Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic Can be Broken
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Welcome back to my series on Building Magic Systems. Last time we talked about Hard and Soft magic systems, how they differ and looked at a few examples of each. Today let’s take a closer look at Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic. While it’s an invaluable asset when building a magic system into your story, but it isn’t perfect.
At least, not yet.
But What is Sanderson’s 1st Law?
In the literal sense (or maybe the literary sense), it’s actually an essay that Brandon Sanderson wrote about how he uses his magic systems. This essay was my first introduction to the concepts of “Hard” and “Soft” magic, and it’s fantastic. Far from being an actual law, it is more a correlation or guideline that Brandon developed to deepen his ability to craft and write solid magic within his stories.
Here it is:
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
When followed correctly, the magic will fold smoothly into the story, rising to the surface when needed and fading into the background when not. In the essay, Brandon discusses, in detail, how this law affects both the implementation and design of magic. If you haven’t already, then you should read it here. Like, right now. It’s well worth your time to see everything he has to say on the matter.
What happens if the law isn’t followed?
Most of the time this means a poorly implemented magic system that fills your plot with holes at best and annoys the pants of your readers at worst. This may seem harsh, but even great works of fiction can be severely weakened by a simple mistake.
Look at Tolkien
I’m of course talking about the appearance of the Eagles in The Hobbit. I’m not sure if there is a Statute of Limitations on revealing spoilers in literature, but if you haven’t read or watched it by now, then there’s nothing I can do for you.
If, for some reason, you’ve been sleeping under a mysterious, archaic bookshelf, here’s the setup: Gandalf and friends just escaped from the Goblin King and are being chased down the mountainside. Unable to outrun their enemies, the party climbs into the trees, but this leaves them trapped.
Someone has the bright idea of hurling down flaming pinecones *Cough-Gandalf-Cough* and, unsurprisingly, the forest catches fire. Just as all hope for survival goes up in smoke, Gandalf calls a host of giant eagles from the sky, to take dwarves, wizard, and hobbit to safety.
But What’s the Big Deal?
It’s a simple matter of plot holes.
Where did the Eagles come from? Why not fly all the way to the Misty Mountain? Why does Gandalf get so cagey when asked about the feathers in his bedroll?
None of those questions are answered or even addressed, and that creates a chink in the storyline’s armor.
The worst part is that this didn’t have to be a problem at all. Tolkien had lots of reasons for things playing out the way they did, something Sarah Credit did an exemplary job covering in an article back in 2013. While Tolkien knew these reasons, the reader did not, and therein lies the problem.
Because the reader was not fully informed, Gandalf’s use of magic (which some debate wasn’t magic at all) cheapens a critical moment in the story and perfectly demonstrates the hazards of ignoring Sanderson’s 1st Law.
Make sense? Good; the more you understand this principle, the better your magic, and consequently your stories, will become.
Obey and all will be well… At least, that’s what I thought
Then I read The Black Company by Glen Cook.
Glen took me on a joyride of wonder and horror as he builds the story, taking trope after trope and turning them on their heads. All kinds of people find their way into the ranks of the The Black Company, a band of elite mercenaries. Some of them happen to be wizards, spell-slingers with capabilities beyond the reader’s understanding.
“Okay,” I thought to myself. “That just means it’s a soft system. Nothing wrong with that. It’s actually pretty good.”
And then the wizards started solving problems.
These weren’t small problems either. Their powers were used repeatedly to track rebels, detect ambushes, shield their men from psychic attack, and more. There were easily a dozen times where Glen used magic to prevent dire situations, all without revealing any details of the magic itself.
Dazed and confused, I put down the finished series, picked up another book, and tried to wrap my head around what just happened.
Instead, I got hit between the eyes with Naomi Novik’s fantastic novel, Uprooted.
Naomi delivered a wondrous tale filled with peril, mystery, and a positively gorgeous Soft Magic system. I was having a wonderful time, enjoying the twists and turns of the story and then it happened again. The characters were facing a difficult challenge with terrible consequences when the magic came to the rescue.
But it wasn’t the use of magic that broke my brain. It was the fact that it worked! The use of magic didn’t cheapen the experience or rob me of a satisfying plot-point. It did exactly what it was supposed to, deepening the world and the characters without marginalizing their choices or abilities.
I didn’t get it. Everything I knew about Sanderson’s first law said this shouldn’t be possible. This use of unexplained magic to solve problems for the characters should have weakened the plot not strengthened it.
That’s when I realized Sanderson’s 1st Law was broken, or at least incomplete. It took me a long time to figure out it wasn’t about the magic at all, but the types of conflicts that were solved with it.
The Two Types of Conflict in Your Story.
Upon closer examination of my favorite books, I began to see two main types of conflict which I classified as Major and Mundane. Yeah, I probably could have come up with better names for them, but my brain loves the alliteration, so deal with it.
But what’s the difference between the two and what in the name of the holy quill does it have to do with the 1st law?
A Major Conflict is any struggle that is given a great deal of weight or importance through the narrative of the story.
These are the conflicts Sanderson was referring to when he first developed his laws of magic. A major conflict cannot be resolved by unexplained magic without damaging the story, your reader’s experience, and possibly the fabric of reality.
This is exactly what happened in the Hobbit when the eagles dove from the sky, rescued out adventurers, and then departed without so much as a “later, bro” to calm our nerves. The magic in both The Black Company and Uprooted is mysterious and powerful, but in neither case did the authors resort to solving the character’s biggest struggles with unforeseeable powers.
I think I’ve beaten this topic to death — *WHACK* — It was twitching, I swear.
*Ahem* Let’s just take a look at Minor Conflicts and pretend this never happened.
A Minor Conflict is any struggle that is given little to no weight or importance through the narrative of the story.
In simple terms, any struggle that isn’t a Major Conflict is inherently a Minor Conflict.
This a crucial distinction because Minor Conflicts CAN be solved using unexplained magic. As Glen and Naomi repeatedly demonstrated, when done skillfully, Sanderson’s 1st Law can be broken with little risk to the story or the integrity of the omniverse. Of course, “little risk” is not the same as “no risk.” Such infractions require careful placement to avoid collateral damage, so take care when deciding which conflicts you resolve with which bits of magic.
Simple enough looking back at it, but this was a pivotal revelation for me. In the end, this discovery led to my amended version of the 1st Law.
An author’s ability to solve MAJOR CONFLICTS with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
If your digging through your plot looking for potential literary infractions, take a closer look at the conflict involved. Who knows, you might find justification for breaking Sanderson’s 1st Law.
- Sanderson’s 1st Law states: An author’s ability to solve conflicts with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic
- Like any law, it can be broken.
- Done Wrong you get Tolkien’s Eagle Solution
- Done Right you get powerful moments like in Uprooted and The Black Company
- Major Conflicts are any struggles given a great deal of time, ink, or emotional significance.
- Minor Conflicts are struggles given minimal time, ink, or emotional significance
- Amended 1st Law: An author’s ability to solve MAJOR CONFLICTS with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understand said magic.
What do you think of my amendment?
Does it make sense to you or just make you furious? Is everything clear or is more explanation needed? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email. If you liked this article you can sign up for my newsletter, and never miss another post. Until next time, thanks for checking in.
I had always taken it as implicit that the “directly proportional” part of the law meant, in effect, that the more defined the magic, the more important a conflict it could solve. Super vague “soft” magic can only satisfyingly solve tiny problems (or perhaps some mid-sized ones if it causes more problems than it’s solving with unpredictable side-effects). Very hard, well-defined magic and be used to solve even the main conflict because it’s that clear. Anything else is on the continuum. Sort-of understood magic with kind-of sketched in rules I would then expect to be able to solve some mid-sized conflicts that has some real importance to the story but not the biggest tier of conflicts. Re-reading Sanderson’s initial article I see he doesn’t quite put it in terms of the size of conflict, but he does discuss some middle cases.
I think your write up and my thoughts are coming at the same concept with slightly different terminology though. I never thought of it in terms of “breaking” the First Law because I thought the law accounted for that with “proportional”.
If you want an example to stretch things further, consider Robin McKinley’s Sunshine which only ever really sketches in some magic rules and then proceeds to do things that even those vague magic rules say are impossible, and does it to solve Major Conflicts. And it works beautifully. My best guess as to why is that internal conflicts are at least as important as external ones and the magic causes increased internal conflict even as it solves external conflict. That is not, however, people’s usual definition of causing problems by trying to use magic.
Thanks for the great comment; you made some awesome points.
In my head, the size of the conflict had always been connected to the severity of the consequences, so I was confused when Glen and Naomi were able to solve life-threatening situations with previously unexplored magic. This whole post is really about me re-defining my expectations and terminology to work with my messed-up head. Another example of personal assumptions, if the “solution” causes other problems, then I don’t consider it a real solution, or at least not a good one.
It’s awesome that you were already using the law this way. I’m definitely going to have to read “Sunshine” now and see what I can learn from it.
I think you did an excellent job of clarifying a definite distinction. As the previous commenter said, perhaps the same idea is implied in Sanderson’s law, but for those of us who are not natural magic connoisseurs, we need this clarification. You did it with a direct, understandable, and user-friendly explanation. That’s pretty darn cool in my opinion.
Thanks, Chautona. The ultimate goal is to help you guys out however I can.