Actual Laws for Writing?!
Not to worry, you won’t get fined for breaking Sanderson’s laws! He named them ‘laws’ as a bit of a joke (I’m guessing there’s a science joke in there, somewhere).
However, Brandon Sanderson is probably one of the best people to learn from for developing magic systems that feel unique. So, it definitely can’t hurt your writing to follow his guidelines on the matter.
All About Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson is an American fantasy & sci-fi author who is most known for his Mistborn series and The Stormlight Archive. He’s done a great deal to teach writers more about writing and magic systems in his university classes (which you can watch on YouTube!) and his Writing Excuses podcast.
There’s plenty to learn from Sanderson, so let’s dive in to the laws he specifically named after himself!
1) Sanderson’s First Law
The first law is: an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
This is essentially an introduction to “soft” magic systems and “hard” magic systems. According to this law, a soft magic system doesn’t follow very strict rules. The reader never really learns how it works or what the limits of this type of magic are (think about Gandalf, for instance).
If that’s the type of magic you use, according to this law, you should NOT use this magic to solve problems for your characters. That would undermine the plot.
On the other hand, we have hard magic. This is where the rules of the magic are explained—it has clear constraints and the reader understands how it works. Superhero stories tend to fall under this category. Here, you CAN use magic to solve problems for the characters.
If your magic system falls somewhere in the middle, you should only use the magic to solve conflict when it’s clear to the reader that it’s possible to do so. MORE: 10 Mistakes to Avoid While Writing Your Fantasy Story
2) Sanderson’s Second Law
The second law is: limitations > powers.
All this means is that it’s a heck of a lot more interesting to know what your powers or magic CAN’T do instead of what it CAN do.
It’s the limitations within the magic that make it interesting.
When you create your magic system, think of a limitation, cost, or weakness within your magic system. For instance, elemental magic in itself isn’t new or original. But when you add a massive limitation or cost to the system, it becomes something new.
Suddenly, the magic becomes part of the struggle and the conflict in the story.
3) Sanderson’s Third Law
The third law is: expand what you already have before you add something new.
This is the difference between wide and shallow, and narrow and deep worldbuilding. While it’s possible to add more cool magic to your story, everything you add affects your world as a whole.
Things become more complicated. You have to consider how adding a certain magic influences the different aspects of your world, like the economy and culture.
If you don’t, your world-building will appear shallow. For more depth, you have to consider all the different layers. This is why expanding on what you already have is an important step before you decide if you should add anything new.
What Writers Can Learn
Creating a magic system is more than just thinking of a cool power someone can have. Make it unique by adding limitations and costs and tie it in with the plot.
If you follow Brandon’s advice, you’ll have an awe-inspiring magic system in no time!
Bio: Iris Marsh is an editor for indie authors and the author of the YA urban fantasy novel Illuminated. She feels everyone has a story to tell and loves to help other authors hone their story so they can share it with the world. If you’re currently struggling with editing your novel, check out her website for tips and her free self-editing course.