Laws of Magic: Less is More

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it, that magic—this concept that makes possibilities endless—can actually be better when you give it boundaries? Part of the lure of magic is that it’s mysterious, right? Not necessarily.

The draw of fantasy for many is not only passively experiencing, but learning a new world: understanding it well enough to work out its implications, anticipate its problems, glory in its creative solutions. We crave comprehension. That’s why repeated motifs in any series are so satisfying: Data’s cat is not fulfilling in and of itself, but it is fulfilling to me that I know Data has one. Same with Captain Picard and Earl Grey tea, or Giordi talking to the computer like it’s a friend. Recognizing these features are all small reminders that I have come to know this world, and it feels good. Magic systems, in order to be fully enjoyed, should be part of this comprehension, not narrative wild cards.

Today’s two laws will deliver more of what we crave in our fictional worlds: tension and conflict (the second law), and cohesion (the third).

Second Law of Magic: “Limitations > Powers”

In other words, what it CAN’T do is more interesting than what it CAN do.

Sanderson’s iconic example of limitations being more interesting than powers is Superman. We yawn through Superman walking through a shower of bullets to take down small-time villains. But we sit forward in our seats when a dude has kryptonite. Plus, this weakness is linked to his tragic and noble history, which opens up another point of actual interest. As Sanderson writes, “Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.”

Sanderson argues that you can limit magic three main ways.

You can limit magic through weakness.

Magic users are so much more powerful that it just wouldn’t be fair (or very interesting) if they didn’t have powerful weaknesses, too. Sometimes it’s a physical weakness, like Superman’s kryptonite, or Giordi’s need for his VISOR (hey, I said he was magic in the last post, so I’m rolling with it). Sometimes it’s an emotional weakness, like Batman’s emotional past (to borrow again from Sanderson) or Aang’s chakra-blocking crush on Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

You can limit magic through cost.

In the anime FullMetal Alchemist, alchemists can perform magic, but there are several limiting laws: you must have or create a circle (limitation), and you must fulfill the law of equivalent exchange: “To obtain, something of equal value must be lost” (cost).

The show follows the Elric brothers, who try to resurrect their mother by collecting all the elements present in a human body, thinking this will be the equivalence necessary to bring her back to life. But they find the price of a soul is much higher than the mere components of the body, and invoking the magic forces a truer equivalence. The horrifying consequences of this botched attempt set off a series-long quest to restore what they lost in the trade. Here, the limitations of the magic have huge implications for character and plot, just like Superman’s limitations tie to his motivations.

The fight scenes in FMA are more interesting because of the limitations. It’s fun to see how each alchemist creates the transmutation circle for his or her own use. Fight scenes become tense when an attempt at forming a circle is botched, or when someone has sneakily maneuvered the environment to create a circle without the opponent noticing. It’s some killer action.

Now, if each alchemist could create whatever he or she wanted willy-nilly, with no cost, the results would be far less intense. That would send us back to Sanderson’s First Law.

You can limit magic through…well, limitations.

In Avatar: the Last Airbender, waterbenders can’t bend without water, and earthbenders can’t bend without earth. And if you’re from the Earth Kingdom, forget being able to bend any other element. Your nationality determines your abilities. All of these limits create problems that have interesting solutions (read: they make great First Law moments). Thus, one captured waterbender runs in place until she sweats because she needs material to work with. (I guess saliva would’ve worked too, but no one wanted to see THAT animated.)

In FullMetal Alchemist, a running joke in the series is that the Flame Alchemist’s friction-sparking gloves (snapping is what creates the needed transmutation circle) don’t work in the rain. He’s constantly heading out to dramatic confrontations in a downpour, only to be saved by his non-magic, gun-toting assistant, who reminds him stoically that “You’re useless in the rain.”

Jokes, problems, character arcs, tension—all of these come through what magic CANNOT do.

Third Law of Magic:  “Expand what you already have before you add something new.”

Rather than coming up with new systems for each race in your world, Sanderson suggests, why not take a magic you have for one race and make another race use it differently? Instead of pulling another magic for transportation or cooking out of the air, why not try to manipulate the magic you’ve already established for another area of life, tweaking its rules so it can apply to other things too?

This is what builds expansive, full-feeling worlds like that of The Legend of Korra or (to use a more literary example for once) Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man.

Think also about how your magic would affect economics, travel, culinary arts, the class system, religious practice, beauty standards, and so on. I think Orson Scott Card was the one who suggested that, in a world where you had to maim yourself to cast magic, having a lot of scars might actually be seen as attractive on some level, or at least worthy of respect.

One change has a thousand effects. So instead of slapping your creative magic system in the middle of a vaguely medieval European-type world reminiscent of every other cookie-cutter fantasy, follow the magic to see what kind of world it would build.

This third law proved to be the solution (at least for now) to my own previously-lamented magic system. Before, I had done exactly what I warned against in the last paragraph. But I had one idea that I liked. I followed it further, and came up with a term that I liked. That term was a metaphor, but when I poked it again and made it literal, it led to a fun idea that has completely revitalized the magic system along with my interest in my own world. Yay! Thanks, Brandon Sanderson!

I’d like to end by asking my readers a few questions as I continue to ponder this:

What do you prefer your “magic” systems (written or watched, fantasy or science-fiction) to be: inexplicable to invoke wonder or explainable so you can figure out how to solve plot problems in creative new ways?

What magic system innovation do you just love? Recommend it, and I’d love to check it out!


8 thoughts on “Laws of Magic: Less is More

  1. I love how people consistently pick out these examples. Your analysis reminded me of this youtube video:

    That being said, I agree with you that hard magic systems are awesome! Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy used allomancy to excellent effect. Though Avatar has a great hardness to its magic, I think that the point you make in the end – letting your magic build your world – had to have been ignored by the creators in the first series. It wasn’t until Avatar Korra’s first season that the big unanswered question about non-benders was even acknowledged, and even then the answer was unsatisfactory. The effects of bending on the world weren’t apparent, and instead it seemed like magic was plopped in a vaguely historical east-Asian setting.

    At the same time, what are your thoughts on soft magic? Lord of the Rings is a classic of classics when it comes to fantasy, but the magic in that book is vague, mysterious, and questionably helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks for reading! I enjoyed the video. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone used all the same examples as me… does that make me derivative or smart? Maybe both?

      I agree on Avatar, and your comment about Korra is true. That (sequel?) series was all about the implications of the world, and I wonder if some of its plots were even in response to fan questions or critiques. But it traded character depth for world depth (Bolin was Sokka lite, Korra and Mako were barely likeable, and why was Asami hanging out with these people exactly?), I never got into it as much. My husband, however, LOVED it–and that makes sense, because he likes Michael Crichton books, which are also big on implications and low on character.

      As for my answer to Tolkien, I agree with pretty much everything Brandon Sanderson has said on the subject. Tolkien’s magic works because he uses it not to solve plot problems, but to highlight the spiritual nature of his world. But I do have a brief version of my views on Tolkien in my analysis of Tom Bombadil at the end of this blog post:


      1. Cool! You already thought of everything.

        I liked the first season of Korra, but it ended terribly and I just couldn’t stay into it (even though I finished it). It seemed like the creators were trying to make the older characters darker and edgier, but for no real payoff other than being “not for kids.” The tie ins to The Last Airbender made it feel like really well done fanfiction, not a continuation of the first story. I also thought they wove way too many different love interest subplots.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What kind of magic would you call the Harry Potter kind? I think (not sure) that i don’t tend to like the magic-limited-by-cost kind. Mostly because it tends to get portrayed in extreme, often morbid/nasty ways. Though now I’ve got an idea for a magic system that has random, really weird costs. (water suddenly tastes like grape juice – your most disliked flavor, etc.) lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That water-to-grape-juice sounds fun and quirky! 😀

      I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson characterize Harry Potter’s magic as “kind of hard.” The magic has set rules–you have to go to school and learn the right wrist motions and Latin–but he says the rules actually change (or are forgotten) from book to book. I’m assuming he’s talking about how solutions like the Time Turner are never used again, even though they’d be useful in other places…?

      Cost system: I guess the most common cost-based magic system is that it makes you tired, but I can easily see it being morbid. I personally think (and I got this from Sanderson, too) that the “tired” cost is a bit overused and too easy to overcome. “And with strength born of desperation she summoned one last surge of power!”

      Liked by 1 person

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