Technique: Magic Systems

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 14 and 15. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Brandon Sanderson acknowledges that these are the rules that he uses. I won’t write too much on them because you can follow the links and read the essays if you want.

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

You have to explain the magic to the reader before you can solve problems with it or it feels to the reader like you are cheating.

They mention that in Lord of the Rings Gandalf doesn’t do very much with his magic. When he does use magic to fight the Balrog, it ends up killing him. (Though he does come back, bigger and stronger… so an argument could be made that dying was actually beneficial for him. I don’t remember it being particularly surprising for him either, though it’s years since I read it).

They mention the excellent logic puzzle where the Witch King “who cannot be killed by any man” is killed by a woman. It is a surprising, yet (in hindsight) inevitable plot development.

  • If you have a rule-based magic system, then the heroes can solve problems with magic by being clever. (It’s his cleverness that solves the problem more than his magic ability).
  • You gain reader immersion and understanding.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers

Limitations enable tension and conflict within the story.

Magic shouldn’t be “free”; there should be some kind of cost/consequence in order to create conflict.

  • Frodo can wear the One Ring, but it instantly starts to weigh him down, and twist him; also drawing Sauron’s attention to him.
  • Don’t make it too quantifiable or it will feel like a video game.
  • Engage the feelings or emotions of the character. That type of cost gives you a lot of latitude.
  • Try and come up with a unique cost.

One (cool) possible limitation they mention is that using magic could age those that you love.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Put more effort into how the magic effects things than what the magic can do (my paraphrasing).

They mention Dune as an exemplar: the magic system is tied into everything in the world: religion, economy, military, politics. It is fantastic in some novels where the full implications aren’t seen until subsequent books. The actions and events in Dune influence the very culture in the following novels.

  • The world around your magic system must continue to make sense. e.g. if you there is common telekinesis then there would be no manual labor jobs.

Final thought:

Work out how to break/exploit the world using magic to find the problems in your design.



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