Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Magic is at the heart of fantasy, so it’s important for an author to get the magic right. You may argue that magic doesn’t exist. How can there be any “right” about it? Ironically, the very fact that it is imaginary makes its creation all that more problematic.
In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge first used the term the “willing suspension of disbelief” to discuss a reader’s ability to sacrifice realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. When we write fantasy, this is exactly what we are asking readers to do. But readers are only willing to suspend their disbelief so far before they scoff at the absurdity of our story and become annoyed with us as authors. Everything in reality has rules, so readers will not accept magic without any. Magic that can solve any problem with no difficulties is not only unbelievable. It is boring. And being boring is pretty much an forgivable sin in a writer.
So if we are going to include magic in our fiction that readers will accept, there are some rules to keep in mind. (As with all writing rules, there are always exceptions, but you have to have a pretty good reason to break the laws of magic.) So here goes, Jamie’s rules of magic:
1. Magic must have limits. Magic must not be infinitely powerful. Otherwise, the story really has no point. The readers must know exactly what magic can and cannot do. If it can do everything, you will bore your reader.
2. Magic must have rules. The reader needs to understand how and why magic works, only that way can they suspend their disbelief and accept it.
3. Magical abilities need to be established long before they are necessary to get a character out of a bind. For example, my assassin Darhour has the ability to see in the dark. I introduce this ability to the reader early in The Goddess’s Choice when he goes to retrieve supplies from a store room. This is not at a moment of high tension in the novel. He could easily take a candle, but doesn’t need one. Therefore, when he later needs this ability to defeat another assassin sent after him, the reader can easily accept it, whereas they would scoff if the first time they heard about it was when the assassin attacks.
4. Magic must have costs. It can’t be too easy, or you will have readers rolling their eyes or slamming your book shut. My character Robrek is the strongest sorcerer Korthlundia has seen in hundreds of years, but it never comes easily for him. Even after a lot of training, he still finds himself blocked from the full strength of his talent. He learns that negative emotion hinders magic. He must forgive in order to access his full talent. (And he has a lot of things to forgive people for). Finally, even when he has succeeded in removing the obstacles that stand in his way, magic is exhausting. He can only work it for so long before collapsing. Magic is difficult and costs a lot. That is the only way magic is interesting.
5. Magic must not be the point of the story. People are what are at the heart of any good tale, and any ability--magical or otherwise--is always only part of a person’s character. Don’t get so caught up in your magic you forget to tell a good story.
If you have any opinion on what makes magic work in fiction, please leave a comment below.