Why can a mage do what others cannot -- heredity? Scholarship? Chance?
Formerly "Mages Are Like X." I changed the title to avoid confusion. This YKTTW is pretty much brainstorming. No Launching Please, Rolling Updates. How does someone become a mage? Why should someone have the power to alter reality? Obviously, mages use magic -- but how does one gain access to magic? Note that these analogies could be mixed: for instance, it is possible that the innate ability to wield magic is based on bloodline (as with the aristocrat-like mage), but that to develop this innate ability, the mage must use ancient lore (as with the classicist-like mage). Also note that this is about how the mage acquires power, not the source of that power: i.e., whether magic is drawn from nature, from the elements, from other planes, from the spirit world, or whatever. Mages are like Aristocrats: The ability to do magic is passed from parents to children. It may skip generations, or crop up unexpectedly on occasion, but it is ultimately based on inheritance. Note that while mages are like aristocrats in that it's heritable, they do not necessarily inherit any form of elevated social status: it is possible, in fact, that aristocrat-like mages exist in a world where mages are hunted and burnt at the stake as witches. Mages are like Artists: Arist-like mages gain their ability based on creativity and imagination. As with being a great artist, being a great mage may require practice and technical skill to some extent, but a sense of artistic creativity is vital. (suggested by Horticulturalist) Mages are like Athletes: The ability of the athlete-like mage to wield magic is based on years of intensive, exhaustive training. (suggested by Topazan) Mages are like Classicists: Classicist-like mages base their ability to wield magic on ancient knowledge -- and perhaps ancient artifacts as well. They know dead languages and ancient history to a huge extent. You can find a classicist-like mage to pouring through dusty tomes of forgotten lore in a huge library. This is likely in Medieval Stasis or Dark Ages-type worlds where Older Is Better. Mages are like Gods: In this variant, a mage is not a human being. The mage may take on the appearance of a human, but the actual nature of the mage is divine, whether demonic or angelic. (Suggested by Bisected8) Mages are like Lottery Winners: Mages get their ability to wield magic completely at random. Nothing but chance determines who is likely to wield magic. Mages are like Monks: Mages' most notable feature is their mental discipline and force of will -- abilities that might be cultivated through meditation. It seems likely that in worlds where reality responds to sufficiently intense strength of will, these mages might be likely. (suggested by Topazan) Mages are like Mutants: Magic is acquired by being exposed to some kind of substance/energy. It may or may not cause any adverse effects to the mage's body. It may also overlap with Mages are like Aristocrats if the mutation is passed down to offspring. (Suggested by StyxD) Mages are like Priests: Priest-like mages do not draw their power from within, but through allegiance to eldritch forces. Generally, these are sinister forces, such as demons or a God of Evil: this isn't to say that good priests can't wield magic in fantasy, but usually they are considered to be "magic-wielding good priests," not "mages." A mage who obtains power through religion typically devotes himself to sinister forces. In some cases, the relationship between mage and devil is not so much religious as legal: power is obtained through demonic "pact" or "contract," rather than "worship," but the result is the same. Find the priest-like mage leading a Religion of Evil. (Ironically, the original Magi were priestlike, and they did follow a dualistic faith with a God of Evil, but they considered themselves followers of the good god.) Mages are like Scientists: The ability to wield magic is based on understanding the magical laws of the cosmos. A mage in such a world is likely to not only understand magic, but to have an understanding of the natural world itself -- understanding things like chemistry and physics, as well as the attendant tools to formulate such laws, such as advanced mathematics. You can find the scientist-like mage in a laboratory full of bubbling beakers, conducting empirical experiments to advance magic.
ExamplesMages are like Aristocrats