Sanderson Other Two Laws of Magic

Posted: March 28, 2016 in Craft Post

Welcome to this week’s continuation of the new Craft Post Series on Magic Systems. Last week covered the age old debate should Magic be mysterious and wonder or have rules? Or to put it simple, Sanderson First Law of Magic. To read it you can do so Here. (Note, my strong opinion is in this post.) This week I am going to cover Sanderson’s Second and Third Law of Magic. Please note these laws are not actual laws you must follow to build your magic systems. They are what Best Selling Fantasy Author Brandon Sanderson uses when building his own. I am covering them because I like them.

Wondering what the second and third laws are? They are:

  • Limitations > Power
  • Expand on what you have already before you add something new.

Side note: I actually used both of these laws in the formation of several of my magic systems in my Forbidden Realm Series revamping. They really helped. Now that I have covered that, let’s dive into second law.

Limitations > Power

In Sanderson opinion is that limitations are far more interesting than capabilities. Limits can cause conflict, and that is the number one rule for writing fiction. No conflict, no story. When magic can’t do everything you want it to, then why doesn’t it just solve the problems instantly. Sanderson has a great example of this:

“Superman’s numerous and virtually unlimited superpowers

make him boring; he can easily defeat any opponent, and solve

  many problems in the blink of an eye. A bad guy appears,

superman quickly defeats him, and then the story is over.

But when the bad guy wears armor made of Kryptonite,

suddenly he poses a threat. Superman faces a challenge.

There are conflict and dramatic tension.” – Brandon Sanderson

Ever wonder why most Superman movies aren’t the best, because he is too powerful and they never give him a villain that can really challenge him. Wondering what a limitation is? Kryptonite is somewhat of a limitation, but not the best example of magic. Though Superheroes are basically a magic system, it isn’t the typical kind we think of. This is simple, what can’t magic do? Is there a weakness to something, that were Superman would fall under. Is there a cost? Can everyone us it or only a few? The limitations can be endless, and what you want. There is nothing unique out there, just someone else’s take on it.

If you ever played any RPG video gram, there is a magic system. Yes, even Science Fiction ones, it’s call technology. Consider Elder Scrolls, to use magic in those games you need to have a full bar of Magicka, and depending your level and spells you use the faster or slower the bar drains. It eventually replenishes itself through drinking potions or resting. However, when the bar is empty your character can’t cast spells. There is a cost to use magic in that game and when you don’t have what it costs you can’t use it.

While having a power that can do anything is great and tempting, it also makes for lazy writing for the most part. It also goes back to the type of magic you want in your books, how it works or a sense of wonder. I do disagree with Sanderson on this law just a little. To me if magic can’t do anything then why is it called magic? Not all of my magic systems can do this, but if it is actually called magic in the story then you can bet you can do anything. However, it is only someone of great knowledge and experience that can reach to that level of understanding. Even then, there are limits as they are a person and while they can do whatever they want, who they are can limit what how or what they will and won’t do with the power.

Expand on what you have before you add something new

This law is great advice. When developing a magic system you have all these ideas of what you want to do with it and how to make it awesome. However, unless you flesh out what you have it may look huge but at the same time shallow. Think of it this way, Your magic system has fifteen different abilities or styles of magic. Which one of the sounds better to you?

In the first book, you reveal and show all nearly all fifteen different styles of magic. You have some awesome battles or challenges that allow each style what it can do. However, on second look, when you add up what each style can do in a least says 100k words novel there really isn’t much to any of the ten of the fifteen styles you showed. The book ends with a great ending that teases the reveal of the rest of the styles.


In the first book you focus on a conflict of two opposing styles with no really, knowledge of anything else beyond these two styles. Maybe some sublet hints, but that’s it. Through out the book, the reader keeps getting more and more form each of these two opposing styles and it rises to the ultimate ending of the book with a great showdown of everything that the characters of these styles can do. The book ends with the reveal of a third style maybe even the forth, but only a taste. That’s not all, but what is believed to be the absolute depth of these two styles is also revealed to be only the surface of what they can do.

Tell me which one is more interesting from a magic system? For me, it is the later. The reason for me is that if I read a book that did something like that and I was left with the feeling there is nothing else these styles can offer only to reach the end to find out I was wrong and there is more and not only that but two other styles. Well, now I want that sequel in my hands ASAP. Why, because the two styles I spent learning about for a whole book were well fleshed out and thought through to what appeared to be their limits only to find out I still don’t know everything. Then there are two new styles that I will assume are just as in-depth as the ones I already know.

Here’s why I don’t like the first one. By the time I get to the second book, I will learn something new about the new styles introduced but I wont learn anything else about the other ten as I have already learnt all there is. It won’t take long when the characters are using the same spells or abilities over and over again in the same situations. Then in the third book, that author realizes there mistakes and rushes to try to flesh out all fifteen styles even more so she can do more with it in the next book and so he isn’t bored while writing it. The new additions may help, but because there were so many the author had to expand on there are contradictions to what were very clear about the style couldn’t do.

Okay, outside of that there are other things that can be done. How about connecting everything to make it one system instead of fifteen different ones or can these different styles or magic systems work together even combined? How does this magic effect the rest of the world? Example of this is in the Wheel of Time series, when men use magic they go insane. What happens to the gender dynamics then? Women take more of primary role in leadership or do men force their will on those below them?

Expanding doesn’t just mean what magic can do, but how it effects and changes your world that it is in. This is something I thought of for my Forbidden Realm series. I have two magic systems that are similar, but one is more suitable for close quarters while the other for range. Both systems can do either, but they are just better at one then the other. How does this change the world? What if in the military they teamed one of each together, one range to keep enemies on their toes while the close quarters got read the enemy?

Well, that is all I got on this topic for this week. You can find articles Brandon Sanderson has written himself on his three laws. You can find them here. (First Law, Second Law, and Third Law) Next week I will break down the method I have been using to create the magic systems I have been working on for the last two months.


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