This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.
Don’t miss the other parts of the series:
- Pt.1 – Why Write Good Magic?
- Pt. 2 – Hard Magic vs Soft Magic
- Pt 4 – Literary Magic Systems
- Pt. 5 – Create Your Own Magic System
Any discussion regarding magic systems must include talking about Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Brandon Sanderson–author of Mistborn, Elantris, the last few Wheel of Time novels, and the Stormlight Archive, to name a few–is no doubt the master of technical magic systems. He has created this set of three laws to govern the creation of systems he creates. These laws are both brilliant and insightful and can be applied to any magical system.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magic
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
I mentioned before that when “convenient” magic solves a problem it cheapens the victory. All the effort our characters have gone through to arrive at the climax needs to be rewarded with a good fight. However, if our main character happens to discover a magic spell that vanquishes the bad guy right when he needs it then the problem is solved too easily.
In the first Harry Potter, each of Harry’s friends had to use their smarts to get through the obstacles to allow Harry to reach Quirrel and recover the sorcerer’s stone. Harry is granted the stone through the Mirror of Erised, an existing magic which was explained earlier in the book. Quirrel touches Harry and then disintegrates due to the magic of love that Harry had been given by his mother. We already knew that Harry had something magical happen to him when he survived Voldemort’s attack, and it’s the same mother’s protective magic being used here.
Had we not known understood how the mirror worked or that Harry had survived an attack by Voldemort before, having the book end this way would be highly unsatisfying.
If a conflict is going to be solved by an application of magic, it needs to be an extension of magic that the reader is already familiar with. When the reader understands the extent of what magic can do and it’s cost, they can more fully appreciate the struggle of the main character as they try to use it. This also creates a more immersive reading experience.
Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic
Limitations must be greater than powers
There has to be a reason why magic can’t be used for everything all the time. A character using magic to do literally everything won’t resonate with readers because it’s unrelatable. However, make that same magic have a cost and presto, there will automatically be good reasons when that magic should or should not be used.
When we give our characters limits, then they have all the more reason to test those limits creating additional conflict – and the base of any great story is loads of conflict to resolve.
A character with unlimited power isn’t really a character at all as they have ascended to a god-like state. Can you have god-like characters? Of course. Should you use them as a POV character? I wouldn’t recommend it.
Remember Q from Star Trek? He had unlimited powers as well as a perverse sense of morality. He could do untold amounts of “magic” causing all sorts of grief for the crew of the Enterprise, especially Picard. His character uses god-like power. It is unpredictable and dangerous. Because the audience and the crew had no idea what might happen next it caused huge amounts of stress and anxiety. There is no neutral ground when it comes to fans of Q, either people love him, or really hate him.
Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic
Expand what you already have before you add anything new
Creating new and wonderful things in the name of fantasy is one of the perks of the genre. In the first third of any fantasy book the author has the license to create what they feel their world needs, including unique creatures, fantasy races, and magic systems. However, after the first third everything needs to already be established. After that point, if something amazing and wondrous needs to happen, it needs to be drawn from what has already been introduced.
The reason new things shouldn’t constantly be introduced has everything to do with creating a deep, well-constructed world. When there is something new around every turn there is too much for the reader to take in and the world feels thrown together. Think of the movie, Labyrinth. There were literally new things at every turn of the maze. It was confusing and bizarre. If David Bowie hadn’t been in it to tie everything together, the movie would have failed.
By forcing yourself to think deeply about what already established magic elements can do, you can create a more realistic and rooted system that makes the readers feel like they have an understanding of the world.
Thanks for stopping by! In the next installment of Magic Systems 101 we will discuss the key elements of several literary magic systems.
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