The Great Magic Debate

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.



17 responses to “The Great Magic Debate

  • arnie joseph bell

    Great post. I agree. The worst thing about fantasy to me is when a character can use a certain type of magic in a particular situation, and yet later in the the plot, the same type of situation turns up and the character forgets to use the same magic because if he/she did then the story wouldn’t work. Fantasy is only different from science fiction when the magic is inconsistent. Fantasy writers please treat your magic systems as coherent wholes.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      Thanks for the comment. I have to agree that either the inconsistent use of magic by characters or the author’s use of deus ex machima type magic to save characters from a tough situation bothers me as a reader. Thus, as a writer I try to avoid those scenarios by creating a magic system bible where at least I know the full scope and power and consequence of using magic, even if most characters do not.

  • Chris G.

    Fascinating read – reminded me of college discussions, when I still had a writers group to engage with. Good times, truly.

    How one crafts their magic in their world is as critical to the work as anything else. There are a fair number of the “epic fantasy” sorts tend to go with the “unlimited power!” scenario, in which it is frequent, deadly, yet with little backlash. I must say, I can’t stand that version. Vexes me as little else, because it completely disconnects me. It leaves no ground – no flaws, no hold-backs, no woes save for the bad guy having some great trick up his sleeve to make himself better than you?

    I’ve always preferred the low magic, but bloody potent when you do see it. I like there to be flaws, dangers to the the whole craft of it – and that flows into the discussion of “defined magic systems.” While I probably don’t desire to have the full schematics of the system tossed willy-nilly at my feet for me to nitpick my way through, but I do like having an idea of why this system works. A moderate scope of how this power works – its capabilities, its limitations. I do like a bit of structure more than the “it simply is” clause, but I do like there still to be a touch of mystery to it all. Certainly keeps me clamoring through, forming possibilities in mind. So to sum there, I suppose: a little of column A, a little of column B. I certainly did enjoy the system Sanderson utilized though…

    In my own writing, I suppose my magic tends towards alchemical principles – there needs to be a sort of give and take. Components, like Sanderson used in his Mistborn series. Flaws for such displays of power – exhaustion surely being the least of anyone’s worries there.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that the reader shouldn’t be able to see under the proverbial hood of a magic system, but they should be able to ascertain that the vehicle works in predictable ways when utilized and even recognize the basic size, shape, and capabilities of said vehicle. Although it isn’t easy and takes a fair amount of work to achieve the right effect, authors should strive for balance between wonder and believability in their magic systems.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    I’m not a strong adherent of either side, per se. Obviously, both methods of magic have their strengths, and their weaknesses.

    I will, however, add what I might pretentiously call “The Watkins Corollary” to “Sanderson’s First Law”: “A Protagonist’s ability to solve a plot problem with magic, satisfactorily, is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic. Non-Protagonists can use ill-understood magic to solve problems so long as it is established prior to the presentation of said problem that the non-progatonist is capable of using the ill-understood magic in that specific way.” Which is to say… Sanderson’s law applies specifically to the activity of protagonists, I think. For example: you don’t need to understand the who/what/why/etc. of magic in Tolkien’s world to accept that Frodo and Sam were saved from the erruption of Mount Doom by Giant (magical) Eagles. We’ve established that Giant (magical) Eagles exist and on occassion do favors for various non-flying characters. It’s part Deus Ex Machina – since the solution to this problem comes about not by Frodo and Sam’s activity but by some foreign agent – but it’s a Deus Ex Machina that is appropriately foreshadowed.

    Anyway… I’ve enjoyed stories where magic is nebulous and “mysterious” and I’ve enjoyed stories where magic is “science in a universe that works differently from ours, and we also call it magic”. I think my general enjoyment – and my reaction against Dei Ex Machinae – stems a lot from the way a book handles not just Sanderson’s 1st Law, but the way they implement it at a detailed level, a la the above-detailed “Watkins Corollary”.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      Agreed. Reader satisfaction is a personal experience and we as authors cannot expect one approach or the other to satisfy all potential genre readers.

      My main point is to at least get authors to be deliberate about what effect and experience they want to elicit in the reader. If I treat magic with awe and distance in my writing, then so to will the reader. If I detail a magic schema and system with rules and boundaries and reveal that to the reader, then the reader will understand how magic works and think of it more as a tool or weapon than a vague force.

      Beyond that, consistency is key as Arnie requested in an earlier comment. We can’t have magic, or the use of magic by characters be inconsistent or we lose the reader’s trust.

      As for Deus Ex Machima, yes, properly foreshadowed, it can be used, since Frodo and Sam are not magical and could not in that scene at Mt. Doom save themselves. But, Gandalf was magical and had made allies of the eagles, so it wasn’t too shocking that he called upon their aid.

      What is important to note, and I think some readers complain about, is that some authors grant their protagonists powers or new facets of known powers at the critical juncture of a story and that method of plot solution tends to ring false or feel contrived to the reader. Or the characters don’t use the full extent of their known powers to their own advantage at every opportunity, thus creating artificial and weak conflict that otherwise might be easily overcome with magic their already possess. This speak to me of lazy writing.

      A warning to all who wield magic in their writing….

      • Stephen A. Watkins

        Yes. Really, what it boils down to is this: however a plot problem is overcome, the tool/mechanism/ability used must have been demonstrated prior to its application in that plot problem, relative to the severity of the problem. Small plot problems – things that aren’t central to the main problem of the story, but are most inconsequential obstacles in the character’s path – can be overcome by Dei Ex Machinae without breaking the story at all. But you can’t overcome the major problem of the story that way without demonstrating that capability first.

        The inverse corollary is also true: the sudden evaporation or disappearance of a tool/mechanism/ability previously demonstrated in a story that would be useful in solving a particular plot problem needs to be explained prior to its non-application in that plot problem.

  • Nate

    I wonder what you could say about the Harry Potter series and the system of magic contained in it. Obviously it was wildly popular so there must be something successful about the way Rowling implemented her magic system. Would you say it leaned more towards the undefined or more towards the defined? I have to admit to being sometimes a little unconsciously bothered by the fact that I didn’t really know what the magic was capable of, yet I enjoyed the series anyway.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Good question. I think Sanderson commented on this once in regards to his First Law and indicated the Potter system of magic was near the middle of the spectrum.

    Here’s an excerpt from Sanderson’s First Law:

    “Most writers are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. A good example of what I consider to be near the center point would be Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic. She adds new rules as she adds books, expanding the system, sometimes running into contradictions and conveniently forgetting abilities the characters had in previous novels. These lapses aren’t important to the story, and each single book is generally cohesive.

    I think she balances this rather well, actually. In specifics, her magic is hard. In the big picture, her magic is soft. That allows her to use magic as points of conflict resolution, yet maintain a strong sense of wonder in the novels. ”

    Perhaps being in the middle provided a broader appeal to a bigger audience?

  • m. ramirez

    I think where Rowling’s magic system comes alive is in those who use the magic. Yes her system is powerful, but the main characters aren’t really that powerful because they’re kids who are learning the system alongside us. Harry is only good at two things, using magic as a natural reaction (like a reflex) and flying. Ron isn’t really good at doing any magic. Hermione is good at magic, but mostly in controlled environments–she’s the typical “student”–and after she’s studied and taken the time to learn a particular spell.

    Because of these characterizations Rowling can have her characters use magic (or not) as it makes sense to the story and to the context the characters find themselves in. If one of them doesn’t use a particular spell that we, as readers, think could’ve solved the problem, we can chalk it up to the characters being under pressure, stressed, not thinking clearly due to their inexperience, etc.

    If Rowling’s universe centered on powerful characters, like Dumbledore, Voldemort, or Sirius then (I think) she’d have had a completely different problem with her magic system, and we as readers would probably break through the verisimilitude if she didn’t handle things “correctly.”

    Another area that binds Rowling’s magic is in the creation of spells. Her magic system is primarily centered around specific spells. Now new spells can certainly be created (as we saw in Half Blood Prince) but it takes a skilled witch/wizard to create something new. This skill is achievable, but is usually done by the “adults” in the world. Since the main characters are just learning basic spells at Hogwarts, and they’re not being taught to create their own spells (yet), we add another point into their “inexperience” column.

    So yes, Rowling’s magic system is extremely powerful, but the system is a process of lengthy study constrained by spells and reagents for those spells.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      I personally had no issue with Rowling’s magic system, despite the fairly conventional use of wands to focus/channel the magic energy. She made the rules clear to us as Harry learned them and I never felt like magic solved plot problems in a heavy handed way. I think she struck the right balance of a system and magic that is both powerful and wondrous. By tucking the magical world right under the Muggles’ noses, that created such a compelling parallel world where dragons and goblins and elves and griffins and basilisks existed was simply brilliant, to use one of the Potter exclamations.

  • m. ramirez

    One other note about Rowling’s magic system. Only the most powerful witches/wizards can use magic without a wand. Not even Voldemort or Dumbledore uses magic without a wand. This gives Rowling a tremendous “out” when it comes to writing. If she doesn’t want a character to use magic in a given scene all she has to do is take away their wand.

    And if the wand doesn’t belong to them, or it’s broken, then pretty much the magic has unusual effects that not even the caster can predict. This device allows her to place her characters in very precarious situations where magic (even wielded by the most powerful magic-users) typically cannot (or will not) generate a deus ex machina moment.

  • Diabolus Ex Machina, Sanderson’s First Law, and the Watkins Corollaries « The Undiscovered Author

    […] short digression.  I first used the term “Watkins Corollary” last week in a comment on Mark Taylor’s blog post about magic systems and Sanderson’s First Law.  In my comment, I noted two specific […]

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Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

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The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.