Worldbuilding Magazine: Sanderson's Laws - Building a Magic System for Storytelling

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Sanderson’s Laws: Building a Magic System for Storytelling

By Aaryan Balu

If you’ve spent much time in the fantasy/worldbuilding community, it’s likely you’ve come across the name Brandon Sanderson or his seemingly endless collection of books, worlds, and magic systems. While Sanderson has done a whole lot of giving back to the community (between lecturing at BYU, updating his blog, and co-hosting a Hugo Award-winning podcast), I want to dig into what he calls “Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic”—that is, tools for worldbuilding magic that can be used to create more engaging and exciting worlds and stories.

Of course, as Sanderson himself says: none of these laws are absolute. Whatever gets you excited, gets your butt in the chair and worldbuilding, is the law you need to follow. These guidelines, however, are widely applicable and can open whole new dimensions to your stories and worlds.

Sanderson’s First Law: An Author’s Ability to Solve Conflict Satisfactorily with Magic Is Directly Proportional to How Well the Reader Understands Said Magic.

As frequenters of Worldbuilding Magazine, it’s likely that you’ve got tons of ideas for your magic system: where it comes from, what it can do, and who can use it. You may know the personalities of every god that walks the earth, and exactly how many midichlorians are required to get you into Hogwarts, but when it comes to telling stories in these worlds (whether in novels, RPG campaigns, or just talking your buddy’s ear off) this first rule is a useful one to keep in mind.

Here, Sanderson denotes the difference between a hard magic system and a soft magic system, with the distinction coming from how...well, magical your magic is. Sanderson’s own systems tend to lean toward hard magic: distinct rules and a clear understanding of the mechanics allow characters to use magic to solve their problems in a believable, satisfactory manner. His Mistborn books contain arguable his hardest system ever, with the wicked powers of Allomancy often being described as almost video game-esque. With the rules clearly defined, Sanderson proceeds to write intense, complex action scenes that make full use of the rules he’s set up.  And for many, this blend of magic and action can be exhilarating to follow.

Why do we often have such a visceral response to a hard magic system? There’s an innate sense of satisfaction that comes with watching somebody work within a ruleset we understand. Jackie Chan movies are delightful because, as inventive as he might get, we know he’s working with just his body and his environment. A street magician is only engaging because we know she’s not actually manipulating reality; she’s just skilled at sleight of hand. A hard magic system takes this principle and applies it to a fantasy realm. Getting a rogue out of trouble by having him slink in the shadows will delight a reader as they experience the character’s competencies; getting a sorcerer out of trouble by using her long-practiced flight spell will do just the same.

With all that said, plenty of stories rely on a soft magic system—your average spellcaster or Force-wielder uses nebulous and mysterious arcane magic to do some awe-inspiring things. Those stories are delightful in their own right, primarily inspiring a sense of wonder in the reader. That’s an emotion that’s fueled the fantasy genre since its inception: the ability to step into a new world full of mystery and inexplicable forces is a huge aspect of the escapism that we’re all looking for in our epic worlds. At its best, soft magic is vast, awe-inspiring, and humbling, inspiring the sense of universal mechanisms beyond our control and understanding.

But there’s a tough balance when it comes to using this style of “anything-is-possible” magic: one of the main criticisms that’s been lobbed at fantasy in general has been the very idea that anything is possible. Need a getaway? Teleportation spell. Need to break a lock? Lockpicking spell. Or, even better, teleport-spell your way around the door!

If this sounds like a bad use of magic, it absolutely is. That’s because it doesn’t follow Sanderson’s First Law.

While we know the source of magic in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we never fully know how it works on a mechanical, spellcasting level; only that it’s an awesome, mysterious, and works on a massive scale. But this ambiguity isn’t ever used cheaply: Gandalf doesn’t use it to simply turn the Balrog into a kitten or call the Eagles for an express ride into Mordor. Tolkien is careful never to let the magic solve his narrative conflicts; at least, not without a great cost. In doing so, he avoids one of the biggest storytelling sins of all—deus ex machina. Problems are solved on a very human (or Hobbit, as it were) level.

The more you let your characters (and readers) know about the workings of magic, the more they can do with it. It’s Chekhov’s Gun; if your character uses a tool—magic, technology, or a gun on the mantel—to get out of conflict, then the character’s awareness of that tool needs to be established beforehand. On the flip side, the less the reader understands the less magic can be used to solve plot problems in a way that feels satisfying. The same goes for sci-fi technobabble; if we understand the mechanics of a system, then those tools can be used. Even in a James Bond movie, we need to see the gadget in his pocket before he can use it to escape from whatever crotch-laser or shark pit he’s managed to get himself trapped in.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers

Another law that holds true for storytelling in general. In fantasy it’s tempting to build a magic system of epic proportions, complete with godlike powers and a massive scope. But how many times have we seen the knight in shining armor who can do no wrong and lose no fight? Or the D&D power-gamer who rolls up a flawlessly optimized, Lawful Good Paladin to stomp through the game? Story—and interesting worldbuilding—is about conflict, which stems from flaws. There’s a finite number of powers in the world, but an infinite number of unique limitations.

When talking about magical flaws, the most diverse source of powers has to come from superheroes. For example, consider some of our favorites: Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Batman. While the power to fly is cool, there’s something viscerally fascinating about the physics of Spidey’s web-slinging. While the Hulk has immense strength, his limitation stems entirely from the fact that the rage is unchecked and potentially catastrophic; it’s that Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic that makes the character worth following. And Batman is...well, he’s Batman. He’s a human who dresses up like a flying mammal and takes on a huge variety of superpowered and non-superpowered villains.

For worldbuilders, though, the limitations of a magic system can often have profoundly interesting effects on its societies and characters (more on that in the Third Law).  For an offbeat example, the manga/anime Fullmetal Alchemist revolves around the idea of equivalent exchange: “To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.” This limitation which drives the quest of its protagonists, Ed and Al, as they struggle with the value of human life being greater than the sum of its parts. Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer magic system can only be used a limited amount before the user goes insane, so the society develops the Freeing: a yearly religious ceremony where magic users, too close to madness, engage in a celebratory feast before voluntary submitting to death.

When it comes to powers, comic books and fantasy have pretty much tried everything under the sun. What makes the power unique and fascinating is what you can’t do—or what you must do to achieve it. Anybody can build a story with an invincible character who wields an invincible magic system. We call that a Gary and/or Mary Sue, and we hate them.

So what are some practical ways you can incorporate limitations? There are a few here that can help get the ball rolling—the key is to make them feel natural and organic within the world.

  • It makes you tired. “Old reliable”—the mana meter. A good way to handwave various power levels is to have magic work like a muscle; some are more gifted than others, and you can work to increase your capacity. I recommend combining this with other limitations, though.

  • It makes you unstable. Power corrupts. Psychological consequences of magic lead to a true balancing act; is it worth madness madness? What choices do people make under these conditions, and what does that say about what they’re willing to risk?

  • It physically hurts. Make the characters work for it. The consequence is immediate and tangible. Not so great for the sense of wonder, but it could be interesting.

  • It has a high barrier to entry. One sloppy line and the rune blows up in your face. Want to cast a spell? Get ready for years of study and a society that organizes itself around the highly educated.

  • It requires finite/perishable resources. Suddenly resource management becomes a source of tension. It works both on a macro level (we need to restock on handwavium, guys!) and a micro one (I need to conserve my handwavium during this fight!).

  • It requires a sacrifice of life. Blood, flesh, soul, whatever. Make it cost something huge.

  • It’s tied to a specific trigger. Maybe the magic only works when your character is angry. Maybe they can only super-jump when they’re drunk, or when they’ve recently been around a dog.

  • It can be negated. Sanderson defines this more as a “weakness” than a limitation, but it’s nevertheless useful. Kryptonite is a good example.

Bottom line: Flaws drive plot, and make a magic system unique. Once you’ve got a seed for a cool power (flight, talking to animals, or good old-fashioned spellcasting), take some time to sit down and figure out: what are your magic’s limitations (what it can’t do), costs (what you lose by using it), and weaknesses (where it gets completely defeated)? As a bonus, tying these limitations into your plot and worldbuilding can make the world feel even more real, as we’ll discuss with the Third Law.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Expand What You Already Have Before You Add Something New

It can be tempting, as a writer and worldbuilder, to think that bigger is better; that every society might need its own distinct style of magic—or religion or geographic features or historical events or technological advancement—in the name of worldbuilding. In truth, less is often more. Magic and worldbuilding are a web of ideas and events that span through a massive period of time and space; it follows, then, that some of the most fascinating aspects of the world can come from pulling a single thread somewhere down the line and considering as many ramifications as possible. Sanderson himself puts it best:

“Often, the best 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.”

Extrapolation based on small changes demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of the mechanics of worldbuilding and the web-like structure of the craft. The same rule holds true for geography, culture, and history as well. Do you need a dozen landforms scattered across the map, or eleven distinct cultures with different origins and histories? This is the real meat of worldbuilding, because it’s where the magic and the world intersect. Sanderson focuses on three key words: Extrapolate. Interconnect. Streamline.  

Extrapolate: These are the “what if? questions that we ask ourselves. How does your magic affect the uber-rich and the ultra-poor? How does the presence of a physical god affect the world’s religions and cultures? This is probably one of the most difficult—and most rewarding—aspects of worldbuilding, because the interplay between magic and society is one of the most powerful aspects for creating something unique. The same way that a mountain mining town and a tropical city will develop differently due to their respective resources, the way a world and civilization responds to your magic system is an excellent opportunity to create something wholly new.

A fantastic example of this comes in the form of the show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which manages to almost-flawlessly integrate its magic and culture to create a truly lived-in world. From architecture (the icy structures of the Water Tribe or massive walls of the Earth Kingdom) to technology (the Fire Nation’s hot air balloons), the cultures of Avatar are blended seamlessly because the show’s creators allowed the magic to shape the people.

The bottom line: What happens as a consequence?

Interconnect: Let’s say you want to broaden the scope of the powers. Is there thematic interconnectedness? A single power source? Sanderson himself excels at this—Surgebinding in The Stormlight Archive has ten magical “Surges” that are fueled by stormlight, and each of the ten orders of magic users has access to two unique Surges. Mistborn’s sixteen powers were conceived to fill the roles of a heist crew, and are fueled consuming different types of metals. In fact, Sanderson’s love for interconnectedness goes so far, he’s got a unifying theory of magic that underlies every story in his universe, the Cosmere, the discussion of which could fill an entire dissertation.

Bottom line: the result of this is a world that feels more realistic: Our existing world is incredibly complex, but it’s also governed by fundamental rules that unify the variation we see. Biology can be explained by chemistry, which in turn can be explained by physics (and as with everything, there’s a relevant xkcd). In the same way, the interconnectedness of powers and limitations leads to a world that feels more cohesive and believable, and makes magic less of a “kitchen sink.”

Streamline: Don’t use a new thing when an old thing will do. It can be illustrative to look at how different groups of people face the same challenges and resources. A mark of good worldbuilding and storytelling is efficiency: how many purposes can you make a single power source serve? A single religion? A single character?

Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris, and the related novella The Emperor’s Soul demonstrate this principle. In these stories, the primary magic known to the kingdom of Arelon is called as “AonDor”—drawing specific shapes in the air to channel magic to create intended effects. However, several other nations exist in the same world, each with their own magic system derived from the concept of shapes; Dakhor monks have arm bones twisted into specific shapes that grant powers such as durability and teleportation, ChayShan is a complex martial art that magically enhances strength and grace, and the Rose Empire’s Forgery uses deliberately-shaped “stamps” to magically alter an item’s identity or history. Thus, although the source and origin remain the same, the method of accessing magic each say something different about the culture that uses it.

All in all, of course, these are just guidelines; a framework that may or may not be useful to wrap your brain around building a magic system. But they’re useful tools to keep in mind, from someone who certainly seems to know what he’s doing. And if these laws still sound too stuffy or prescriptive for you after this article, Sanderson has you covered with his Zeroth Law: When in doubt, err on the side of awesome.

Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. You can visit their website and read full issues here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on twitter for the latest news or to talk with the team that creates it. Nerdolopedia is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.

Works Cited:

Sanderson, Brandon. Sanderson's First Law. 20 Feb. 2007, brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/.

Sanderson, Brandon. Sanderson's Second Law. 16 Jan. 2012, brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-second-law/.

Sanderson, Brandon. Sanderson's Third Law of Magic. 25 Sept. 2013, brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-third-law-of-magic/.

Featured Artwork by Marc Simonetti