If you are even slightly interested in the fantasy genre you should have come across the works of Brandon Sanderson. The man is a PROLIFIC writer of excellent fantasy and has written several of my favourite books (most notably the Mistborn series). Sanderson puts a ridiculous amount of work into his worldbuilding (but knows how much to show the reader – no crazy info-dumps here), and is famous for how he approaches his excellently crafted magic systems – going so far to put down his own ‘laws’ for how he does this, and how we can too! My summary of these are below:
Sanderson sees magic systems as a seesaw between logic-based thinking (hard magic) and wonder (soft magic). On one side you have rule and logic based magic that readers can understand and anticipate, and on the other, you have wonder based magic that could do anything at anytime and is designed to surprise readers. Common mistakes he sees is writers focusing too heavily on one or the other – too much wonder and there is no real suspense or too much deus-ex-machina when characters experience conflict – too much logic and there is no surprise and delight for readers who traditionally come to fantasy for at least a bit of wonder! Sanderson recommends a healthy mix of both.
Writers should have a firm understanding of the logic based rules around their magic systems and reveal these rules a bit at a time to readers – this allows the reader to be surprised as new rules and uses of magic emerge, but also requires characters to have to think their way out of problems, not just wave a magic wand and all their dreams come true. It is particularly important to note that writers need to establish magic/rules BEFORE the character needs it, not to introduce things just in time as this will cause the reader to feel cheated.
A limitation is something that a character cannot change and has to be worked with or navigated around (unlike a flaw, which is something wrong with the character that they can work on to fix and is usually associated with their character development). These limitations can often be categorised as either: a limitation/ceiling of power, an associated cost to using a power (health, wealth, mana, time), or a limitation of knowledge (the character has to learn to use it properly).
Sanderson states that limitations are more interesting to readers than the powers themselves and often cites Superman in his examples – everyone knows that Superman is invulnerable to almost everything and can do basically anything. But if that was all there was to Superman then he would be boring to read about after a while, it is his limitations (kryptonite and magic) that allow writers to create interesting and engaging stories about him.
Too often writers will create magic/power systems with thousands of elements and complexities and try to info-dump all of this on the reader. Sanderson notes that more successful systems are often limited, with only a few elements that the author has really considered in-depth.
Sanderson encourages writers to consider how they can add depth to their current systems rather than expanding it needlessly. He recommends authors do three things: One, consider extrapolation, how do the powers you have invented impact the rest of the world you are creating? Two, encourage interconnection, make sure your magic is interweaved together thematically and not jarringly disconnected. Three, streamline wherever possible, if you can combine powers or remove powers completely without hurting your story – do it.
The Extra Law: Make sure it’s awesome!
This is by far my favourite rule. When all else fails, critically look at what you have created and ask whether it will make the reader exclaim ‘that’s so cool!’. This is one of the great things about Sanderson, he really is in it for his love of storytelling, the impact he has on readers, and just to geek out about what he loves. I cannot recommend his fantasy books or his lecture series on writing enough – links below.
You can check out Sanderson’s work here, or if you’re interested in learning more from the man, you can check out his lecture series for free here.