Wednesday 12 December 2012

Uh ... excuse me, but your magic system is showing ...

Brandon Sanderson (a popular fantasy author that I've yet to read) gives us:

Sanderson's First Law of Magics: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
And in a recent review of a friend's book someone said:

The lack of explanation of the magic system has me hesitant to continue the series.

Now both of these are opinions. I have a different one:

I've never been aware of reading a book with a well explained magic system. I can't say how I'd enjoy it but my instinct is that if an author started to explain the magic to me as if it were a system born on the pages of a Dungeons and Dragons rule book I would walk away. I quote Sanderson here because I've seen the 'law' repeated in several places. It's entirely possible I would enjoy his work - I don't have time to find out right now - but the sentiment that radiates off the two quotes above sits uneasily with me.

Don't get me wrong - I started playing D&D in 1977 and spent man-years at it. I love magic rules, the inventive combinations that one can concoct in something like Magic The Gathering. I like understanding how things work (I am a scientist after all). However, a novel is not a role-playing game put into words. For me, for magic to be magical, rather than just weird science, it needs mystery. It is an act of writing skill to simultaneously construct the mystery in magic and the faith that it will not be abused. Gandalf's magic didn't come nailed to a system diagram. He wasn't limited to some pre-declared set of rules - two level 1 spells a day - a fireball can only be yay big - or whatever. We trusted Tolkien that along with the mystery there would be an appropriate restraint. Gandalf was never going to say 'sod this let's fly' and magic them into the air, he was never going to turn the balrog into a toad. His power enchanted more than his enemies - it enchanted us - remnants of lost lore and ancient traditions, embodied in and by the man.

If I had to frame a law it might run:

Lawrence's First Law of Magics: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the author gains the reader's trust and draws them into his world.

But both versions miss the point somewhat. The primary reason for including magic in a book (if you're me) is for the magic of it. To give the reader chills - to excite them - to make them wonder. Magic isn't there to solve conflicts - that's what cleverness and bravery and fortune are for. Magic is there to rock.

And if you do happen to wipe out thousands of men with magic and nary a hint of a cog-wheel or subsection to rule 27 paragraph 2 ... sometimes people go with it anyhow. Because they're in there with you, they trust your vision, they're sold.

That's the magic. Writing is the magic. Rules are for games.


  1. Orson Scott Card (the older, gentler, kinder version) in his book on writing SFF says that there must a price for magic. It's got to cost something, some sort of sacrifice must be made, which makes sense to me.

    But I agree about the mystery. I like that GRRM keeps magic to a minimum in Song of Ice and Fire, but it's terrifying when it does pop up.

  2. In the same way that a sword has certain dimensions, set hardness and resistance to shattering, magic may benefit from rules. In the case of my stories, magic is the tool that the protagonist uses to solve problems. The heroine thinks about magic all the time, what she can and cannot do with it, how it'll save her or fail her. In some cases her character arc is tied to innovating how to use her magical skills in a new way. For her new powers to seem earned and not a deus ex machina, having a clear idea of her magic's rules is most useful for myself and the reader.

    Even Gandalf had rules for his magic, but he was not the protagonist. There was no need to explain them in the narrative. I love this type of magic, too, for its mystery and sense of wonder.

    Without limits on the protagonist's magic, I would not know how to successfully endanger her. And a good dose of peril is what all heroes want, whether they know it or not.

    1. all true - but not enumerating the limits is not the same as not having any.

    2. Preface: I love both your's and Sanderson's work (have read everything either of you have wrote, reading Prince of Fools now). Jorg is one of my all time favorite characters.

      I do not think your rule and Sanderson's rule are in conflict. Also, neither your novels nor Sanderson's novels violate either rule. You admit, "Magic isn't there to solve conflicts," instead you think, "Magic is there to rock." I think the two rules could be combined into something like, if you use arbitrary and unexplained magic to solve problems you readers will not trust you. The old phrase for this is Deus ex machina, which I personally cannot stand.

      Part of the brilliance of Sanderson's magic system is that the reader can more completely experience the magic. The magic becomes as much a part of the character as, for example, the ability to walk or see. For me it makes the magic more accessible and my deeper understanding of it breeds a deeper enjoyment. Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Maybe magic systems do take the magic out of magic but they do not take it out of the stories that inhabit.

  3. Frankly, Sanderson's First Law of Magics is stupid. I think the Broken Empire books did a damn find job of solving problems with magic while at the same time slowly revealing what magic was and how it worked. I still don't understand the "system" in your books, and I don't need to, because It Just Works.

    Magic in the Broken Empire reminds me a lot of Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. Both in Amber and in your books, magic is something, well, magical. Reducing it to draining "mana" and spells that fizz out of your brain upon utterance (and you can only remember a couple a day mind you--poor little brain) is just stupid. It might work for a RPG, but in a novel it's be incredibly lame (some D&D-based novels come to mind).

    In fact, it's almost as lame as explaining one's combat system in a novel (what is Jorg's THAC0, anyway?).

    1. From his dice rolls thus far, I'm thinking his THAC0 stands around an 8. Once per encounter he can increase his health via his necromantic powers by siphoning off his opponent's life force. When this ability is used, the opponent also suffers a -3 to their AC.

      Of course now that Jorg has lost his powers, he must use only his good old builder's steel blade and his own wits and prowess to survive.

  4. Hi Mark.

    It is true that even a tie-in novel to Pathfinder or the Forgotten Realms is not a RPG, either. There is bleed through and influence from games into the magic systems of a lot of novels today because the readers and writers have that background.

    Malazan, from Steven Erikson, came from his homebrew RPG world.

    I can't find it now, but I recall a blog post on the subject, where the author decried magic systems that were too formalized, too rigid and too predictable. She (I think it might have been Jemisin but I am not sure) decried the kind of rules bound magic that you dislike.

  5. Extremely well said. I've been in this camp for some time. I like Sanderson's work, but the magic he and several others employ can be boring to read about as it has a tendency to take over the story rather than allow the characters to shine.

    I prefer the Martin, Cook, Kearney, Erikson, etc. approach to magic over Sanderson's.

  6. I have to agree with you, Mark - I'm not terribly interested in books where the magic is explained in great detail. It's like historical research - you the writer need to know it all, but you should only put as much on the page as is required to tell the story.

    I blogged about this in the summer, giving my "three laws" - my favourite of which is "Magic should tend towards entropy" aka "magic should cause more problems than it solves" :)

  7. Patrick Rothfuss does an amazing job of explaining his magic system and making it seem plausible. I appreciate that. But, I think what's more important than explaining a magic system to the reader, is keeping the magic consistent. Too often a character's abilities vary according to what the plot requires, which is enough to make me stop reading a book.

  8. Mark, I agree entirely with your comment: Magic is there to rock. For me, I don't need to know all the ins and outs of the magic system. I'm prepared to trust the author to release small details of the underlying principles as they become necessary. I don't want to feel that I've got to attend a couple of technical classes before I can enjoy what I'm reading.

    I'm firmly in the 'sod all that theory, let's zap something!' camp.

  9. Nicely put.

    When I started designing my own fantasy world, many years ago, I started with the magic system. Over the years the one system evolved into six systems. I felt they were central to my world and of course its stories. But then I started actually outlining and writing my first novel.

    Initially, I wanted my book(s) to showcase the systems I had put so much thought into. I wanted to demonstrate their complexities, their advantages, and their limitations.

    A funny thing happened though. I realized the story isn't shit about the magic. I had been focusing so much time on the foundation of my world (magic, gods, nations, secret societies, etc.) that I neglected the absolute most important thing of writing. The story.

    What story did I want to tell? I got myself so wrapped up in this D&D idea of a fantasy novel, that I never considered what I wanted to say, and why.

    Now of course I am going the other extreme (that's just who I am - an extremist). Now I am trying to figure out the tale I want to tell and it's message. Should it parallel my hatred of Monsanto? Should it be about overcrowding and domination of one nation over many?

    This is what I'm working on now, but I'm glad I'm on the right track, even if I am over thinking my current state of affairs.

  10. "Magic isn't there to solve conflicts - that's what cleverness and bravery and fortune are for."

    Isn't that what Sanderson is alluding to in the first place? I mean, from what I understand is that if the magic rules of your system are not that well designed or explained, then magic as a problem solver should play a lesser role than had if it been more detailed.

    And I think there's some truth in that, else conclusions have a much higher risk for being perceived as false, fake, illogical... sometimes to the extent that it seems like the writer is doesn't understand how the magic works in his own world and seems like it's pulling things out of his/her own ass as convenient.

    As for the rest, is purely reader taste. I don't share the same notion as the reviewer mentioned. From my side, I enjoy learning about magic systems. I don't need to get a rule book of how it works, but for me discovering how the system works and the magic's capabilities in said world, solving the mystery of said magic has a certain appeal to me. So while I don't need the author spoon feeding me the magic system, I find it good practice that as the series goes along, more of how that magic works is revealed, hopefully in an organic way. But nothing of this really has bearing on how the author chooses to use magic in his/her world, and if it's used in a prudent way.

    I've only read one Sanderson original, which was the first of the Mistborn series. Really enjoyed it, and loved his magic system. By the same token, I could see some getting bored with it. I don't know, but I found it quite fun and original.

  11. I honestly believe that you and Brandon Sanderson have somewhat similar ideologies on magic systems, just use magic differently. Gandalf's magic worked without explanation because it wasn't needed to solve major conflicts. That is what Sanderson's law states. "An author's ability to solve conflict with magic" not "an author's ability to use magical forces that are terrifyingly strong but not central to the protagonist winning (or losing) the day." Having read his books and heard him speak on this subject at length, his books would absolutely not work if his magic system didn't have limits that the reader understood. There are also many authors that do not need a rule system because their books don't require it (ie, Abercrombie, Martin and yourself). It depends on the level of importance your magic is to the story. If you are going to melt the antagonist with a look after 3 books and thousands of pages without explanation, the reader will feel cheated. The closest I came to feeling this way was when Melisandre killed Renly with the shadow baby. It worked for the story because of the conflict of him killing his own blood, however what if she had done the same thing to kill Joffrey to avoid battle? It would not have worked because it would have been too easy and her magic is not explained and has no obvious price other than carrying around an unborn demon. The rules aren't important, the story is what counts, just don't fall back on magic to solve your problems if we don't know what it does.

  12. Is Brandon's Law saying that you should explain the magic system at least enough to forshadow how it will be essential to the story? I listened to half of Mistborn and thought the rules of his system made it more realistic and set up the reason for their journey (rare element).

    Mark, can you elaborate on what you mean by gaining the reader's trust? We don't have the same freedoms as Tolkien. I feel like we would have to show why Gandalf can't just spirit them away to Mordor.

    1. we don't have the same freedoms as Tolkien?

    2. I'm still iffy on whether Tolkien even had those freedoms. Personally, it always bothered me that Gandalf didnt just magic them to Mordor. Yes, it would have destroyed the story if he had, but it was never explained why he didnt. Or if he couldnt. In a way, it diminishes the adventure as you are constantly thinking "But all that trouble could have been avoided with this...". And you are left wondering if Gandalf wasnt that smart (doubtful), or if he just chose to let them face untold dangers for the fun of it. The resolution of it feels less satisfying when there was a seemingly obvious easier way. It's like when the all knowing wise mentor tells the chosen one to find the key, but withholds the information of what or where the key is. You sit there thinking, "Thats dumb, why doesnt he just tell him where the hell the key is and save him a lot of trouble?"

      Regardless, in reading the rest of Sanderson's post on said laws (not just the quote taken out of context), he explains that there is a strong place for "soft magic" systems such as Lord of the Rings. In fact, a lot of what you argued is the very same as Sanderson's opinions on such. I would recommend reading the entirety of the article if you havent.

    3. i) It's not a quote taken out of context ... it's a law. That's the whole point of laws. They're packaged so you can take them away and use them.

      ii) I still haven't figured out what freedoms you're talking about that Tolkien had and 'we' don't.

      iii) The fact that Gandalf didn't magic them to Mordor never gave me a second's doubt ... I utterly fail to understand your confusion. Surely to God the obvious reason he didn't is that he couldn't? We see him fail on multiple occasions (failing to power open the doors of Moria, failing to stop Saruman capturing him etc) why would we suspect he secretly holds the power of teleportation and expect Tolkien to explicitly explain to us that he does not? I was similarly unworried by the fact Gandalf didn't klick his fingers causing the whole of Mordor do turn into a small and malodorous stoat ... I didn't need anyone to explain to me why he couldn't or could and chose not to ...

    4. i) Yes, but just like our legal system (unfortunate as that may be), said law runs in to the problem of interpretation. From the wording of the law alone you say you disagree, but I dont personally believe your opinions differ at all from Sandersons. Nor do I see any direct conflict within the wording itself, as a minor conflict solved by mysterious magic isnt a negative at all.

      ii) I assume Tim meant the freedom to avoid addressing why something couldnt have been solved in a seemingly obvious and less complicated way. I wouldnt necessarily call it a "freedom", I was simply hitching off of his statement. My personal opinion is that an author can do what he wants, though many readers may find some choices detract from the solidity of the story.

      iii) That's mighty fine that it read so smoothly for you, but I feel you missed my point. Magic in that form is entirely plot based. What Gandalf is capable of can fluctuate depending on the situation, which isnt really that interesting. Take for example Kvothe from Name of the Wind. When he is confronted with a conflict, you understand the extent of his powers and the limits of the magic. It is satisfying seeing the ingenuity of his manipulation of the magic and his environment to solve problems. You actually have to think, well how the hell does he get out of this with what he has? For Gandalf, it is less satisfying, as you can only wonder if this (and every) situation falls within his handy dandy bag of tricks. Oh? It does this time? Good for him, good for him... I'm entirely aware this is just my opinion, but I know i'm not the only one with it.

    5. It's not that it's taken out of context, but it's taken without proper explanation. It's kind of like saying "leaves of three, leave it be" shouldn't be followed because it implies you should never touch or eat anything with three leaves even though some three leaved plants will be perfectly safe.

      Sanderson is saying if you want to use a soft magic system, that's okay as long as you don't use magic to solve major conflicts. If you create one rule for your magic system, you can now use that rule in a clever way to solve a conflict. Terry Goodkind does this pretty frequently in the Sword of Truth. He uses a soft magic system but occasionally will establish a rule that a character can then use in a clever way to solve a problem.

      Sanderon's first law is also more or less the same as what Scott Meredith says in Writing to Sell, but applied to magic: Randomness cannot solve major conflicts. In the same way that the good guys can't win because the bad guy gets hit by a random car, the good guys can't win because they conjure a power that they always had but for some reason never used.

    6. I've said my piece. I don't feel it my job, when somebody condenses their wisdom into a law, to accompany each mention of that law with the entire article that surrounded it. Or your interpretation of said article.

      I suspect you're taking this rather too seriously - and my remedy is to stop.

    7. Also, Tolkien does go briefly into why he doesn't magic them to Mordor. As a wizard, he can only aid the side of good so much without breaking his vows. Aside from being about the story, it is also about the characters growing as a result of the experience. As a result, the reader does, too. That's the beauty of good storytelling.

    8. Sorry it took so long to reply, Mark. What I meant by "we don't have the same freedoms as Tolkien" more or less referred to the difference in style between his time period and ours. It's been a while since I've read LOTR, but I recently read the first 15% of The Sword of Shannara, and thought it read much differently than modern fantasies I've read. There was a ton of backstory and info dumps, but very short on action scenes. My guess is that readers in our day want more focus on action scenes and intricacies of magic being shown, but I'm afraid I'm still being hazy on the point of your post. Now it seems you've had your say, so maybe I don't need to explain. I just didn't want to not respond to your question. I'm sorry I haven't read any of your work yet, but I look forward to doing so, and seeing how you earn the reader's trust without needing to go into the laws of magic too specifically.

  13. Rule-laden magic systems are to mystical magic what Star Trek is to Star Wars. Technology versus mythology.

    Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the mythology more.

  14. I do like 'Rules' for magic. In my series, magic kills off the least worthy, therefore magic-users in the world are rare. Those who do survive the learning of magic, either become academicians, court advisors, or gunslinger-like battle mages. Other than that, magic evolves with the user.

    I agree whole-heartily, magic should in itself remain mysterious. Robert E. Howard was great at keeping sorcerers mystical.

  15. I think the Sanderson law works, but only with a very limited premise. It should probably have this added to the beginning: If the book is heavily dependent on magic...

    I know L.E. Modesitt Jr. in a recent interview described how he laid out his magic system in modern scientific terms so that he wouldn't go outside those bounds. But, it still only works if magic plays a huge part in your books.

  16. Your comment on Gandalf is one that Sanderson himself has used before, stating something very similar. How many times did Gandalf use magic? (Besides creating a light) Off the top of my head I can think of fighting the Balrog, fighting Sauramon, The Battle of Helms Deep, and summoning the eagles.

    Compare that to the countless times magic is used in Sanderson's book as well as how well it is explained and I think that the "Law" has some element of truth to it.

  17. I agree completely with you. Sanderson's statement is good, but it's certainly not law. Magic is part of setting along with geography, religion, etc. Difference is that a writer could not expect that readers have any feeling of what it should be, if it is not a DnD based novel. For example you could say "in this country they serve to the one god" and its ok, but not "they use XX magic".

    So it could work (as novel and as magic system) both while keeping in obscure or making some statements about what mages can do, and what they not. Here there is two sides - some mystery in magic is certainly good and even necessary, but if magic plays major (as in Sanderson works) and/or main heroes are mages to much obscure can lead to poor characterization and unclear reasons of characters.

    Some examples (I prefer non-obscure approach but it seems to be non-popular by most readers):

    1. Tolkien uses magic very well. Magic is mystery but Gandalf is a mystery himself, not only when he uses magic powers, what he does rarely. And his preferable speaking to beasts and using magic objects are well working types of magic. His magic is not essential for plot, but Sauron's is, and the former is explained clear enough.

    2. In Martin work magic is a weak part (for me). Kind of Deus ex machina in Renly's case and sometimes pretty DnD: character in class 'Red priest' can perform a resurrection with certain negative effects, he also can kill any person after certain procedure with certain restrictions, other classes also appear.

    3. Abercrombie's work shows that writer could take into obscure not only magic but a geography of his setting too (not global but places of events as well). Don't think it is nice, lack of magic description could look similar.

    4. I like magic and its description in Strange&Norrell, Elfland's daughter. But it's not epic.

    Also I have to point the exact statement of Sanderson (from Reddit AMA):

    "I have tried to boil it down to three 'rules' or 'laws' I follow when writing magic systems.

    1) The author's ability to resolve conflicts in a satisfying way with magic is directly proportional to how the reader understands said magic. 2) Weaknesses are more interesting than powers. 3) If you change one thing, you change the world.

    Basically, the first one says "Don't pull things out of the air. If you want the magic to work, make it REAL and reliable. If you would rather have an air of mystery, which is fine, don't explain the magic--but don't make it do heavy lifting in the plot, either."

    The second one says that what the magic CAN'T do is where your story and your character conflict comes from. Allomancy is interesting in part because it relies on metals that can run out. Steelpushing is interesting because you can only Push directly away from yourself.

    This forces the characters to work harder, and makes the story more interesting. The most interesting things about Superman or Batman are their flaws--the things they can't do, the things that weaken them, their limitations.

    3) Magic in a world should be interconnected with the politics, economy, science, religion, and everything else. The author must think through the ramifications of changing small things.

    Next two magic systems you might see: 1) Disease magic. Bacteria have evolved to the point that they try to keep their hosts alive by granting them magical powers while you have the disease. So, you catch a cold, and can fly until you get over it.

    2) I've got a a very cool 'throwing spheres of light' magic that I'm working on...which, when you break it down, was inspired by seeing how accurate baseball pitchers were and thinking about how that could be weaponized in a fantasy world.

    3) That guy with his ice soap has me thinking about "freezing stuff in water" magic. Like, potions that do things only after they thaw..."

  18. Hi Mark,

    I will first say that I have not read your books yet, but I plan to next year so I can read the whole trilogy at once. However, I have read almost all of Sanderson's books.

    He probably shouldn't use the word "law", but the gist of it makes sense. All he is saying is that there are hard magic systems, where everything is explained almost like science. Once the rules are set-up (and hopefully done in a non-boring fashion), then it is easy to decide how to resolve conflicts by using the magic system.

    Then there are soft magic systems, where it is not explained such as Lord of the Rings. This leads to a greater sense of wonder, but Sanderson argues that the author has to be careful not to resort to deus ex machina.

    He also states that a lot of authors operate somewhere in between, so it is more of a continuum. He also never says that one way is better than another, but that he chose the hard magic route.

    Try Mistborn out when you get a chance, as he did a good job of slowly explaining the system, with most of it happening as a part of training sessions, so he wasn't overly descriptive about it.

    Looking forward to stating Prince of Thorns sometime next year.


  19. Great post Mark.. and it really rings true. I was reminded me of what Harrison Ford said to Mark Hamill while filming Star Wars.

    Mark Hamill was worried about his hair matching from scene to scene, so he'd constantly pull out the mirror to make sure his style hadn't changed.

    Harrison Ford noticed this, and asked him what he was doing. When Mark Hamill told him, Harrison quipped, "Kid, if they're noticing your hair, we got bigger problems!"

  20. I love to know the ins and outs of the magic system that is implemented in the world I am reading about. The more I know about the way it works, the better and more involved I feel with the magic. I am right there with the hero trying to figure out ways he can use his specific powers to solve his impediment- that's where the mystery and tension lay. Superhero's, for example, all have pretty consistent powers. If our hero can turn invisible, I want to see how he will use it to escape his particular pickle. Another example that comes to mind is the Japanese animation/manga "Fullmetal Alchemist" which uses a "hard" magic system, basically the characters can use a given material to create something of equal value to that material, I.E, turn a hunk of metal into a sword, or turn a shredded pile of cloth into a new shirt. With systems like these, tension can be created by putting characters into difficult situations where the limits of their powers really force them to have to be clever- this is particularly fun for me, because I like to feel like I understand the magic just as well as the character does, and I feel involved in the solution the characters come up with. In a way, the magic itself becomes a character that you come to understand as the story progresses. I like "soft" magic systems as well, I think everyone does! But as a person who has always gravitated towards semi-realism in art, I have a penchant for limited and well defined magic systems.