Unlocking Magic (part 1: Solid Foundations)

One of the more harrowing adventures that a world builder can undertake is the genesis of a system of magic. Magic is a mainstay of fantasy, so it can be humbling to attempt to join the ranks of T. R. Tolkien, J. R. Rollings, or Tad Williams. On the World Building Stack Exchange server (affectionately known as WB), you can constantly find budding world builders seeking help crafting the system of their dreams.

Magic does not have to be fiendishly difficult to craft into a world, but it does come with its own set of demands. It is not always simple to capture these demands at first. When new world builders come to WB wondering what their system of magic can do, I always try to tell them “it can do anything.” One of the most important steps to constructing a magic system is recognizing the freedom it provides from the structure of “mundane” life, and you shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the axioms of your own existence.

However, quickly after that, the neophyte world builder must be encouraged to ask the correct question. It is not “what can my magic system do” that is so important, but rather “what should my magic system do?” Because magic is so open ended, it is not its possibilities but rather the constraints you choose to place on it that give it flavor. The constraints should be tailored to the world you wish to build and the story you wish to tell in it. The true art of magic is the process of weaving these constraints softly and beautifully into a world more magical than our own.

This series, Unlocking Magic, is dedicated to helping explore this world of creation. I’m not looking to tell you “this is magic” and “this is not magic,” but rather to explore the effects of various decisions on your system, and let you arrive at what works best for you. I’ll cover what consequences arise from challenging the laws of physics and how to do so without burning yourself. I’ll cover how to make systems magical without breaking any laws. Whether the magic derives from animals, or elements, or deities, there are patterns that have been successful before for other authors that you can adapt to your needs.

There is one foundation of magic to which I do hold fast. It was penned by Brandon Sanderson, and is his first rule in a set of three written back in 2007. While all three of his rules are exquisitely written and will certainly be worth your attention, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic is potentially the single most important guideline you will ever need:

“The ability for an author to resolve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the the reader understands said magic.”

That’s it. If you follow nothing else, that one rule is the one to keep in the front of your mind. If given a chance, I highly recommend reading Sanderson’s article on the law.

The logic behind the law is simple, which is why I consider it so foundational. In almost all cases, you are not developing a system of magic for yourself. Your system of magic will be shared by others: readers, players, watchers. The magic system that matters is not the one that’s in your head, the one that matters the one that is in theirs. Your goal is to build up the system of magic they have in their head, and give it a life of its own. If you try to use magic that is above and beyond their understanding, you demonstrate inadequacy in their mental model, and they won’t build it up quite as strongly.

So how do you do that? Tune in next time, and we’ll start down that road with a discussion of how to let magic dance with science without it turning into a brawl. See you then!

-C

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