Nearly every fantasy novel has magic in it. The genre is practically defined by its use of magic, and if you’re sitting down to write a fantasy novel (and we know you are, what with our Inkshares contest running right now), you need to ask yourself how magic works in your world.
Happily, New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson has written extensively on this topic. Sanderson, author of the Mistborn novels series and the Stormlight Archive series, has created a series of laws for making great magic systems.
Sanderson knows a thing or two about making magic systems. He fashioned a metal-based magic system called “allomancy” for Mistborn, which is as exciting as superpowers.
So what’s Sanderson’s secret? He’s been kind enough to write about it, creating Sanderson’s “Laws of Magic.”
“An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”
According to Sanderson, this law exists to prevent the problem of a deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is Greek for “god from the machine,” and describes an ending where an outside force enters the plot to resolve conflicts tidily, but seemingly at random. In Greek drama, this often took the part of a god arriving to solve the hero’s problems at the end of the play. An actor would be lowered from the stage top, hence “god from the machine.”
Magic, when poorly conceived, can do exactly this. Whatever the problem faced by a protagonist in a fantasy novel, an author is capable of simply using magic to fix it, neatly and tidily, but this will feel like a cheat unless the reader has been told that magic operates in such a fashion.
It’s worth noting that fantasy scion J.R.R. Tolkien assiduously obeys Sanderson’s First Law, even though he was writing before Sanderson was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye. In Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the wizard uses less magic than a 1st level Dungeons & Dragons character. He creates light and breaks a stone bridge, but that’s it. And Tolkien never explains his magic system in anything like a satisfying fashion, so he cannot have magic resolve plot problems.
“Limitations > Powers”
What in the name of Thor’s helm does that mean?
Sanderson wrote that when describing magic systems or superpowers, there is a tendency to describe what they can do. However, what makes them interesting is what they can’t.
In other words, limitations are more important than the powers themselves.
Sanderson uses Superman as an extended example. Kryptonite is his bane, and it weakens him because it is a shard of his home planet. Furthermore, Superman refuses to kill, and he does so because of his Kansas upbringing by Ma and Pa Kent. Sanderson wrote that it is limitations which “draw you into the story, [and] get into who Superman is and where he comes from…Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.”
“Expand what you already have before you add something new.”
This law is about breadth versus depth.
Sanderson wrote that many beginning writers will invent a wide-array of magics. However, they will not consider the effect of magic on the society at large. A famous geek example is the use of Resurrection spells in Dungeons & Dragons. Why would kings fear assassination if they could simply be resurrected?
Similarly, Sanderson exhorts writers to create a magic system which is well-thought out and embedded in the grains of your fantasy world. This has twin benefits for the writer. First, it helps build belief in your created fantasy realm because of the logical thought you have put into it. Secondly, it lessens the burden of exposition. If your magic system consists of 777 spells, you will have to explain all 777 before you can use them in your novel. (See Sanderson’s First Law.) This is, of course, an impossible task. Constricting the breadth of your magic system will make it easier to explain to your reader.
Now take Sanderson’s “Laws of Magic,” and make your fantasy novel the best that it can be. We want to see it in print! And one of the easiest ways to do that is through our Fantasy Inkshares contest. It has already started, but you still have time to get your idea on virtual paper and in front of thousands of other people.
Did you know there’s a Mistborn role-playing game from Crafty Games? No. Then click here.
Got an idea for a cool froyo-based magic system? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Image credits: Tor Publishing