The Puppet Masters (#4 Magic & Sanderson’s Laws)

The-Well-of-AscensionBrandon 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.

Challenge Month, Day 3


Write a 15-step list titled “How to be____”

How to be an expert procrastinator:

  1. Determine the thing which has both the most importance and least personal appeal on your schedule.
  2. Figure out a formulaic approach on how said thing will be accomplished.
  3. Build a timeline for its completion, include pie graphs if necessary.
  4. Return every single call and message you’ve neglected for the past two weeks.
  5. Begin working on thing.  Stop after twenty seconds.  You need to do laundry, remember?
  6. Dang.  Now you have to wait twelve minutes for the washer to be done.  No point continuing work on the thing with so little time to dedicate.
  7. Facebook hasn’t been checked in seven minutes.  Get on that.
  8. We need food to survive.  Only one cupboard is full of stuff.  Time to go to the store.
  9. And the bank, and the gas station and everything else you can think of for the love of god.
  10. Think about how you’re really going to buckle down on the thing when you get home.
  11. None of the food you bought sounds good.  Stop at Arby’s.
  12. Okay, time to get to work.  Frick, forgot about laundry.  Need to switch that over.
  13. Your productivity mojo just got axed.  Might as well take a nap to recalibrate your energies.
  14. Nap lasted seven-and-a-half hours.  No point doing the thing now.  It’s okay, we’ll compensate by being productive in every other conceivable way.
  15. Write a 15-step list because there’s nothing better to do.

“The Spirit of Color” – An Exercise in Surreal Prose


I recently found a post that asked somebody to describe the color Red without ever saying the word. Somebody responded to the challenge with a beautiful and engaging series of descriptors. Having been inspired by this I emulated the same challenge using the colors Red, Blue, Green, Black, and White.  I refrained from using any examples for Red from the original post, so it was easily the most difficult.  Nonetheless, I had a lot of fun and hope you enjoy.


It’s the heat in your face when preparing to confess love for the first time, and it’s the buzzing pressure within your chest when you’re angry, because you held in the words.  It’s the marks left on your back when protecting someone from danger.  It’s the throttle in your skull after a night of screaming, and the pressure of another hand in yours, holding tightly, either for safety or desire.  It’s the mark her lips left on your cheek.  When you finally fight back, it’s on your knuckles.  It’s the blood of all men.  It hurts, it heals, it lusts, it loves, it gives you power when you knew you didn’t have any more.

Perhaps it’s the warmth of a hug that means something.


It’s emerging for air after too long beneath the water.  It’s a piano in minor key.  It’s the equality found in gentle rainfall.  It’s the openness of a traveling wind.  It’s sitting down, crossing your legs, and simply being there to listen.  It’s a reaffirming hand on your shoulder.  It’s somebody’s voice when they talk about the stars.  It’s remembering days gone by.  It’s calm in chaos.  It’s a push of the sea against your body.

When you receive insult, it’s the wisdom that tenderly guides away from retaliation.


It’s an excited puppy’s kisses.  When you walk through nature, it’s the brush of leaves against your shoulders.  It’s being too young to know and everything healthy your tongue deplores.  It’s laughter on a playground, while also the adventure found in wild violins.  It’s the slick moss pointing north.  It’s the voice of a friend you’ve sorely missed.  It’s finding a place where nobody has been, or getting lost without being afraid.  It’s working together with people you do not know.  It’s the smell of loam, of lake.  It’s the last day of school.

More than anything, it’s doing something just because.  


It’s waking up alone after the best of dreams.  It’s being unable to live with yourself and wishing more than anything, that you could be someone else.  But it’s also your heart when you believe yourself better than the person across from you.  When you find a mysterious hole in the tide of night, it’s your confidence of its depth or contents.  It’s the addiction that refuses to die. It’s finding a wall when you were supposed to be on an open road. It’s hearing you won’t be keeping your kids.  It’s waiting for something that will not come.  Where things have burned, it’s the smell that scars the air.  It’s a quiet of the most absolute sort and the state of things not working.  It’s your stomach when one minute somebody is breathing and the next minute they are not.  It’s last words, regardless of their peace or horror.

In the end, it’s mortal conclusion.


It’s your bed after a trying day.  It’s being at peace knowing the person you love, loves somebody else.  At last, it’s a promise fulfilled.  It’s the fire found in ice.  It’s a baby’s first cry.  It’s being smitten, without being lonely.  When hailed by transgressions, it’s forgiveness.  It’s the dress of the bride and the teeth in her smile.  It’s believing somebody will come home.  It’s a choir in worship and a new idea.  It’s listening in isolation.  Before you paint, it’s a canvas.  It’s the virgin snowfall, crumbling between your fingers.  It’s the crown of the aged, the wise, and those fortunate enough to reach either.  It’s a victorious fanfare.  It is the searing vulnerability of having your innermost exposed.  It’s the feather of a dove.

But most of all, it’s wondering for the sake of it.

An Exercise In Alliteration (Ben Vs. The Asteroid)

Hello all of you strange creatures,

If you are not familiar with alliteration, it’s the literary technique in which multiple successive words in a line begin with the same consonant sound.  A common example is the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore,” which utilizes alliteration on both the hard ‘S’ sound as found in ‘sells’ and the dragging ‘sh’ sound in ‘she.’

I am going to attempt to recreate this technique in a series of lines, each modeled after a letter of the alphabet.  What’s more, I’m going to try and make it at least sort of resemble a story (we’ll see how that goes).

Remember, the words don’t necessarily have to begin with that particular letter, just have a sound in common with it. Don’t be surprised if I skip Q or X, because I’m fond of my sanity.

Let’s begin.

All at once, an angry asteroid attacked
Before Ben could bounce back from his bereavement
Could a crisis more criminal have possibly come?
Doubting his usually deliberate disposition, Ben dared not die
Even eagles evacuated enormously evil events
Fly as Ben might, fleeing was fickle and for the faint-hearted
Good god the asteroid was great and gruesome, though
How could this humble human hope to do anything but hesitate?
If an incident of such insane implications were to initiate
Just what kind of jostling juxtaposition would we find ourselves?
Kings would cower before this catastrophe
Lest all lowborn men lose hope of life
Might Ben muster the mettle to master his misgivings?
Never give in and knock away his nightmares?
Only our own hearts offer opposition
Pounding, pumping pain through every pore
Quit calculating the complications, Ben. Get crackin’
Run red with haste, retreat with raw reliance
So you may see a sweeter sunset someday
Tomorrow won’t turn you tipsy, try to be tougher
Unless you understand your place in the universe
Victory will fill your veins like a voice of valor
Won’t it be wonderful to wish upon the stars without worry?
eXcept that won’t happen, for your exit has been extinguished
You are young and you are yelling because you have
Zero seconds to hope you become a zombie.

So I may have cheated a few times, but I did technically get every letter in there.  The coherency of that story leaves something to be desired, but I’m contented with what I’ve got.  Perhaps next month I shall try again and see if there’s any improvement.

God bless, make a friend, always remember to smile.

Here’s a picture of Sheldon the Turtle for your entertainment.  Compliments of DeviantArt