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I'm writing a high fantasy story in which two characters, one a protagonist and the other an antagonist, happen to be capable of shooting lightning bolts. So I was wondering... what would plausibly happen if the two characters shot lightning bolts at each other and the two bolts collided in mid-air? Would the two bolts merge into a single bolt and fly off in some unpredictable direction? Would they simply pass through each other? Or would they blow up in a big electric discharge?

Additional question: Would it be physically plausible for one character to (intentionally) cancel the lightning bolt of the other character by releasing a lightning bolt with opposite charge? (E.g., positively charged lightning bolt being canceled by negatively charged lightning bolt.)

Edit: As to the details of the magic system, it's basically "magical energy converted to effects" with no further explanation. Think Diablo game franchise, where blue mana is converted to fire, electricity and other sorts of physical and non-physical effects.

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  • $\begingroup$ This question should be closed as too story-based. What happens is whatever you want to happen because it's magic. If the bolts are simply "drawn to the target" then they would pass through each other (there's a lot of air between all those electrons). If you use any other solution then you will have complex conflicting effects, like which person is more grounded than the other (both bolts hit him, regardless of crossing or not). Thus, your choice, therefore, too story-based. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 17 '18 at 5:53
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Firstly, I'm pretty certain shooting a lightning bolt is physically impossible, making this completely magical. As such, you could technically have the result be whatever you wish, so long as you stay consistent.

Lightning is the result of a strong negative charge building in the air, attracting the positive charges in the ground to group together. Then, the negative charge bridges the gap (air) and collides with the positive charge (which actually comes up ever so slightly before impact). If you wish to shoot lightning at someone with physics involved, you basically have to have your wand, hand, etc. build a strong charge, and force the target to align the opposite charge. So if there's nothing majorly conductive near you, the lightning will want to go to the strongest opposite charge: your target.

Doing it that way makes it such that you aren't really shooting a lightning bolt, but rather manipulating charges such that a lightning bolt could potentially leap from you to hit them. The target would feel the "tingle" as their charges aligned, and could potentially use a "counterspell" to correct their alignment, if that's something your system could do. In that case, the lightning would sometimes still shoot, if another object could align its own charges in response (often the ground).

In terms of lightning hitting itself, my prediction would be that it simply wouldn't. However, that result does greatly depend on the charges. Objects impact each other based on the electrons of the material repelling each other. Thus, if the two lightning bolts had opposite charges, they'd be attracted to each other. So they impact, but then the charges would continue to arc through both people. So two lightning bolts would actually make it easier for the bolt to work/hit, but it'd hit them both. If the charges were the same, they'd repel. This could yield two different results.

If both people built a negative charge in their hands, and positive charges in their opponents body, the lightning would probably just go from their hands to hit themselves. On the off-chance that it goes for the opponent, the bolts would likely repel each other, but would simply bend around each other to hit the target anyway. It's also possible that, in building their charges, the lightning wouldn't have a strong enough pull to the target to be released in the first place.

If you want, you can use the Rule of Cool and just do what you want, having a Harry Potter type lightning. But if you wanted to counter actual lightning, you could do a couple things. Firstly, correct your charge alignment, as said earlier. Simple counterspell. Secondly, you could make alter you alignment to have the lightning flow through you most easily down a specified path, avoiding organs such as your heart. Think Avatar lightning redirection.

In the end, just keep in mind: electricity wants to take the path of least resistance. Air is pretty resistant, so having it travel through the air requires the source and the target to be so strongly attracted, with no easier path than a direct line to each other, that the air's resistance is overcome. It'd be easier to electrocute people by sending a shock to them through a conductive surface, like metal. If you want lightning to act realistically, you've gotta create a non-resistant path. Otherwise, use hand wavium and say it's magic.

Edit: As to the details of the magic system, it's basically "magical energy converted to effects" with no further explanation. Think Diablo game franchise, where blue mana is converted to fire, electricity and other sorts of physical and non-physical effects.

In the case of this, lightning may not work well. Is the mana/energy mimicking the effect, or becoming the effect? Mimicking is easier, because becoming the actual effect can be more complex. Fire requires fuel, lightning requires a path of least resistance, etc. If it's energy that's just mimicking an effect (fire = burn, lightning = shock), you can have it act in a simpler way, as though it's simple energy, such that opposing forces cancel.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it's possible to guide lightening by creating ionized path between source and targed. Ionized air should be good resistance (approaching metal one) and can be part of spell. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Aug 5 '17 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Maciej Piechotka, very good point. If the magician could align his opponent's charge to attract his own building charge, it seems plausible he could also attempt to align charges in the air to greatly increase the probability of a lightning bolt arcing to the target. Nice catch. $\endgroup$ – Iter Aug 5 '17 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ Although if you can manipulate charge at a distance in order to build up enough charge in the target and ionise a path of air, why on earth would you make your own hand (or something very close to you, like a wand or staff you're holding) the other (oppositely charged) end of the path? Why not just make lightning zap the target from 2 feet above their head? Or for that matter, if you can manipulate enough charge in the target to cause a lightning strike, you can almost certainly do something nasty to them with that charge manipulation directly. $\endgroup$ – Ben Aug 6 '17 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ Basically trying to explain "shooting magical lightning" with the properties of real lightning and electricity is probably hopeless. It will make more sense if you just don't explain it, and describe it doing whatever you want. $\endgroup$ – Ben Aug 6 '17 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben: Maybe you cannot manipulate in target or rather not on such scale. You can gather charge locally (and shield yourself) and create ionized path to zap target as it grounds charge. In magic, it can be hard to explain the difference between the easy and the virtually impossible. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Aug 6 '17 at 3:32
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It really depends on how your magical lightning works.

Real lightning follows "the path of least resistance". If your magic functions by creating such a path from the caster to the object they want to strike, then presumably in the case two people were trying to strike each other, these paths would simply cancel each other out before any lightning can actually be produced.

Now disregarding that, if two lightning bolts were to intersect, they would both simply continue following whatever path offered the least electrical resistance (which incidentally would be the same path for both of them and thus they would "merge").


To answer your other question: again it depends on how your magic works.

Real electrical discharges of opposing charge do indeed repel each other, but not as wildly as would be intended for your situation (they just "alter" their trajectory marginally).

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  • $\begingroup$ "these paths would simply cancel each other out" — why? If both casters lowered resistance of one path, why wouldn't it create even better, lower resistance path? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 5 '17 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot: Because presumably the lightning is obtained in the same way by both magicians, for example by positively charging the source and negatively charging the target. If they are of opposing ideologies it may indeed happen that the effect is amplified... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 5 '17 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP if they are using laser or laser like magic to create path, it'll amplify. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 5 '17 at 18:02
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It's magic. You get to decide. Throwing lightning bolts isn't physically realistic in any sense - they would just ground at the caster's feet - so real lightning is no guide to how your magic behaves.

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  • $\begingroup$ Really? I thought magical lightning bolts might behave more or less like these: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_lightning $\endgroup$ – python dude Aug 5 '17 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @pythondude Well it probably would, if ball lightning was empirically demonstrated to actually exist. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Aug 5 '17 at 16:08
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(E.g., positively charged lightning bolt being canceled by negatively charged lightning bolt.)

There is no such thing as a positive lightning bolt. Lightning is electricity and electricity is carried by electrons. Electrons are negatively charged. If you want a positive charge, you need positrons or protons.

Protons don't move like electrons. Electrons move from orbit to orbit. Pump an electron into an atom from one side and a different electron can pop out the other side. A proton is essentially a hydrogen (protium) nucleus.

Positrons are the anti-particle of electrons. They would move like an electron, but if they intersect a regular electron, both would be destroyed. Since there are an awful lot of regular electrons in air, positrons wouldn't make good lightning bolts.

Unless you are happy with total handwavium, disregard positive lightning bolts in atmosphere.

If you want (semi-) realistic lightning bolts, make them run between the sky and the ground rather than between two points in the air near the ground. This also offers an opportunity to make lightning duels consist of retargeting the bolt as it comes down.

Eventually some bright bulb will notice that sometimes lightning starts at the ground and goes up to the sky. And of course, such a bolt would damage the target sooner than one that comes from the sky. And in a duel there would be less time to evade. Possibly a negligible amount of time.

You might consider if lightning mages are protected from lightning strikes. If you want the lightning to start from the hands, it would naturally come from the ground through the mage's hands. That doesn't make sense if the lightning mage is vulnerable to the lightning. So two lightning mages might not shoot lightning at each other. They might shoot lightning at the ceiling or at flammable material so as to cause collateral damage to the real target.

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    $\begingroup$ Positive lightning is real. It isn't made up of either protons or positrons, though. The difference between positive and negative lightning is the direction the charge is transferred. Positive lightning also tends to be rarer and stronger, but that's not intrinsic to the charge itself, it's just that positive charges tend to generate in the upper layers of clouds so it needs more energy to jump. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Aug 6 '17 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @IndigoFenix Your "positive" lightning is just backwards lightning. Which I covered (see the section on lightning going from ground to air). As an answer to the original question, it would just double the strength of the bolt. Because instead of each shooting lightning towards the other, both would be shooting the negative charge in the same direction. Which just reinforces my point about the lightning mages being immune to the lightning. Because a lightning bolt changes the charge at both ends. One end is more negative and the other more positive. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 6 '17 at 7:30
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Lightning occurs when the electric potential between two areas is sufficient to (a) overpower air resistance, and (b) air is the least resistant path. Depending on whether the wizards are using the same charge or opposite charges on them/their target, I would imagine the lightning would either add their strength, or would cancel (doubling/going to zero if they are the same strength.)

Either way, the path between the two bolts would be the same. Since generating lighting from, say, your hand, would probably mean you have to protect your hand. That same protection may afford some relief from the returning lightning bolt. I suppose it's possible that an orb or area in front of a hand was where the lightning came from, and the returning lighting could overcome whatever insulation that provides.

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