal with ethics and human interpretation of certain actions, being therefore highly dependent on context, culture and trends.

You can go a la Dorian Gray, linking physical aspect of the magician with good/bad magic actions, which would have the potentially interesting twist that variable tastes would affect the magic.

Think for example how some years ago skinny models like Kate Moss were seen as beautiful, whereas today more curvy women are considered beautiful in the world of mode/glamour: this might result in the magic of those women turning from white to gray/black or vice-versa, only because the tastes have changed.

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  • $\begingroup$ You might want to consider reading the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett (Link is to publisher's website); there are a couple of places where the nature (in that universe) of black and white magic is discussed. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 16:06
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First, let me note that your example breaks the laws of physics, it does not just bend them. But that's why it is called magic.

  • All effects will need some sort of energy. (Effects without energy are bad science ...) There could be three options for the source of that energy, either the spellcaster (fatiguing the caster to cast a fireball), or another lifeform (fatiguing a sacrifical virgin to cast a firebal), or some inanimate process (draining the battery of a flashlight to cast a fireball).
    Say that the third option is not viable for many spells. Either it simply does not work, or it does not work as well. That leaves someone, rather than something, as the source. White magic is draining the spellcaster or a cooperative supporter, black magic is draining the victim or an uncooperative 'supporter.'
  • Or where it comes to magic cast on lifeforms, black magic is cast on uncooperative targets while white magic is cast on cooperative targets. (That means a healing spell cast without consent is black and a death spell cast with consent is white. YMMV.)
  • There are different schools of magic, each teaching both magic and an ideology. (Claiming to have no ideology, to be purely utilitarian, is an ideology in itself.) The magic is the same, the other things being taught differ. Does one 'graduate' to grand master by selfless devotion, or by backstabbing the incumbent?
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  • $\begingroup$ While I agree that producing fire from the heat in a living body breaks the second law of thermodynamics, I wouldn't say that "all effects" need energy. For sure, a fireball or anything designed to deal physical destruction will need an energy source. But even staying within the realm of violence, poisoning works by interfering with life processes. No energy per se is needed, except in the mundane sense that all physical processes involve energy. $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinSaunders - where does the poison come from? If you want to conjure it from nothing, that actually requires a pretty big amount of energy (e=mc^2) even for just a few grams. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Jan 24 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Davor As I acknowledged, all physical processes involve energy in some sense, but I don't think this is the sense o.m. meant when they said "all effects need some sort of energy". Fireballs and the like deal physical damage directly through their energy - there is no way for a fireball to produce a large effect without putting in a large amount of energy into it. By contrast, the mechanisms of poisons (and hence their effects) do not depend on the amount of energy needed to produce them, which is relatively tiny and in some cases may be net negative. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Put another way, if we want to produce poison without magic, we don't have to put in the energy needed to conjure a poisonous substance from nothing - we can produce it from mundane ingredients in our environment. But if we want to produce a fireball, we do need to get its energy from somewhere, whether it's present in ingredients (as in gunpowder) or fed in by us during chemical synthesis. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinSaunders I think that mundane sense is what o.m. is referring to, and what's breaking physical laws. How do you combine mundane ingredients to produce poison without energy? If no energy was required, it'd happen without magic, naturally on its own. At the very least, you'd need to put the ingredients together, and that's kinetic energy. $\endgroup$
    – DystD
    Jan 28 at 20:34
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White/Black ≠ Good/Evil

White magic is magic that gives and black magic is magic that takes.

White might be mostly found doing good and black doing bad but they can be used either way.

Summoning a demon is seen as bad but summoning a demon to cure someone you love of cancer isn't.

White magic is growth and life while black is pain and death. White magic can give you cancer and black can kill cancer. White can grow crops and black can kill pests. White can help you have a baby and black can let you speak to a deceased loved one.

Neither is inherently good or bad, it just comes down to how it's used.

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  • $\begingroup$ One of my favorite examples of white/black ≠ good/evil is the movie Ladyhawke, where the hero wears a black uniform and the villain wears white. I'm also fond of a classic Tom Baker Dr. Who where the black guardian explains, "his good is my evil." But above all, +1 for pointing out that magic is a tool - a hammer being neither good nor evil, but the intent of its use may be. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 24 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH It's more like comparing a hammer and a gun. A hammer is mostly used for building and a gun for killing but a hammer can also kill and a gun can save a life. Really both are just tools and it depends on the user. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 24 at 22:06
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Easiest differentiation:

White = Magic from yourself, with the consent of other or for the defense of Natural Rights:

For example - you want to start a fire to make some food, you use some of your body heat to start the fire. Or you are in a village with some peasants and someone comes to try and carry off the villagers daughters, you can use some insert Magic for defensive purposes, to protect the innocent.

Black = Magic from others, without their consent.

Same scenarios - instead of using your body heat, you use some poor homeless guys body heat to start your fire - he wasn't using it anyway. In a Village? Well, those daughters are looking rather comely so a quick threat of raising the entire crops in exchange for a 'servant' and off you go.

You could add in some concept of a Soul or other abstract 'thing' that gets corrupted by Black Magic usage (the more you do it, the more unhinged/psychotic/bad you end up)

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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking this to. This could be the reason its attractive: A lot more potential energy, just as long as you dont mind offing a few others. "Some of you will die, buts thats a sacrifice I'm willing to make" $\endgroup$
    – Martijn
    Jan 22 at 9:12
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Intent

The "what" of your magic system is the same, regardless of whether a particular spell is white or black magic. Something (such as heat, mass, or existence) is taken from one thing and applied to another, creating an effect. The difference is in the intent behind the spell.

White magic comes from a selfless point of view. Its purpose is to help others, produce peace and order, and so on. On the other hand, the motivation behind black magic is selfishness: the caster wishes to help himself, with no regard to the common good.

Note that under this definition, neither is necessarily good nor evil, respectively (although they certainly tend to be). While black magicians may think that "there is only power, and those too weak to seek it", it usually suits their ends to help others (if only to avoid pitchfork-wielding mobs). White magicians may, in their desire to ensure the continuing security and stability of society, commit horrible atrocities.

Alternatively, if you want to wax philosophical, you could invoke:

Natural Law

While moral utilitarianism and relativism have been very popular in recent decades, a common alternative (and, in the past, the dominant view) is moral absolutism. This is the idea that some things are fundamentally good or bad. For example, cold-blooded murder is evil. The reason different people and societies disagree on specific issues is that we can't step outside the box which is our universe; like with science, our limited viewpoint limits our knowledge.

In your world, there is a natural law to magic. Magic which feeds off of innocents is naturally evil, while magic to help them is almost always good, and so on.

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Foundational or subjective characterisation of magic

You have a decision to make.

If you read many fantasy books which use the words "white magic" and "dark magic", and pay attention to how these expressions are used, you'll notice that:

  • in some books there is a foundational difference between these two kinds of magic, just like in our world there is a foundational difference between blacksmithing and woodworking; and a very skilled wizard might be able to use both white techniques and dark techniques, just like in our world an artisan is able to hammer an iron nail into a wooden plank;
  • in other books there is no foundational difference, and "dark magic" is merely a subjective qualifier given by characters to describe "distasteful" uses of magic: for instance, a wizard who uses magic to murder or enslave other wizards and strengthen his own power will be called a "dark wizard", regardless of the magical techniques he used to achieve his goals.

In the latter option, "dark" really is extremely subjective. If you use magic to murder someone, you'll be called a dark wizard; but if you use magic to murder someone who's already been labeled a dark wizard, then you probably will be called a hero.

Books that make a foundational distinction between white magic and dark magic sometimes do not stop there, and describe more kinds of magic:

  • white magic (maybe related to healing, altruism or empathy, or communicating with light creatures like unicorns and angels);
  • dark magic (maybe including murder-based rituals, necromancy, and communicating with dark creatures like spiders and demons);
  • blood magic (related to bloodlines or involving blood sacrifices, possibly can devise strong targeted curse if you have access to a drop of the victim's blood);
  • red magic (related to lust and sex);
  • mind or soul magic (related to telepathy);
  • elemental magic (related to manipulation of water, fire, lightning, earth, etc.);

Then there is the question of whether the white/dark qualifier applies to the magic technique, or to the magic practitioner. In some books, a skilled sorcerer might be able to use both white magic and dark magic and other kinds of magics; but in some books, a sorcerer who is driven by hate or who relies on too many dark techniques ends up becoming a "dark sorcerer", with some corruption to their soul, able only to use dark techniques and no longer able to use white magic.

Qualifying the source of energy powering the magic

magic works by bending the rules of science but not breaking them

One of the most important laws of physics is conservation of energy.

If sorcerers in your novel can use magic to accomplish great feats, it begs the question of where does the energy for these feats come from? Perhaps what distinguishes between the different kinds of magic is the source of energy. You can use your own energy (which will make you feel hungry/tired/cold and perhaps age prematurely), or you can steal a victim's energy, you can use energy from ley lines, you can use energy from the cosmos, or from the sun, or from the moon, or borrow energy from dark creatures, etc.

Adjectives like "white" and "dark" characterise the source of energy powering the magic spells.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to answer about source of energy as the distinction. Good one. $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 13:21
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If you want to make your magic realistic, then the difference between black and white versions is permission, just like in real-world magic. White magic is whenever the target has granted permission for a working to be performed on them; black magic is when they didn't - either because they refused it, but in some definitions also when nobody asked them. This also applies to performing magic on inanimate objects: if you want it to be white magic, you'll first need to find a person which is responsible for the object, and ask them if they're cool with what you are planning to do (and only proceed if they agree). Mind you, that person may not be of this world. On the plus side, all magic that you perform on yourself is generally assumed to be white by default.

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You've got science backwards

In the real world, as you say, 'good' and 'bad' are subjective or at least confusing, and there are different opinions about the goodness or badness of different actions.

But in your world they don't have to be! You have your 'white' and 'black' magic, and people can study what each one does and its effects, giving you a way to scientifically explore those distinctions in a way beyond philosophy. It's just a brute fact of your universe that white magic does things like heal people and black magic does things like give them headaches.

(Of course, people are complicated and the presence of something observable doesn't mean they'll all agree that, say, all black magic is bad!)

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Maybe if a patient has an infection, then black magic is needed to heal them because it requires killing the virus, which cannot be done with white magic. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Jan 22 at 13:57
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Chaos vs order: See the magic system in the Saga of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt.

White mages are chaos mages. Black mages are order mages. White mages can throw fireballs, start a campfire, break rock, wilt plants, create disease, seep away life, by increasing the local amount of chaos. Black mages can stengthen objects, heal people, create barriers and make stuff invisible (by manipulating the light), by increasing the local amount of order. Sometimes there are aspects that either mage can approach, only in different ways. For example, healing is primarily a black mage thing (stengthening the order in the body), but there are some white mage healers too (presumably destroying disease/tumours/dealing with auto-immune responses? I can't remember). Rarely, there are mages that can do both black and white.

There is also a moral dimension to the magic. Due to them leaning towards order, black mages in the books I've read appeared compelled / constrained by a strong moral compass. Sometimes, that's admirable and sometimes that risks leaning into damaging traditional values. In contrast, white mages are presented more like an anarchic herd of cats, ranging from the reasonable to the mercenary to the delightfully evil. (I'm still crossing my fingers for a cool white mage protagonist in the books I haven't yet read.). Morality may also influence the overall power level of white/black mages in complex ways, by affecting the amount of chaos and order in the world (in complex ways because they're meant to be complementary...) But order isn't in itself good, and chaos isn't in itself evil. Too much of either is bad.

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    $\begingroup$ While the earlier books do tend to lean into chaos = evil, order = good, even in the first book it shows that the Order mages have encouraged Chaos in the world to build up their own power, as the total amount of Order and Chaos in the world is balanced. I don't recall if it ever goes as far as including an explicitly evil order mage, but the later books do include protagonist Chaos mages. $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 15:48
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Black = White

The difference is a moral judgement. Magic, just like science, is neutral. You choose how to use it. It just exists.

(In certain places and times, medicine that actually saved lives was regarded as evil because it was "thwarting God's will". Sometimes it was held that because an overdose caused death, the medicine was proved to be evil.)

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One Magic system that comes to mind is that of the HBO series Carnivale.

The mythos is a little complicated, but it centers around the struggle of "good" vs "evil" avatars who will eventually cause the apocalypse through an epic battle. Lots of inspiration from monotheism.

Anyway, the main protagonist, Ben is a "good" avatar who has what might be called "white magic". He can heal people by touching them, but the "life energy" has to come from somewhere. To safely heal a crippled girl, he takes her out into a field where he drains all the life from the grass, turning it black. To mend a broken arm, he goes with his friend into a pond and channels the life of all the fish, which then float to the top.

This same power can have extremely good and bad effects, based on how responsibly Ben uses it. Responsible usage could be called white magic, reckless or selfish usage could be called black.

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