Monday, October 10, 2011

Magic Systems

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A recent writing group and David Farland's last Author Advisory conference call with Brandon Sanderson has had me thinking about magic systems. I love magic systems; I think the one in the Mistborn books is the best magic system of all time.*

For those who don't know, Brandon Sanderson has two "laws" relating to magic systems that I think every fantasy writer should take into consideration:

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.

SANDERSON'S SECOND LAW OF MAGICS: A magic system's limitations are more important than its powers.

Click the links for more information!

There's a lot of good fantasy that doesn't use magic at all--George R. R. Martin's books, for example--but as a reader, I eat this stuff up. I've based nearly every story I've written around a magic system. Some very heavily (like CSH*), some more lightly (Like TDSF, which has three small magic systems, but they're not the focal point of the story.)

I'm really excited for the magic system in my next novel (see "Untitled" in the sidebar), which I've been told is a little . . . strange. But that can be a good thing, right? ;)

What are your thoughts on magic systems? If you're a writer, what have you used for one?

*Granted, I have not read WoT--I hear its system is pretty good, too.


  1. I've used barter-with-Mother-Nature system before, where the unnaturalness of what you were asking determined how exacting the cost was going to be. If you were speeding up a natural process, like healing or growing things, that cost less than doing something completely unnatural, like making inanimate objects fly.

    If you're not a YouTube-y type, Brandon also wrote about his second law in the 30th anniversary issue of Leading Edge magazine.

    ...Never mind. I just check the LE website and they've apparently sold out that issue.

  2. I think it's important to remember that magic systems aren't just for fantasy. Even with the hard sf by Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, the author has to make it clear how the science works in order to use it as an element in the plot. And as for the second law, stories that highlight the limitations of science can be extremely powerful ("Cold Equations" comes immediately to mind).

  3. A Song of Ice and Fire has magic. Just not a lot in the first book. :P

  4. Ah, Nathan stole my comment! GRRM's books have plenty of magic, only it is very free with its rule system, and is usually happening off screen. Still a great fantasy, though.

    As far as what I've used: the system I'm using now is based on the law of sacrifice (law made up by me). The costs for using in my world are so high that few become experienced. I always like magic where much has to be given in order to tap into magical power. Otherwise, it's just too convenient and easy.

  5. Ah. I've only read GRRM's first Song of Ice and Fire novel, so that explains it. ;)

    Thanks for sharing, guys!

  6. I am the worst with magic systems. I think they're so cool to read, but my sad brain won't come up with anything cool.

  7. This is a great post! I'm a fan of subtle magic. Or rather, the magic serves as an accent to the story, but not the vehicle to propel it.

    I'm glad I found your blog today! :)

  8. I haven't used a magic system, but I think it's fascinating. I write fantasy and, perhaps, one day I may venture down the magic realm.