The Science of Magic

One of the biggest protests to reading fantasy is, “Well, magic means anything can happen and it doesn’t have to make sense.”

I’ve read books like that–I call one of them out below–and I agree. They’re problematic. People want to read books with plots that, you know, work. Magic can’t just come in and clean out the corners we’ve written ourselves into.

The way to make magic “magical” again is, ironically enough, to think about it scientifically. It needs to behave in somewhat predictable ways in situations with similar variables. It needs laws.

That’s where Brandon Sanderson comes in. I became his admirer after reading only one of his novels, his first, which most of his fans say is actually one of his weaker entries. What I loved most about Elantris was the magic system. The main mystery in the book is, “Why did the magic in this world stop working?” The solution, hinted at beautifully throughout the book, was satisfying no matter which way I turned it—and honestly just plain neat.

Each of Sanderson’s magic systems is based on something really fresh and cool, like metallurgy or color. Each introduces new problems and innovative solutions. He is probably the best-known magic system developer today. So, many fantasy readers are aware of Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.

He does not call them Laws of Magic because they are a standard he arrogantly foists on the rest of us. He calls that because they are the laws he gives himself. They create the kinds of books that he likes to read. Apparently, others like to read them too.

This is not news for experienced fantasy readers. But I wanted to write out a summary of his Laws of Magic for my blog, in hopes that

  • it may prove helpful to the uninitiated in interpreting all speculative fiction, from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Star Trek (because Giordi’s mechanical gobbledygook  is, for all intents and purposes, magic)
  • thinking it over in writing may help me to improve the abysmal magic system in my story.

Follow the links to read his own illuminating descriptions. Mine is the TL;DR version of his honestly much better essays.

The First Law of Magic: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

“And the power of Lucie’s love formed a golden light that lifted her husband out of danger. It formed a protective barrier around the family as they made their steady way out of the city. With a scream, Madame Defarge rushed at Lucie to stab her with a knitting needle, but she disintegrated into dust as she touched the light. Bystanders watched in awe. After everyone was in safety, the miraculous light mysteriously vanished. Sydney Carton started drinking again.”

Of course this ending to The Tale of Two Cities would be ludicrous. Nothing in the book’s intricate web of characters and plotlines has prepared us for this. Dickens would lose reader trust if he couldn’t create a world that could solve its own problems. Fortunately for us, he did create a world that could solve its own problems: a spy plot, a prior courtroom scene, a love triangle, a thematic preoccupation with doubling, have all foreshadowed the REAL ending.

The same applies to good fantasy. The created world as the author has presented it, including how the magic has functioned thus far, should hint at the surprising yet inevitable solution to the plot problem. Slapping “magic!” on a deus ex machina solution doesn’t make it more satisfying.

Good Examples

Sanderson’s most common reference to an explained magic system is, perhaps surprisingly, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

In I, RobotAsimov establishes the Three Laws, then introduces robots acting weird: running around in giant circles, or (at least apparently) breaking one of the Laws. The scientists have to use the Three Laws to decipher what is causing the wacky behavior. Because readers know the rules, they’re able to track with Asimov all the way, leaving satisfied that he has fulfilled the promise of the system he’s set in place.

Other good examples (from my own experiences) include how Toph solves being kidnapped in a metal box in Avatar: The Last Airbender, how Eugene defeats the villain in Tangled, and how Miri solves the final problem of Princess Academy.

BAD Examples

Sanderson doesn’t name names for bad examples. But I, for one, have been disappointed with insufficiently explained magic in my own reading of Robin McKinley. While her poetic voice drew me to buy several of her books at once, her magic is a huge confusing deus ex machina at the end of each:

The heroine is in an impossible situation. It’s really tense. Oh man, I think. I’m in for a really cool resolution. How in the world can she use what she’s learned and the relationships she’s developed to get out of this one? Then MAGIC HAPPENS. It fixes everything. Vines spring up to carry the heroine where she needs to go, or suddenly a tsunami of light shoots out of her sword. All prior plot details are thrown aside. If this was going to solve everything, why did I read 200 prior pages of material?

Other examples that grate on me a wee bit: the ending of the animated Howl’s Moving Castle (but dang if I love it anyway), the tear that heals Eugene at the end of Tangled, the Lifestream stuff at the end of Final Fantasy VII, and quite honestly the ultimate resolution to Avatar: The Last Airbender (fulfilling for Aang’s arc, yes, but where did that lion-turtle come from with his out-of-the-blue solution?)

To Explain, or Not to Explain

Interestingly, there are several different ways people use and appreciate magic when reading or writing fantasy. (I’m drawing here from Season 11 of Writing Excuses.) In some cases, magic is best left unexplained. It depends on what you’re writing—or reading—for.

Inexplicable magic is fine if you want to use it to convey a sense of Wonder. From Tolkien: Who is this Tom Bombadil, who tames trees with stupid songs, who can wear the Ring on his finger and not disappear? NO ONE KNOWS—and that’s kind of the point! This mysterious man—the Eldest, he says, not elaborating on what he means—lives right on the edge of the suburban Shire. There’s a god in the neighborhood. It may be random, but even while you are scratching your head at it thinking Tolkien has made some mistake, he is setting the stage for a big mysterious world, where the numinous hovers on the edges of everyday life. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The reason Tom works (even if your engineer big brother makes fun of him for the rest of everyone’s lives) is that he follows Sanderson’s first law: he does not solve big plot problems. In fact, when Tom is brought up in the Council of Elrond as a possible solution to the problem of the Ring, he is quickly dismissed. So, unexplained magic can be great to increase thematic sense of wonder. But Tolkien has the good sense not to bring in a similar character at the base of Mount Doom.

Many writers use a mix of explained and unexplained magic: for example, the characters understand the magic system to some degree, but there are some things about it that even the most gifted scholars don’t understand yet. Just like our own world! Neat!

Dang. I’m way over what Cap, my “blog conscience,” says should be the target word count. I’ll save the other two Laws of Magic for next week!

unsplash-logoRiley McCullough

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3 thoughts on “The Science of Magic

    1. I feel this deeply. I finished writing an entire novel with a half-baked magic system because I loved the characters too much to stop and actually figure out how it would work, affect the economy, etc. Now that I’ve forced myself to work on a magic system, I can’t believe how much more FUN the world building, fight scenes, and … EVERYTHING is! Once we find the magic system we love, it carries us through a lot of what was once drudgery.

      Liked by 1 person

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