Creating a magic system: Sanderson's First Law

Friday, January 20, 2012

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I wasn't sure what I wanted to cover today or even if I was going to cover anything. I haven't finished another new book just yet, nor have I read anything else the past couple days. But as I was sitting here drinking my Cafe Mocha made with my new espresso machine, I was studying my worldbuilding notes for my trogg and wizard story. No more putting off figuring out the rules for magic. The wizard has been backed into a corner and has to start explaining things to the trogg girl. She wasn't allowed to learn the societal laws regarding magic before she got cursed, and after the curse, the only things she's learned has been from overhearing things. Not exactly reliable.

Yes, I could leave magic more free form. It was going to be like that, not really taking center stage. But magic and the societal laws regarding it both make a big difference in what happened in the past to the wizard, what happened to the girl, and what will happen in the future to both of them and the society they live in. The wizard will have to use magic, and magic will get used against them. Which means now I really have to define it.

However, creating magic systems is like social studies in general: my weak area. In one of my other novels-in-progress, my husband created the magic system, so I just have to fit the powers and abilities into his framework. (It's a joint project.) Magic is tangled with the social structure in this world, so it's particularly tricky. Studying a couple of the other well developed magic systems (D&D and Darksword) has given me some ideas for how to shape it, but neither quite works for how I want magic to function in my world setting.

This morning I just typed "magic systems" into the search line on Google and found this great article from Brandon Sanderson. I've never read any of his books, though I think Mistborn is on my TBR list. This article mentions his first experience on a panel at Worldcon on the topic of "How does the magic work?" His first thought was "it has to have rules." But everyone else on the panel adamantly disagreed, stating that with rules comes a loss of wonder. Well, in trying to defend his stance, and in reflecting later on the alternative position, he came up with this law:

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

One of the corollaries: Magic doesn't need strict rules, but it can't undermine the plot.

He expands on how to apply this rule on the continuum of soft magic to hard magic, just like in SF there is the continuum of soft science to hard science. He uses Spiderman, Gandalf, and Harry Potter as specific examples but also mentions several authors who have approached magic in ways differently from himself, yet he still enjoys reading their stories.

In some aspects, my trogg and wizard story is leaning toward the hard end even though not a great deal of magic will be used on center stage. But when it is used, I want readers to understand what is going on and the risks involved. The wizard won't be telling the trogg about how magic works directly, but he will be explaining the social laws and a bit on how they are trained, so indirectly, some of the rules on how magic works will be hinted at including types that may show up later in the story.

Though the article doesn't exactly help me create the system itself, it does explain why I need to hash out how things work in this world right now, frustrating as it is for me. And I really like his approach toward writers who use magic differently from his own style. Though I'm more of a definer even when I'm winging it, I have enjoyed books that fall more toward the soft end.

How about your writing? Do your stories fall toward soft magic, middle ground, or hard magic? Or if you write SF, what is your the SF equivalent?


Lisa Rose said...

First off thank you, thank you, thank you for finding this article for (lazy old) me. I'm working on worldbuilding for a project I've been working on and this article definitely helped put me on the right track.

As for my writing, I write both fantasy and SF (although I've been drifting more toward SF recently) and I think in both I'm more toward the middle. I don't go into detail for the SF parts (although I could for some of the research I've done).

Don't forget to have fun when you're making your rules! That can be the best part :)

Jenny said...

I'm soo glad you shared this article. It was really really great. Plus it made me feel better about being a soft magic person, ha!

Good luck with your magic system!

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Hmm, Sanderson's definition is interesting. Personally, I've never liked magic that seems like an infinitely powerful and capable force. If everything is possible, nothing is particularly wondrous.

I made my magic system run parallel to physical strength/endurance. A character can be naturally apt at magic, and they can push themselves beyond their usual boundaries in a time of crisis. That means the rules have some flex for those dramatic scenes where a character is panicking. But there's no possibility of "and then Bob cast some magic and the world was saved". The magic itself is mysterious, but it definitely can't do that. Guess that would make me middle ground, leaning toward hard magic.

Your story premise reminds me of Doctor Who, but some alternate episode where the human companion gets sick of the "you wouldn't understand" brush-offs and demands a real explanation for the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff. To start making up a magic system, I'd suggest looking at your notes and seeing if your subconscious has put in any clues for you. Patterns or themes that the magic system could tie into.

Jaleh D said...

I do have some clues that I'm working with, and if it weren't for the fact that some of the societal laws come into effect, since the wizard has sworn off doing magic, I wouldn't worry too much about it. But the cursed girl is trying to find out why he's done so, the reason why she suspects he's soulsick, but she doesn't want to push too hard since she likes him despite his gruff exterior. So, she goes roundabout and asks about magic rules and training in general.

I talked with my husband this afternoon about the magic system since he's the one who gave me a couple of the ideas I'd been playing with from the beginning. Now that I've worked with it much more since then, I had a stronger idea of the shape I wanted it to have, so he talked me through defining that shape better. I've got a few key points worked out now.

Neat concept for your world. I love seeing how different authors use magic in their worlds. It's got so many forms, so many values attached to it; magic can be anything we want it to be in our stories.

Jai Joshi said...

Oh no! Rules!

I was always better at breaking them than figuring them out.

I'm glad you found Sanderson's work to help you out a bit!


Sunwolfe said...

Hi, Jaleh:

To add fuel to the creative fire, and some very good points to consider, Brandon also has an article concerning his "Second Law of Magics" here < > on his website. Considered in light of the First Law, it might be just as informative and helpful for you.

I'm presently working on my magic system as well and the pendulum has swung mid-way between middle and hard. I am constantly plagued with questions of rhyme and reason: “How could that be and why?” I know we’re dealing with magic here and we can only explain it logically up to a point until we ultimately come to the brink of the abyss beyond which it must simply be taken on faith that “it” works. I need to find a construct that clicks with me, however, or I won’t enjoy writing about it. I’m almost to the clicking point, but not quite yet.

As part of the "limitation" point Brandon makes in this second essay, I'm working to create a source for magical power that furthers plot and character development. It'd be nice if I could come up with something unique, but my mind keeps returning to old constructs (I.E. a universal force capable of being tapped by those mentally in tune with it). As I have always believed that 'there are no new stories, only new story tellers,' I may be left with no other alternative than to give my source a fresh feel by simply telling the best tale I can. Of course, telling a good tale is paramount regardless, but a source of magic I am happy with would help things along.

Good luck with your efforts and Write on!
Your servant,

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