Sanderson's Laws of Magic

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Brandon has so far written three articles pertaining to the usage of magic in writing. These are rules Brandon himself utilises in writing and are not actual “laws”. These are guidelines Brandon uses when writing. They can also be used for writing in general not just for magic systems.[1]

Sanderson's First Law[edit]

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

If characters (especially viewpoint characters) solve a problem by using magic, the reader should be made to understand how that magic works. Otherwise, the magic can constitute a 'deus ex machina.'

Ideally, the magic is explained to the reader before it is used to resolve a conflict. Much like a sword or a large sum of money, magic is a useful tool. Understanding the tools available to a character helps the reader understand the character's actions. It avoids questions like, "Where did he get that?" or "How did he do that?"

"Mysterious magic" (or "Soft Magic"), which has no clearly defined rules, should not solve problems, although it may create them. Soft magic is generally used to create a sense of awe and wonder, and the workings of it aren’t known to the reader and most characters. Brandon has said that J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R Martin’s use of magic is a good example of a soft magic system.

“Hard magic” on the other hand has rules explicitly described by the author. This means that the reader can understand the magic so that solving problems with it doesn’t seem to “Mystically make everything better”. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. This makes magic a tool which can be used to solve problems and enhance the story. L.E. Modesitt Jr. and Melanie Rawn write in this way, according to Brandon.

The middle ground is a situation where the reader knows some of the limits and possibilities of the magic but doesn’t understand its workings. Brandon has said the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are a great example of this.

Sanderson's Second Law[edit]

Limitations > Power

The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can't do is more interesting than what it can.

Limitations[edit]

Great limitations on magic systems will do many things, they will for example create struggle. It’ll make characters work for their goals and if the magic system is limited it’ll make the writer and the character have to be more clever. Sanderson offers his own Allomantic Steel and Iron as examples of this: They allow you telekinesis with a few limitations, the characters can only push or pull directly away or toward themselves and the objects must be made of metal. This forces characters to work harder and encourages better writing.

An excellent magic system will also create tension, as the outcome is not obvious and makes the whole scene appear more dramatic. For example: Superman fighting an enemy is not very tense. But Superman fighting an enemy with Kryptonite is a lot more tense.

It can also create depth in the characters and the system alike. For example: A character whose power is flight. But impose a limitation where she can only fly when she is happy. Her mood and ability to fly are both now directly tied into the plot.

Limitations on what the magic can do can be simple - can’t use when too tired, can only be used in the sunlight- but more complex ones are more interesting. Sanderson gives us an example “Will and the Word”. A nearly limitless magic with nigh infinite power. You can make just about anything but cannot unmake or destroy. This limitation shapes the magic as a whole and tells the reader something of the magics very nature.

Weaknesses and costs[edit]

Weaknesses and costs alike make a magic system more interesting. Weaknesses are generally harder to keep sensible and the kryptonite example has become a staple of easy storytelling. Brandon encourages writers to make up more interesting weaknesses than “Lose powers if x”. Costs on the other hand are a great way of limiting a character and the use of the magic. In The Wheel of Time the cost is that the users of the magic will slowly go insane, in The Stormlight Archives it’s the stormlight and in Mistborn it’s the metals.

Sanderson's Third Law[edit]

Expand on what you have already, before you add something new.

"A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities -- and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth."

Extrapolation[edit]

It is important to consider the effects that a magic will have on a world. If for example your magic can create food out of thin air, what will that cause, what will happen? How will it affect trade, politics, warfare, education and social norms? Asking these questions and working out what effects your magic system would have will add depth to your world.

Interconnection[edit]

Another important point is to interconnect. Try to make the powers a character has seem like a coherent whole rather than separate abilities. For example in Mistborn all the magics were designed to be what thieves would want and then the powers named accordingly. Tying your powers together thematically is an important part of worldbuilding and expands the world, rather than adding to it.

Streamlining[edit]

Streamlining is also important in any magic system. Combining already existing magics and powers is often a better way than adding a new one. A different culture reacting to a magic entirely differently than what has been shown so far, is often better than having the other culture have its own magic system.

For example a simple heat generating magic can be used by different cultures in very different ways: A warring culture might use it for assault or for forging weapons, a peaceful culture for heating and preparing food, a mercantile culture for making products and a nomadic culture for powering transportation.

However remember not to streamline too far as that will make the single culture or character seem too packed and might decrease their plausibility.

Notes[edit]

  1. Are there other laws?
    Theoryland - 2012-06-20
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