“Your [the author’s] ability to solve problems with magic satisfyingly is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”– Brandon Sanderson
Why need to dawdle out an intro when a quote from Brandon Sanderson can do it for me? You know, I should try that more often. It’s a great relief that I don’t have to worry about cooking up useless facts to make an odd opening four lines long for you to skip, right? Oh…whaddayaknow, it worked. Sue me.
But anyway, if you’re not familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s three laws of writing Sci-fi and Fantasy (there is a zeroth law, so technically there are four), Sanderson wrote an article in 2007 about the law of magic in fiction, which would later go on to be dubbed Sanderson’s First Law. The others followed in 2011 and 2013, and though I can’t guess the debut of the zeroth law, I would guess it was around 2020 in his BYU lectures (that’s when I first heard Sanderson’s laws).
One thing worth mentioning: Sanderson’s laws are not. (not laws, I mean) They’re helpful guidelines for writers seeking advice, but the only permanent rule in writing is that you can arbitrarily choose to disregard any piece of advice is something else works for you. That’s why I’d advise listening to anyone from Brandon Sanderson to the Literature Devil: a wide scope of advice is crucial to discovering the bits that help you the best.
That being said, I believe that Sanderson’s laws are sound and worth listening to. I see a lot of writers disregarding these rules and (among other problems) fail at story writing because of a non-adherence to these rules. I’m going to explain this law to you in the best detail that I can, pros and cons, and why ultimately you should or shouldn’t follow it.
Simply put, the bigger your problem, the more nuanced your magic system must be–to solve problems satisfyingly, that is. This is why it was such a big problem when Starkiller in The Force Unleashed video game takes down a Star Destroyer with nothing but the Force. The Force is nebulous and had been manipulated in odd ways (such as Jedi mind tricks to Luke lifting C-3PO’s chair on Endor to fool the Ewoks), but never on such a scale as this one.
A poor magic system will inevitably create dissonance with the reader and plot holes in the story. For example, if Starkiller could take down a star destroyer with nothing but the Force, couldn’t Luke (being canonically a more powerful Jedi) do the same? or worse yet, if he’s more powerful, can’t he take down something even bigger? Say, the Death Star?
Hyping up a Jedi’s ability to do increasingly more powerful things with the Force is damaging to the Force’s limitations, which leads to the logical assumption that the Jedi can’t fail. If Starkiller, who’s little more than the son of a Jedi knight, trained in lightsaber fighting by Darth Vader, can take down a Star Destroyer, then how did Order 66 even succeed? After all, a Jedi with the kind of awareness to destroy something so big and powerful should be able to sense the changes if a clone trooper’s attitude towards them…right?
This is why, in more recent canon, the Jedi’s ability to manipulate matter is tempered by the intense mental fortitude it takes to lift objects and dominate minds, i.e., stronger-willed individuals take several powerful Jedi to break, and larger objects must only be lifted by those more skilled and experienced in the ways of the Force.
So to make sure that your readers understand that people using magic don’t have unlimited power, you might want to consider making some rules, or at least a few general stipulations. But if you don’t plan on solving any huge problems with magic, it’s not as necessary.
This rule can be applied to either soft or hard magic systems, and I wrote an article about that not too long ago that can be found here if you want to know what I’m talking about. But I think that this rule is worth taking a try if your alpha readers are complaining that your magic feels just like a way to square away the story’s big problems.
Now, should you adhere to Sanderson’s first law? Well, you probably know what I’m gonna tell you: it depends. I can’t decide for you: decide for yourself. Take a look at your story with a critical law and consider whether or not you think it’s necessary to start talking about refining your magic systems.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!