I had a conversation with a writer friend recently (by conversation you should understand that to mean I.M. chat) about magic as used in fantasy fiction. He noted that the wonder and awe of magic in a story was what appealed to him. He also mentioned that for him as a reader, if the magic was too well-defined, into a system of sorts, then it became more of a technology than a mysterious force.
We discussed how this point of view was reflected in Tolkien’s works, particularly in Lord of the Rings, where magic is used infrequently, is so rare that only a few possess the power to perform magic, and the source of power and how to use it is never really explained.
I agreed that that approach in a story is very powerful and keeps magic at a distance so it feels like a big unexplained and awesome force. For many readers this is what they want and expect of magic in a story, and a story written in this manner can be successful on multiple levels. If Tolkien’s works are an example of this, and many consider him to the grandfather of the epic fantasy genre, then this model is a good one.
However, there are caveats to storytelling with magic as a rare, mystical force. This is where the author must balance the power of magic within the story with the influence arcane powers can have on the plot. Best selling author, Brandon Sanderson, devised what he calls Sanderson’s First Law–you can read his article here, where he discusses the limits of how magic can influence the plot based upon how well said magic is defined for the reader. The text of the law is below.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. (*”satisfactorily” added later by Sanderson).
So, Sanderson is arguing that the reader derives story satisfaction in fantasy fiction by the relationship between magic and solutions to conflict or problems for the characters.
In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf possesses great magic and it isn’t really explained how he got it, how he uses it, and what is the scope of his powers, but it doesn’t bother us because he uses magic so infrequently and his influence on the story is minor or indirect in most cases that it never feels like we need to know more about the magic. Gandalf is ancient, wise, magical and it seems that he always has always been. He is a true wizard. We don’t need to know if the source of his power is the earth, the sky, the moon, a mutation, part-Elven blood, a talisman he wears, or formal words of power he has learned. We accept that he is a wizard and his actions provide us with wonder and awe at what he can accomplish in certain situations. But he can’t save the world alone with his magic, he can’t destroy the One Ring, and he can’t defeat Sauron alone. So, although we love when he can use magic and its effects are powerful, he solves many more problems with his leadership, his blade, his wits, or his allies.
Would Lord of the Rings be more satisfying if we knew how Gandalf’s magic worked, how Sauron’s magic worked, how the Elves’ innate magic worked, or what power enlivened the Ents? I think for that great story, it would take away the wonder of Middle Earth. It is a magical realm and thus many places, races, and people are touched by magic. That’s all we need to know to be satisfied by the story.
This is what I think my writer friend meant in our discussion.
On the other hand, my writing and reading preferences lean towards the other end of the spectrum noted in Sanderson’s First Law. Like Sanderson, I like a well-developed magic system that the reader learns along with the characters. I like that a particular setting can possess great magic and much of it can seem powerful, wonderful, and awe-inspiring when it isn’t known, but can also be seen as highly useful, practical, and influential when understood and the magical power is harnessed by those characters who acquire or discover their own innate arcane capabilities.
With a defined magic system, the author can then use magic more often and in more various plot circumstances to solve problems or have characters overcome conflict because the reader will possess enough understanding to know how the magic should work, what its effects are, and most importantly what the limits of magic are.
Magic then becomes a sophisticated tool, weapon, cure, power, or method that operates within known boundaries that operate like real world laws of physics do for us. In this perspective, magic is indeed science that we don’t yet understand. Those that can learn it, can use it in a defined manner. The usefulness of the magic isn’t in the innate power of the magic itself, but in the judicious, clever, or appropriate application of its power by the characters. So, magic can’t solve problems, but the characters can use magic in a way that can solve problems.
Sanderson’s own Mistborn world has such a defined magic system. Allomancy as one of his magic systems is called, is the ability of a character to ingest metal flakes or powder suspended in liquid, and then harness that “source” to achieve a desired effect. Ingesting steel powder, for example, allows the allomancer to “push” with force against sources of steel in the world around him. If the object has less mass than the allomancer, the object moves away from him in a telekinetic manner, like a thrown ball or knife. If the steel object is fixed or weighs more than the allomancer, his body is propelled or pushed away in the opposite direction. A competent allomancer can use this to push down on a steel beam and propel himself into the air in huge leaps that can be timed to resemble flying if there is a constant source of steel on the ground below him to push upward on.
As an element of magic, this steel pushing power has defined attributes, logic, and limits. It behaves within the known laws of gravity and forces of wind, rain and other elements. It is a power we do not have in the real world, but if we did, theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves.
That last phrase, ‘theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves’ is what appeals to me as reader and writer. I like the wonder and awe of magic, but even more, I love the idea that if I had the innate power, I could actually learn to use these magics because as a reader, I’ve learned to understand how the magic works, and I can connect with the characters even more so because I want to be those characters for the duration of the story. I want to use the magic they have. I want to be the hero who has wits, weapons, and magic to face down evil and save the good people of the world from destruction or enslavement. I become the viewpoint characters and use magic with them, because I know how to use the magic the way they do and am thus more fully vested in the outcome of the story.
That is what resonates for me as a reader and because of that, I write in the same manner. I have developed a complex magic system that has rules, economics, defined attributes, a specific source, varying levels of power, and both known and unknown qualities that can be learned, studied, and pursued. This magic systems interests me and hopefully, when applied to my epic fantasy series, will interest my readers.
Magic in fiction seems to be applied in a spectrum or scale of wonder on one end and system on the other. Most writers of fantasy fiction fall somewhere on that spectrum.
Where do you fall?
Do you agree or disagree with Sanderson’s First Law?
What style of magic to you prefer to read? To Write? A defined system or an arcane power? Both?
Please share your thoughts as either a reader or writer and let’s continue the Great Magic Debate.