Sanderson's Laws of Magic
Brandon has so far written three articles pertaining to the usage of magic in writing. They aren't hard rules, but rather guidelines Brandon uses when writing. They can also be used for writing in general, not just for magic systems.
- 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 use of 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, in genre fantasy, not solve problems, although it may create them. Soft magic in genre fantasy is usually 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, meaning 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, according to Brandon, write in this way.
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 cited the magic in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series as a great example.
- 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.
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 from David Eddings' The Belgariad: the "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 magic's very nature.
Weaknesses and costs
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 series the cost is that the users of the magic will slowly go insane. Although the metals in Mistborn and the Stormlight in The Stormlight Archive may sound like costs, they are actually limitations. Metals and Stormlight aren’t crucial to the characters or the plot outside of magic, and thus only limit the abilities of the user.
- 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."
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 will add depth to your world.
Another important point is to be interconnected. Try to make the powers of a character seem like a coherent whole rather than separate abilities. In Mistborn, for example, 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 is also important in any magic system. Combining pre-existing magics and powers is often better than adding new ones. A different culture reacting to a magic entirely differently than what has been shown so far, is often better than a culture with its own unrelated magic system. For example: a simple heat-generating magic may be used by different cultures in very different ways. A warlike culture might use it for assault or for forging weapons, a peaceful one for heating and preparing food, for merchants for making products, nomads for powering transportation and so on.
Remember, however, not to streamline too far as that will make the single culture or character seem too packed and might decrease their plausibility.
Sanderson's Zeroth Law
Err on the side of AWESOME.
Brandon has, in his online lectures, described his ultimate rule as that of making magic "awesome" (in the colloquial sense), and further implied that said "awesomeness" takes precedence over exact obedience to the other three laws.
(This refers to Isaac Asimov's Zeroth Law of his Three Laws of Robotics.)
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