How to use Sanderson’s Laws of Magic to Build a Better (fantasy) Story

Coincidentally, this is not in reference to the Hocus Pocus Sanderson Sisters, but instead is a system of three laws developed by fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson.

I first heard of the Sanderson Laws of Magic while listening to the Writing Excuses podcast (which is a podcast I recommend to newbies and seasoned writers alike). As someone who loves having a structure to their writing, I was very intrigued by Sanderson’s laws. He takes a near-scientific approach, and it provides lovely food for thought as you take on developing magic in your story.

A good magic system should both be visually appealing and should work to enhance the mood of a story. It should facilitate the narrative and provide a source of conflict.

-Brandon Sanderson

Keep in mind, these laws––like many writing rules––are more like guidelines. Even Brandon Sanderson won’t tell you how to write your story, but these are great tips of tried-and-true methods.

The First Law

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

A large reason behind this rule is to avoid endings that feel contrived. You want to avoid a character solving all their problems with a wave of a wand at the end of the story. For obvious reasons, this cheapens everything you’ve built up to if it can all be fixed by simple, unregulated magic.

Sanderson insists that if your character intends to solve their conflict with magic, the reader better have a very clear understanding of the magic (and limitations, but we’ll touch more on this in the next law).

However, there are three different variants of how magic can be presented in your story, which will modulate the level of understanding of the reader’s needs. Sanderson describes this as soft, hard, and “the middle ground” magic.

Soft magic- Often more obscure, used in worlds where men are small and nearly insignificant when compared to the mystical workings and superior beings of the universe. Think Tolkien. We never get a full understanding of the magic in the Lord of The Rings, but you watch the story through the Hobbit’s journey. This is an adventure bigger than themselves, and the magic is as much of an unknown to them as it is to the reader.

i.e. magic should not solve the problems of the character.

Hard Magic – The rules of magic are explicitly described. This is where we find Sanderson himself. He is the king of developing these intricate, rule-laden magic systems. Our protagonist is going to be using magic to solve their problems because they are using their own wit and experience with magic to overcome obstacles.

The Middle Ground – This pulls from both hard and soft magic in the writing. Think Harry Potter. The spells have rules and there is a general understanding, but new rules get added as the books, and sometimes the magic is more of a non-understood force. Magic can solve some problems, but generally, it’s a character’s intrinsic qualities that will resolve conflict.

(Or Harry has ownership over the Elder Wand due to a technicality, shrugs…)

The Second Law

Limitations on magic should be greater than the power yielded from the magic.

This means weaknesses!

Limitations and weaknesses are what make a character interesting. Imagine watching a sporting event and knowing that the same team will win every time. You’d probably stop watching. But if that team were to start losing, you might be intrigued to stick around and watch what happens.

Heroic characters with super abilities and magic are not prized for their invincibility, they are heralded for overcoming challenges. Sanderson subdivides this into three buckets which these checks on magic generally fall into.

Limitations: Things the magic simply cannot do. I.e. Superman cannot see through lead.

Weaknesses: This is what the power is vulnerable to and can be exploited by an antagonist. i.e. Using kryptonite against Superman.

Costs: Tradeoffs for using the power. i.e. Frodo puts on the one ring to become invisible, but can then be seen by the Ring Wraiths.

The Third Law

An author should expand what they already have before adding something new.

In simplest terms: Expand, don’t add.

Instead of throwing a million different powers and subsequent rules for each one, utilize the power of simplicity and consider fewer powers but more in-depth. Find ways to connect powers to the overall world, culture, and themes of the story. Look for areas where you can streamline and combine abilities instead of adding them individually.

Don’t burden your story with too much exposition. If you’re creating a hard magic system, don’t sacrifice the novel’s pacing to explain how the rules work.

Don’t add brand-new rules and powers just to solve a task at hand. Instead, pull from what you already have, and think about the solution creatively.

Lastly, don’t add magic just to be cool or to shock. Consider how you can use magic to make your characterization and world-building stronger.

I hope you enjoyed this article, I know I got obsessively nerdy after hearing Brandon talk about these laws on Writing Excuses. If you are itching for more writing tips and tricks, follow me on Insta and subscribe to my Newsletter to Novelist!

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