Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

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

Books with Soft Magic systems are books where magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Really good writers of soft magic systems very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books.

So, the rule for soft magic systems is to use the magic for ambiance but never for plot.

With Hard Magic, the author explicitly describes the rules of magic. More, the magic itself is a character. By showing off its laws and rules, the author provides twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.

In this context, you can use magic to solve problems because the reader understands how magic works.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

Limitations > Powers

What’s important to what heroes are is not what they can do, but what they have trouble doing. When designing a magic system, it’s very difficult to come up with a magical power that’s truly original. However, you can be original with the limitation. Example: in The Wheel of Time fantasy series, practitioners of magic draw forth “threads” of the Aristotelian elements –fire, earth, water, air, and spirit– and then “weave” the different powers into complex patterns, which then accomplish a goal. The limitation of the magic is that its practitioners must use skill and knowledge, and take time to create what they’re making.

Limitations on a magic system do several things:

  • Struggle, because it forces the characters to work for their goals. They have to be more clever to overcome their problems. They need to work harder. All this leads to more interesting scenes. The nature of the writing encourages better writing.
  • An excellent magic system will increase tension. Superman fighting an enemy with kryptonite is far more tense than Superman just fighting an enemy.
  • Limitations force you, as a writer, to create more depth to your world and characters. In this sense, even outside the fantasy genre limitations are more important than abilities.

Different kinds of limiting factors of magic systems

  • Limitations. There are things that, for one reason or another, the magic system simply cannot do. Every magic has basic limitations, defined as the limited scope of the power. (i.e., Superman can’t see through lead.)

Sanderson suggests that limitations be more encompassing than simple parameters.

  • Weaknesses are things that, rather than being things the power cannot do, enemies can exploit. In contrast to a limitation, a weakness lives your caracter vulnerable. (Again, the obvious example is kryptonite.)
  • Costs. Using magic or being associated with it has a cost. Costs can be abstract (in the Wheel of Times, men who weave magic end up going crazy), or concrete (you need a certain quantity of mana or something to make certain spell work).
  • Others. These definitions are about how you approach certain aspects of your magic system, and how you don’t allow yourself to take easy answers.
    • How does one gain access to magic? Stardard ways: innate magic and learned magic.
    • How is the magic powered? Mitigate the breaking of physics law by preserving of the laws of thermodynamics. Energy to power the magic has to come from somewhere.
    • How often can the magic be used? Do you need special implements (wands…) or a special state of mind?

The point is not to write more complex plots but to tell better stories. What your characters have trouble accomplishing in a plot is going to be far more interesting than what they can do easily.

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic

Expand what you already have before you add something new.

This law challenges the writer to create deep worldbuilding instead of just wide worldbuilding. Even if one can enjoy stories with massive worldbuilding, intrincate worlds, and clever use of magic, you can make the story boring by overburdening it with too much expository worldbuilding. Often great storytelling happens when a thoughtful writer changes one or two things about what we know, then extrapolates purposefully through all of the ramifications of that change. Variants of this: one truly evil villain usually works better than lots of mediocre villains.

Three useful directions where you can expand magic

  • Extrapolate. Extrapolation is about asking “what happens when” questions. How do the changes you’ve made affect the world as a whole? The changes should be aligned with the story goal’s and length. Epic fantasy may touch history and economics. An urban fantasy may better focus just on one specific factor.
  • Interconnect. Sometimes this law can go too far. Having large list of powers can help create a more unique experience for your storytelling.

Try tying your powers, cultures and themes together. Tie them thematically, and ask yourself how they play into the themes of your novel. This will help you worldbuild and expand, instead of adding.

  • Streamline. Look over your cultures, magics, and even characters and ask yourself, “Where can I combine these?”

Conclusion: expand, don’t add.