Brandon Sanderson has been bunkered down on the frontlines of the contemporary fantasy and science fiction industry over a decade now. Between his acclaimed Mistborn and Stormlight Archives series, as well as being selected to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Sanderson has consistently proven his ability to create powerful tales of magic and wonder. While Sanderson has been teaching university-level courses on writing contemplative fiction for years now (at BYU, his alma mater), there is one facet of his process which he talks about more than most else. It is his forte, both self-proclaimed and evidenced by the opinions of fans and critics alike: magic systems.
Sanderson’s ability to build a world is superb, and his utilitarian approach to magic is redefining crowd expectations for the fantasy genre. I should clarify before we continue, ‘magic system’ is a universally accepted, catch-all term for nearly any supernatural or super-scientific element within a story. A ‘magic system’ is not exclusively about ‘magic.’ Advanced technology, superpowers, and various other forms of otherworldly abilities can all fall under ‘magic’ in this sense, as they are things which transcend natural human power.
Please keep that in mind as we continue. In addition, many of Sanderson’s lectures can be viewed online. Here is a link to the one which contains most of what we will be discussing.
(Note: Brandon is aware that the names of these laws sound pretentious. They were originally for his own reference and when people started asking him about his rules for making magic, the names just kind of stuck. It’s kind of an ongoing joke now.)
Sanderson’s First Law:
“Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
Foreshadowing is always important. Regarding the first law, even more so. If you are going to have a harder magic system (which is to say, one with more rules and limitations), it is important you help the reader understand the parameters of the magic before you start doing crazy things with it. Those crazy things need to be explainable within the context of your magic’s boundaries. If a character has the superhuman ability to lift a maximum of one-thousand pounds and no more, you can’t have them stop a bullet train when it’s about to hit somebody. The momentum generated by a bullet train would be too great for that limitation to deal with. That breaks the rules of your own magic system and is thus an unsatisfying answer to the problem.
That word ‘satisfying’ is important. Not only must you be consistent with the science and boundaries of your magic, but you should always strive to be imaginative, too. There is rarely only one way to solve any given problem. Be mindful of how your magic can interact with the environment and other characters involved, if any.
Sanderson’s Second Law:
“Flaws are more interesting than powers.”
We aren’t talking about character flaws, but flaws in the magic system itself. Rather, the specifics of the boundaries and limitations. Do you have a character who can summon an ancient fire beast to fight at their side? That’s cool…but what’s the catch? The catch is usually the best part. A simple and common answer is that it drains the summoner of energy or vitality, but there are others with more unique answers.
Ask: what is the cost? Is it economic? Moral? Emotional? Mental?
The author Brent Weeks has a specific element in one of his magic systems which allows for characters to gain immortality. However, and the main character learns this tidbit of information a little too late, but every time you die, your resurrection costs the life of one of the people you love the most. Or in the Japanese manga, Naruto, the main character has access to a tremendous well of inner power that allows him to conquer most obtacles…but at the cost of going into a berserker-state, breaking down his mind, tearing apart his body, and risking harm to anyone nearby regardless of whether they’re friend or foe. Such a power as that is not one you want to throw around without immense consideration.
Is the magic needed for travel? Is it needed to keep society moving? If possible, try to make the magic imperative to life in more ways than as a means to destruction. Far too many series are victim to that tendency.
Also, these boundaries are obviously under your complete jurisdiction, but unless you are going for a certain tone, it’s wise not to go too far off the deep end. Teleportation is cool, but it’s kind of weird if you can only teleport when standing on one foot. You can turn into an animal only when you have a marble in your mouth? Saying Hitler’s name three times allows you to turn invisible?
Please don’t be too weird. Stuff like that is funny for only a brief time and quickly grows old.
Sanderson’s Third Law
“Go deeper into magic, instead of wider.”
Here’s a problem many superhero stories such as X-men fall into. There are so many powers that none of them get any particular attention, at least not in a timely manner. Hollywood and amateur writers alike think it is more interesting to have this grandiose arsenal of neat abilities in the cast of characters, but they keep the utility of all these abilities at surface-level. They have fallen into the misconception that more means better.
But if Sanderson’s success stands for anything, it’s that more certainly does not always mean better.
Sanderson’s 0th Law
“Always err on the side of awesome.”
The name of this one is kind of a trade joke, but the premise is quite simple. Sure, the boundaries and rules can allow for creativity in your writing and story-crafting, but in the end this is science-fiction and fantasy. The granddaddy of all laws is that whatever you do, make it cool. We are operating within a field of writing that has greater access to the manipulation of the universe than any other genre. If you have an awesome idea and can build your system around that idea to make it feasible, then by all means, make it work. Don’t force something that isn’t there, but if it’s possible, do your best to bring that awesomeness to life on the page. You’ll love it, and the readers will probably be just as awed as you were when the idea first crossed your mind.