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Sanderson’s First Law + Amphigory

First off, a pun:

Quick and dirty, I know. Would the first LJ user who gets it post the solution in the comments section? For the rest of you, the solution should be in the file name.

Secondly, if you’re interested in something a little more meaty, here is a new essay I’ve written. This one isn’t, hopefully, as controversial as some I’ve come up with. Instead, it’s an attempt to offer some writing help to readers. It comes in the form of some advice on how I write magic systems. If you’ve taken my class or gone to one of my convention panels about magic, you’ve probably heard much of this before. However, I reproduce it here for your reference. You can also find it on my website in the EUOLogies section.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics


There have been a lot of requests asking me to post more writing advice on my website. I’ve been thinking about things I can suggest, since I’d really like to offer tips where I can. I received a lot of good advice from professionals when I was learning the craft, and I would love to reciprocate by giving advice to those who are working on their own stories.

It seems best to start with something that I’m drawing the most attention for: magic systems. Magic is what makes fantasy, well, fantasy. While I don’t think magic should be the most important element of a story–a good magic system is only as narratively powerful as the characters who are involved with it–it is vital to our genre.

For a while now, I’ve been working on various theories regarding magic systems. I look at building them from several viewpoints: From viewpoint of the writer who wants something that is fun to write, from the viewpoint of the reader who wants something fun to read, and from the viewpoint of a storyteller who wants a setting element that is narratively sound. A good magic system should not only be interesting visually and conceptually, but should work to enhance the mood of a story and give and vibrancy to the setting. It should facilitate the telling of the story, and work to create the kind of mood an author desires.

I’d like to approach the concept of magic in several different essays, each detailing one of the ‘laws’ I’ve developed to explain what I think makes good magic systems. As always, these are just my thoughts, and though I call them laws, they’re nothing more than simple guidelines that have worked for me. Just like it’s sometimes good to violate rules of grammar, authors can violate my theories and still have good books. However, I do think that by following these, you can work to develop more potent and memorable magic in your books.

The Law

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

I begin my explanation with a story I often tell at conventions. When I applied to be on the programming of my very first Worldcon (following my sale of Elantris, but before the book was actually released) I saw that they were doing a “How does the magic work?” panel. I eagerly indicated that I’d very much like to be a part of it, and to my delight, the committee put me on it.

I believe it was my very first panel on my program at the convention. I arrived somewhat bleary-eyed after an extended flight from Utah to Boston, but managed to find my way up to the front, notes prepared, ideas prepared, sharpened, and ready to be unsheathed. I sat on the end of the table, and so was the first to speak when the moderator asked “All right, let’s begin with the simple question. How should magic work?”

I said something I took as a GIVEN. After all, I’d read it in Orson Scott Card’s writing book (I highly recommend the chapter on magic) and had used it as a rule of thumb for some time. It was the thing that I assumed was the first law of magic systems.

“Well,” I said. “Obviously magic has to have rules.”

And every other person on the panel disagreed with me violently. If you have lots of rules and boundaries for your magic, they explained, then you lose your sense of wonder! Fantasy is all about wonder! You can’t restrict yourself, or your imagination, by making your magic have rules!

I was dumbfounded. Suddenly, I realized that most of the reading I’d done on the subject had been produced by a segment of the population who liked a particular kind of magic. However, there appeared to be another complete school of thought on the matter. I struggled to defend myself for the rest of the panel, and left thinking that everyone else there must have poor magic systems in their books.

Then, I thought about it for a while. I was forced to admit that there might be a way to do magic other than the one I followed. Can’t someone have a good book that doesn’t fail narratively WITHOUT explaining lots of rules and laws for their magic? Yet, if they don’t have rules and laws, don’t they risk Deus Ex Machina (contrived endings) in their books? From the beginnings of the fantasy genre, its biggest criticism has been that it has no consistency. John Campbell, one of the most influential and important editors in the history of science fiction, once argued:

The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along…The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition–then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

I disagree with this soundly–but in Mr. Campbell’s defense, fantasy has come a long way since the sixties (when he wrote that in Analog.) Fantasy doesn’t have to be about stories where the authors simply make up whatever they need. Still, I think that it is a criticism we fantasy writers need to be aware of and wary regarding. If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad.

The Continuum

And so we come to a more direct explanation of my first law. Let me state it again: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

The development of a magic system should take into account the narrative reason for including that magic in the book. If there isn’t a narrative reason, then why write fantasy?

I see there being something of a continuum, or a scale, measuring how authors use their magic. On one side of the continuum, we have book where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers–or wonders–the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly kno
w what can happen and what can’t.

This is a long established tradition in fantasy. I would argue that Tolkien himself is on this side of the continuum. In his books, you rarely understand the capabilities of Wizards and their ilk. You, instead, spend your time identifying with the hobbits, who feel that they’ve been thrown into something much larger, and more dangerous, than themselves. By holding back laws and rules of magic, Tolkien makes us feel that this world is fast, and that there are unimaginable powers surging and moving beyond our sight.

There is another side to this continuum, however. This is the side where the authors explains EXACTLY what the rules of the magic system are. This is done so that the reader can have the fun of feeling like they themselves are part of the magic, and so that the author can show clever twists and turns in the way the magic works. The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.

I would place Isaac Asimov on this side of the continuum. It’s a bit irregular of me to use a man who, from essays I’ve read, was generally disapproving of the fantasy genre. (He argued that fantasy was about dumb people–men with swords–killing smart people in the form of wizards.)

However, I think Isaac’s robot stories are a perfect example of using a magic system from this end of the continuum. In his robot stories, he outlines three distinct laws, then never adds any more and never violates those laws. From the interplay of those three laws, he gave us dozens of excellent stories and ideas. Fantasy writers who use magic in a similar way are what I would call “Hard Magic” or just “Hard Fantasy” writers, to borrow and revise a term I believe was first used by Michael Swanwick. Books on the other side would then have soft magic systems.

The Middle Ground

Most writers are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. A good example of what I consider to be near the center point would be Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, none of those laws are violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic. She adds new rules as she adds books, expanding the system, sometimes running into contradictions and conveniently forgetting abilities the characters had in previous novels. However, these lapses aren’t important to the story, and each single book is generally cohesive.

I think she balances this rather well, actually. In specifics, her magic is hard. In the big picture, her magic is soft. That allows her to use magic as points of conflict resolution, yet maintain a strong sense of wonder in the novels.

I consider my own magic systems to be perhaps 80% hard, maybe a bit more. My own paradigm is to develop a complicated magic system which can be explained as simply as possible, but which has a lot of background and ‘behind the scenes’ rules. Many of these workings don’t get explained in the books, particularly at the first. The characters have some good understanding of the magic, but they rarely understand its complete form. This is partially because I treat my magics like sciences, and I don’t believe that we will ever completely understand all of the laws of science. Partially, also, I do this so that I can have discoveries and revelations the novels. I like mystery more than I like mysticism.

So, following this, we have my own Mistborn series. In them, I outline many rules of the magic, then offer up a few unexplained exceptions or inconsistencies which I proceed to explain in further books. The interplay of how the different laws of magic work is vital to understanding major plot points.

How To Use This

If you’re a writer working on your fantasy magic systems, I suggest that you decide what kind of feel you want for your magic. Do you like the techno-magic like you find in my books, or in books by L.E. Modesitt Jr. and Melanie Rawn? Do you like the hybrids like you find in someone more like David Eddings or J.K. Rowling? Or, do you prefer your magic to be more vague and mysterious, like you see in Tolkien or the current George R. R. Martin books? I like to read works by all of these authors, but when I write, I prefer to have rules, costs, and laws to work with in my magic, and that makes it more fun for me.

What is the most interesting to you when writing? What feel or ambiance seems the best match for the particular book you’re working on? (I’ve done mostly hard magic, but my kid’s series has a slightly softer–perhaps 50/50–magic system. I did this intentionally, both because of the wacky nature of the books, and because I wanted to enhance the feel of the character being thrown into a strange world he didn’t understand.)

Resist, at all costs, the urge to use magic to solve problems unless you’ve already explained and shown that aspect of the magic. Don’t give the heroes a new power whenever they need one, and be very careful about writing laws into your system just so that you can use them in a single particular situation.

If you’re writing a hard magic system, first ask yourself “How could the characters use what they already have and know to solve this conflict?” That will make the story more interesting, force your characters to stretch, and provide more fun for the reader. If you’re writing a soft magic system, ask yourself “How can they solve this without magic?” or even better, “How can using the magic to TRY to solve the problem here really just make things worse.” (An example of this: The fellowship relies on Gandalf to save them from the Balrog. Result: Gandalf is gone for the rest of that book.)

Most of all, experiment and find out what you enjoy, then make it work for you.

Brandon Sanderson

February, 2007

(This is the first draft of this essay. It will likely be revised.)

|   Castellano