By Writing Excuses | May 12, 2008 - 8:47 am - Posted in Liner Notes, magic, Season 1

Does magic need rules? Sometimes yes and sometimes no; our intrepid podcasters talk about how to know which situation is which, and explore the pros and cons of each method. We’ll also yak for a while about the differences between Superman and Gandalf, which makes us, if nothing else, huge nerds.

Liner Notes:

Sanderson’s first law

This week from our sponsor, Tor: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B ,by Ben Bova (Editor)

This entry was posted on Monday, May 12th, 2008 at 8:47 am and is filed under Liner Notes, magic, Season 1. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

84 Comments

  1. May 12, 2008 @ 9:05 am


    Also featuring: Howard, the dirty corporate shill.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  2. May 12, 2008 @ 10:20 am


    I love you guys! I’ve been killing myself to try to come up with a decent magic system for a story, and I wake up this morning to find that you guys did a podcast on it!

    Get out of my head, get out of my head!

    Now you just need to make one about how to make good names for characters and cities. =)

    Posted by Faith_Cross
  3. May 12, 2008 @ 10:52 am


    > Now you just need to make one about how to make good names for characters and cities. =)

    You’re on to something there, Faith_Cross. It takes ages for me to come up with good names for my characters, and I just can’t seem to get things to flow until I actually know each character’s name.

    Posted by João Pinheiro
  4. May 12, 2008 @ 11:19 am


    Thanks so much for this podcast! I love hearing you guys talk about this stuff. The magic system is often what really draws me into a book. When I think about the times I’ve sat and thought to myself “if only I were a Mistborn.” (Yes, I have no life.)

    And Howard, thank you for finally hitting the nail on the head about Harry Potter.

    Posted by Lauren B
  5. May 12, 2008 @ 12:32 pm


    As some who grew up reading comics and fantasy I was delighted with your discussion of both genres. What do you think are the biggest mistakes beginning fantasy writers make with their magic systems?

    Posted by B. E.
  6. May 12, 2008 @ 12:52 pm


    I’d say noob mistake number one (which we have all made) is having a magic system with no costs. Even if you’re magic doesn’t have rules, per se, it should have a cost–there should be repercussions for its use. We talk about that more next week, though, so I won’t go into it.

    Noob mistake number two is, quite simply, breaking Sanderson’s law: solving problems with magic, but without any rules to give your problem-solving a logical framework.

    The first book I wrote broke both of these rules, usually at the same time. It was horrible, but I’ve gotten better (or so I tell myself).

    Posted by Dan Wells
  7. May 12, 2008 @ 8:41 pm


    Ugh, *great* podcast!!!

    Posted by Mike
  8. May 12, 2008 @ 8:45 pm


    I like Sanderson’s law very much. I’ve read about a number of the noob mistakes like those Dan mentions here. However, I’ve never heard the distinction that Sanderson’s law makes, as well as the corresponding benefits you guys listed. As usual, great stuff!

    I had another comment I thought of on my commute, but it won’t come to me now.

    Posted by Guerry
  9. May 12, 2008 @ 10:01 pm


    Interesting podcast today. Thanks. It seems to me this discussion aptly applies to sci-fi stuff as well. Technology that we do not have nor are close to achieving in essence is “magic” to us. While some (many) things in sf may be based upon real science, it seems to me that most of the “magic” technology exists because the story needs it. This is perhaps most prevalent in the “space opera” genre. Take space flight for example. Galactic sf stories tend to rely upon some form of “warp speed,” “hypersapce” or “stargate” to travel, because how else are you going to get from point “A” to astronomically far away point “B”? I think the better the defined rules of travel are, the more solidly the story hangs true. Sci-fi stories without fully defined “magic” technology, have to continually fall back on techno-babble to legitimize whatever “magic” fix is going to take place.

    I think the show “Stargate” is an interesting example of a rule based “magic” transport system. The writers thought out the method and implications of the technology. How do you get from point “a” to “b”, well you need the “address” of the place you want to connect to. They considered the problem of how stars continually move, and over time, the “address” may get distorted to the point that you can no longer make a connection. Calls can only go “one way”. How do you defend yourself from unwanted visitors? Create an metal iris that will interfere with rematerialization on your end. Stargate uses as much techno-babble as any other sci-fi show, and can suffer at times because of it, but I think this show has endured as long as it has (in its varied forms) in part because of the really well defined rules governing the “powers” or limitations of its “magic” transport system. Sure the stargate is a gimmick, but it is a well thought out one, and the audience respects this.

    In general, whether fantasy or sci-fi, I think defining your magic system has everything to do with what kind of world you are creating. When you decide on the rules, structure or limitations of how someone uses the magic / technology, all other sorts of questions then come up: Who can use this magic / technology? Priests? Hackers? Wizards? Mad scientists? The chosen few, or one? Is the magic / technology the source of political or military power? Etc. These question help to sharpen your world, your plot, and your characters’ personalities and motivations. The better defined of a magic system, I think the more fully realized the world becomes. Thus it becomes easier and more enjoyable for us, the reader / viewer to visualize the world and imagine ourselves wandering around in it.

    Note to Howard: I would argue that you have created and defined a magic system with your teraport “technology,” as well as with defining the “magical” abilities / properties of Schlock himself.

    Posted by Jon W.
  10. May 12, 2008 @ 11:19 pm


    I’ve been enjoying these podcasts. This one was nice in that it helped me realize that a magic system I’ve been working on and thinking of as hard, was only hard in that it had a psudo-scientific rational, not because it had any particular rules about what it can or cannot do. Thank you for helping me appreciate this distinction.

    I prefer hard magic systems. I think it is because I’m an avid player of RPGs and you really cannot have a soft magic system in an RPG, because, even if you ban wizards as PCs (thus essentially denying your audience magic using viewpoint characters), most gamers are still legitimately going to want to know enough about the magic system to enable them to kill the evil wizard if they have to.

    Posted by Michael B.
  11. May 13, 2008 @ 12:52 am


    Wonderful! Interesting – insightful – fun!

    I read a lot of fantasy and I’ve read quite a lot of comics (belonging to my brothers, actually – Spiderman, Fantastic Four, X-men, Daredevil) growing up – so I especially enjoyed this podcast.

    Another advantage to having no rules is of course that one can do pretty much whatever one wants. If the novel/story is meant to be suspensful, of course, this obviously might not be a good thing – the deus ex machina. However, I think it works very well in “Alice in Wonderland”. And the person with the problem shoul of course not be using it – that is a really interesting point.

    Posted by LRK
  12. May 13, 2008 @ 1:07 am


    Where to start…

    How about with contradicting Howard? Howard hasin fact created his own magic system! I believe it was Larry Niven who stated (paraphrasing) any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Harry Potter has a port key, and Commander Andreyasn has a terraport. The important thing to note is that each has its own internal logic.

    Whatever rules that you apply to your story (or world if you are world building) only need to apply within that story (or world). Case in point is the movie Pan’s Labyrinth: all of the fantastic events and creatures encountered by the young girl fall within a Grimm’s Fairytale sort of logic.

    Years ago I did a lot of research into both fictional and non-fictional magic, and wrote a ‘treatise on magick’ (yes, with the lame ‘k’ on the end). The exercise functioned on two levels: first as a means for me to understand how I think the magic should work, and also to write the system down as the character would say or write it. The treatise was written ‘in character’ as if it was a medieval grimmoire. Careful reading would show that I obliquely quote Ursula K. LeGuin, Alistair Crowley, Katherine Kurtz, Heinrich Agrippa, Yoda and others. However, it was not intended to be read by anyone but myself.

    Over 15 years later as I write my screen plays, occasionally I have a character spout off some magical law or theorem as if they read it in school or were forced to recite it as a child. They are actually just quoting from the treatise. It is the framework that I work within.

    If one was to take the time to read all of the (gratuitous amount of) background information that went into Tolkein’s Middle Earth one would find the rules that applied to Gandalf. He could do certain things because he wore one of the Elvin rings. But like the other Istari such as Saruman, Radagast, Alatar and Pallando, Gandalf also had angelic-like powers. They are the lesser Maiar (angel) to the greater Valar (archangels). So he would be superhuman but not quite god-like in powers. But again, this is all in the background and was unnecessary to spell out in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (And yes, I had to look all that stuff up and didn’t have it memorized!)

    I think it is helpful for an author to set up a framework for their magic system, but with wiggle room for adjustments.

    Posted by Karl
  13. May 13, 2008 @ 4:07 am


    Karl commented “I believe it was Larry Niven who stated (paraphrasing) any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Actually it was Arthur C. Clarke that said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (though it’s been quoted a lot by a lot of folks).

    Larry Niven countered by stating “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

    I found (hopefully correct!) references here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws.

    Karl also excellently pointed out the back story of Gandalf. Tolkien knew all that stuff, and Gandalf’s abilities/strengths/weaknesses made internal sense to him. On the other hand, I guess Tolkien knew it was not necessary to weary the reader with all the explicit detail in the Lord of the Rings.

    Karl, writing the treatise sounds like a good exercise in world building.

    Posted by Guerry
  14. May 13, 2008 @ 6:13 am


    I thought Niven’s contribution was “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  15. May 13, 2008 @ 7:39 am


    @Howard: Hey, it’s Professor Wikipedia, so it must be correct :-P

    I wish they had referenced the source of the quote.

    Posted by Guerry
  16. May 13, 2008 @ 7:43 am


    Great podcast guys! I am new to these, but I have listened to all of them in the past couple weeks.

    Thanks for your distinctions on rule-based magic systems vs. those who aren’t. I for one, am someone who is very annoyed by magic “systems” which don’t have internally consistent rules. I think “Sanderson’s Law” is a real gem for all fantasy (and sci-fi) writers to keep in mind (even if they’re going to “break” it).

    I agree that technology in sci-fi serves the same purposes as magic in fantasy. Compare the technology in Star Wars (non rule-based) versus that in Star Trek (rule based). There are books out there by physicists talking about how Star Trek tech “could” work. There are similar books about the Star Wars “tech”, but I don’t think they make nearly as much sense. No one’s been able to satisfactorily explain how a lightsaber would work, for instance. I think your discussion on magic rule systems can directly tie into your podcast on sci-fi genres (space opera vs. hard sci fi).

    As for the mention of character and city names, I have one suggestion:
    Study other languages. As Brandon pointed out on one of his Mistborn annotations, fantasy writers often (knowingly or not) use words from other languages when they make up character and place names. For instance, in the Death Gate Cycle, Weiss and Hickman used the word “mensch” as a way for the magical races to refer to the nonmagical races. Mensch means “people” in German. By the way, I think it’s especially cool if the real-world meaning makes sense to the fantasy meaning, if that makes sense for your story (it did in Death Gate because it was really set in the far distant future). Also, on this topic, don’t forget the more obscure languages, like the Native American languages, and other tribal languages throughout the world. Some of them have very neat and “alien” sounds. I heard Lucas used tribal languages as bases for a lot of his alien languages in Star Wars, but I don’t know if that’s true.

    Posted by Darrell Walker
  17. May 13, 2008 @ 7:52 am


    I just had a thought as I was reading over the blog posts again. In one of your other podcasts you mentioned the idea of having one unimportant element of your world that you explain a lot, and another fundamental part of your world that you don’t explain at all.

    How do you think it would work if the part you DIDN’T explain was how your magic worked? You have a system worked out, but you never explain it, making the reader have to figure it out for themselves.

    Posted by Darrell Walker
  18. May 13, 2008 @ 9:36 am


    Guerry: Thanks for the correction. I no longer believe it was Larry Niven who said that. I stand corrected!

    The major hazard in using the treatise I created is that I have to ignore large sections that were derived from other well known authors. I admire Katherine Kurtz too much to have her sue my dupa off for copyright infringement. So I mostly rely on the parts that were non-fiction derived or the sections of my own contrivance.

    I suppose one of the disappointments for me in reading fantasy, and the cause of my writing the treatise, was that many authors gloss over their own rules (if they have any). I got tired of reading ‘…and then he uttered something incomprehensible that drifted away on the wind…’

    I would also say that the reverse of Mr. Clarke’s dictum is also true: that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. In one of Roger Zelazny’s Dilvish the Damned he has one wizard examining a spell created by another wizard step by step to see how it works. It struck me that it was the equivalence of one programmer reading the software code of another programmer to see how the program worked.

    Posted by Karl
  19. May 13, 2008 @ 10:20 am


    Nitpick about the Witch King’s death in the book: Eowyn is just a brief distraction and gets badly wounded for her trouble. One of the hobbits (Merry, I think) gets the kill, using one of the Numenorian swords they found in the Barrow Downs. The rule is negated by a distinction of race, not gender, and it’s helped along by the work of an ancient master smith.

    Posted by Douglas
  20. May 13, 2008 @ 10:44 am


    As regards Gandalf, I still believe that even if you read all the backstory (and I have read most of it), there are never any real rules to his magic. Yes, he can cast flame-based stuff because he has the fire-based ring; that’s not a rule, it’s an explanation. Gandalf can do magical things by tapping into the magic energies of Middle Earth and the powers of creation itself, but we don’t know where those energies come from, how they are used, what they can do, what they cost, or anything else. As Karl and Guerry pointed out, Tolkien didn’t bother telling us all of that stuff because it wasn’t important to his story, but I would further posit that Tolkien didn’t bother figuring it out at all. It was enough to know that Gandalf could do anything the story called upon him to do, and that most of the stuff in the story would be done by other characters.

    Now, as is always the case with Tolkien, we have to point out that our statements are not derogatory; no, he didn’t have rules to his magic, and no, that’s not a bad thing. He didn’t need them for the story he was telling. If you write a story that uses magic in a similar way, you don’t need rules either. It all depends on the needs of your story; neither end of the scale is inherently right or wrong.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  21. May 13, 2008 @ 10:52 am


    Well to be sure.
    First and probably last post here.
    Enharmonic is your magical word.
    Just.solves.everything
    (have to know a bit about music to understand.)
    Magic or ‘majik’ is mostly fruitloop bullshit wrapped in nonsense, what is left is dangerous to yourself and others; madness as it were.
    Stay sane and write hard science.

    Posted by Icecycle
  22. May 13, 2008 @ 11:27 am


    Hi – Great podcast as always – thanks to all for doing them :)

    I have two characters in my urban fantasy novel who use magic – one is pretty standard natural magic stuff which I’m pretty comfortable with. The other is more techno-magic – and despite my teccie background – I was feeling less sure of him.

    Think I’ll go back to the basics and stick some rules around his system as is discussed here, and see if he becomes more credible to me – then also hopefully to readers.

    Cheers for the inspiration.

    Posted by smc
  23. May 13, 2008 @ 11:42 am


    @Douglas: I have often wondered the same thing for many years. In all my Tolkien back-reading, I have never seen it stated definitively that Merry actually struck the mortal blow. I had actually settled my mind that Eowyn killed the witch king, and that Merry’s ability to strike any blow came from the Numenorean knife he wielded. Tolkien did say that that knife was originally made by its creator to be able to hurt the witch-king, special made for the purpose. Have you read anywhere from Tolkien that Merry actually did the mortal blow? Just curious. I love that stuff too much. :-)

    @Dan: I agree with your statement “I would further posit that Tolkien didn’t bother figuring it out at all.” I don’t think Tolkien ever really laid out rules or bounds on magic or powers or such. What I was particularly addressing is that there is all this back-story about Gandalf’s identity and where he comes from, who he served, etc. (all of which lends creedence to his powers), and Tolkien barely touches on it in the Rings trilogy.

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  24. May 13, 2008 @ 11:55 am


    About Eowyn: AFAIK She did take the kill. Merrin just distracted the “Dunklen Reiter” with a stab from an ancient knife.

    She did slice her sword below his crown, and she lost any strength in her arm as a result, because she went against a foe which was too big for her.

    But she won.

    And I think Gandalf had rules: “The powerful can feel the magic” – when he created fire in the mountains above the mines of moria he said “now I have shown myself”, and that is a severe limitation – and a rule how magic works.

    Besides: For all german speaking in here (I know there are some), here’s a resource for creating magic systems in roleplaying games:

    http://rollenspielmagie.de

    -> Articles on summoners magic (and how it fits almost every system), difference between what the mages believe and what the rules say, many ideas for magic beliefs, etc.

    (yes, I already posted this in Howards blog – I think it helps people who work out magic systems – and I began writing it, when I was horrified by a book which called gemstone magic “revolutionary”, even though the mages just said “this is a ruby, so I can shoot fire with it” – I didn’t want to read something like that again, so I created a resource for people who want to create their own magic system – and do it a bit more creatively :) ).

  25. May 13, 2008 @ 1:48 pm


    Arne:
    You’re absolutely correct: one of the very big, very major rules of Tolkien’s magic system (which we failed to mention) is that other powerful magic users can sense it every time you use it. Sauron knows when someone wears the ring. Saruman can feel it when Gandalf does something big, and vice versa. Even normal people can feel a change when in the presence of magic.

    More often than not, this rule is used as a way to limiting magic so that it is not used to solve problems. The entire concept of the Fellowship, in fact, springs from the idea that the ringbearer must fly under the radar in order to get his job done, and by the time they get to Moria Gandalf has realized that his very presence is a threat to the ring, because monsters and bad guys are drawn to him because of his magic signature (so to speak).

    Posted by Dan Wells
  26. May 13, 2008 @ 3:15 pm


    My first post was going on memory. Now, looking at the actual text of the scene, I must say that paragraph is poorly written. The final blow is delivered by ‘her’ and ‘she’ where the obvious person for pronouns in those positions to refer to is Merry. Despite having a name that I have always thought of as feminine, however, Merry is male, so it has to be Eowyn.

    So, Eowyn did definitively get the final blow.

    However, a paragraph three pages later describing what happens to Merry’s sword makes it quite clear that Eowyn’s attack by itself would not have been sufficient – “No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”

    Final conclusion: They have to split the credit. Oh, and Tolkien had some poor pronoun use.

    Posted by Douglas
  27. May 13, 2008 @ 5:09 pm


    I have to side with those who believe that Tolkein did not create a complete magic system. He, unlike many fantasy writers today, was writing from position that was heavily influenced by myth, folk lore/fairy tale, and epic poetry. Specifically, he drew his inspiration from the Nordic and European legends/sagas like the Kalevala. I am no expert on these texts but rarely do they have what we could call a magic system. The heroes of these stories, like the heroes in Lord of the Rings, use magic to further the story. Even though all writers draw on the myths and folk stories from around the world, few intend to create myth. I may be wrong but I thought one of Tolkein’s intentions was create a mythology for England (or was it the Anglo-Saxons).

    Posted by B.E.
  28. May 13, 2008 @ 7:59 pm


    I’d have to say with regards to Tolkien that he didn’t need to explain his magic system because he never tells the story from the viewpoint of a magic user. Its always the hapless hobbit ‘meddling in the affairs of Wizards’ that is awed by the supernatural fireworks, or watching the true king bringing someone back from the grave.
    He does explain some of his magic though. Example, the Seeing Stones. Its been awhile and i have no idea where i got this from, but in one of his collections of notes he explains in detail how the Palantir work. It takes great will to command a Stone, you must be looking in the right direction, if what you want to see is not open to light you cannot see it, and so on. You could never read a magic tome with a Stone because light does not fall on all the pages.

    Posted by S.M.
  29. May 13, 2008 @ 8:01 pm


    Okay, my two cents:

    Tolkien’s whole point was that magic doesn’t solve problems; it creates them. Humans, and even, though to a lesser extent, Elves and Ainur (angels) cannot be trusted with power. And, being the staunch Catholic that he was, he wanted to demonstrate the Biblical principle that God chose the weak things of this world to shame the wise. That’s why Frodo and Sam are more dynamic characters who ultimately resolve the central conflict, not the mighty Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel or Gandalf. As a result, whether he thought of it this way or not, there was no point in demonstrating a rule base for the magic system, because it was never intended to solve any problems.

    There, I said it. Moving on to rule-based systems in general, and hard magic in particular.

    My very favorite kind of fantasy is the kind with a massivly complex world structure and a firmly rule-based magic system that the author explains about 5% of, and I have to pry the rest out for myself. The best example I can think of is Steven Brust’s Khaavren novels, starting with The Phoenix Guards. All of the characters know what’s going on, and the narrator knows what’s going on, so none of them try to explain it, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

    I’m a scientist by trade, so as a writer, I strive for hard magic. You can bend the Laws of Thermodynamics, but you can’t break them. Genetics, the conservation of matter, the chemistry of blood oxygenation, the geological forces behind fossil fuels–it’s all got to get at least a nod, or I don’t want to use it. It makes me wonder, though, how big the hard magic audience base is. Someone mentioned ‘genre-less monstrosities’ in a previous podcast as being commercially unviable. I love it, but does anybody else?

    Posted by Jen
  30. May 13, 2008 @ 8:16 pm


    This was an excellent discussion on magic systems.

    Thanks a lot for the LotR spoilers, Brandon…

    :)

    Posted by John
  31. May 13, 2008 @ 9:20 pm


    Off topic: I didn’t realize you were making up the example of Spock’s extra eyelids until you called them radioactive. I can’t name the episode, but it involved a planet invaded by giant brain cells. Long story short, Spock’s extra eyelids had nothing to do with solving that problem; they were an end-of-episode retcon to give his eyesight back. Of course, it was handled without any grace whatsoever.

    Further off-topic: Despite being a white guy myself, I have lots of trouble telling apart the three white guys on this show. I desperately wish I could offer a solution.

    Posted by Cy Reb, Jr.
  32. May 13, 2008 @ 9:25 pm


    I can think of at least four ‘hard’ magic stories/series:

    Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy
    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
    The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz
    The Lord Darcy books by Randall Garrett

    There’s another book I read a few years back that a friend loaned to me. It was set in a roughly contemporary timeperiod in the North American continent where magic worked and the British Empire still ruled what is now the USA. The main character was a field agent for this world’s version of the EPA, however protecting the populas from dangerous leftover magical pollution. It was quite funny and insightful. And if I remember rightly it had a specific means by which magic was allowed to work (i.e. government regulated) as well as how the magic functioned in a practical sense. Wish I could remember the author’s name or the title of the book. I should track down a copy for my own collection.

    I’m sure there are others. I’m sure opinions will vary on what defines ‘hard’ magic.

    Posted by Karl
  33. May 13, 2008 @ 9:34 pm


    It has always bothered me the X-Men have no rules defining mutation; It leads to the story device of “How do we solve this problem?” with the answer being “Let’s create a new character whose mutation solves the problem!”

    It seems like taking the easy way out, with no consequence.

    Posted by Clayton
  34. May 13, 2008 @ 9:41 pm


    I allways thought of Gandalf on Tolkien as a Deus Ex Machina. Allways having the solution, allways knowing what needs knowing and allways arriving on the neck of time.
    So with that in mind, I dont think he was under the same rule system of magic as where the Arda dweling races.
    As for the magic system, I allways use in both my stories, and my RPG groups magic that allways takes as much as it gives.
    Let me quote Terry Pratchett here…well I cant remember the exact quote, but it was on the lines that if you try to lift a huge log with just the power of your mind, then your brain will pop from your ears. Or something like that anyhow.
    Bottom point is, that magic is just another means to do things differently, and maybe more efficiently, and the real difficulty in it is finding the right place to push, so things happen with the less amount of effort.
    Offcourse considering that this type of system…takes a bit the magic away from magic(no pun intended) , i find myself sometimes using what I call outside forces (deus ex machinas again) that have tremendous powers on their own, and can be considered forces of nature that the character, or vilain can tap in and disturb the balance, thus creating another plot.

    Posted by Thanos M
  35. May 13, 2008 @ 11:14 pm


    Karl: that would be the Case of the Toxic Spell Dump which I also quite liked.

    Jen: I’m inclined to think that many people who play RPGs would prefer rules based hard magic systems, simply because they will have grown used to the idea that magic has rules that must be obeyed as opposed to the idea that, well, “a wizard did it, don’t worry about how.”

    Posted by Michael B.
  36. May 14, 2008 @ 12:44 am


    I would like to say that a large chunk of what you folks were talking about on the podcast was really just Chekov’s law (no, not the Star Trek guy, the original one). If you have a gun in the third act, you have it in the first act. All the stuff about laying out the rules of magic is just putting out the gun in the first act (or at least before the third act) so that you can pull the trigger in the third act.

    There’s the generic rule of writing that you don’t just pull something out of nowhere before the ending to solve the hole that you’ve written yourself into. That applies to magic systems, technology in science fiction, as well as to more conventional stories. You don’t end a murder mystery (or any other story) by pulling out a totally new character with no foreshadowing in the final chapter.

    Posted by Martin
  37. May 14, 2008 @ 8:18 am


    I was listening to this podcast for the third time this morning, taking notes. At one point, all of you were talking about the benefits of having rules for your magic. Howard mentioned how his daughter had internalized the magic rules from “Mistborn”, and how that was in affect a “sense of wonder”. Then and you guys went back and forth trying to define that sense of wonder as opposed to the sense of wonder typically spoken of when reading spec fic.

    A way to express that particular “sense of wonder”, I think, and not get into overloaded phrases, would be this: Having rules for your magic allows the reader to be an apprentice to that magic system, and if your perspective character walks the path from apprentice to master, then so does the reader. This engages them into the system, and allows them the apprentice’s sense of wonder. Something like that anyway. Personally, I love that stuff.

    I’ve begun reading “Mistborn” and just hit Kelsier’s visit to the fortress looking for, er, supplies, ahem, anyway, not looking to drop spoilers. But, the magic system really took off there, and wow, quite cool stuff Brandon.

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  38. May 14, 2008 @ 8:40 am


    I found Lawrence Watt-Evans’ article on the laws of fantasy very interesting http://www.watt-evans.com/lawsoffantasy.html

    Based on this podcast, I would say these are laws for hard fantasy not soft fantasy. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, and would say that he has magical systems similar to Mistborn, with clearly defined rules.

    Posted by Peter
  39. May 14, 2008 @ 9:18 am


    Thanos:
    I can safely say that “on the neck of time” is my new favorite phrase.

    Cy:
    Yeah, I couldn’t remember exactly what the extra eyelids did in the story, but I remembered it was dumb. And they did that ALL THE TIME with Spock. They would occasionally do that with Worf as well (“That should have killed him, but it turns out Klingons have a full second set of internal organs. Who knew?”). We can do better than this, guys.

    By the way, this is Dan, but when I’m on my home computer it always identifies me as admin instead. I don’t know why.

    Posted by admin
  40. May 14, 2008 @ 12:58 pm


    @Dan: It’s because you logged in as admin from there, and it remembers that. Log out, then back in as you. Easy-peasy.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  41. May 14, 2008 @ 4:40 pm


    I absolutely loved this podcast. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. And as always, I find your banter hilarious.

    I love to design magic systems, although I often find myself over thinking it; everything has to be balanced, has to make sense, etc. You’d think I was designing a board game or something!

    Posted by Steph
  42. May 14, 2008 @ 8:29 pm


    This podcast embodies what’s so great about books like Mistborn (W.E. theme music here) and the Dave Wolverton series Runelords–the magic has costs. You know that when tin is being burned, by golly, no obligator will find you. You run out of metals to burn, you die.

    Anyway, got some great ideas for my own magic system, especially with the link to Sanderson’s Law. The superhero system being explained as hard magic made total sense and was ultimately helpful.

    Thanks for the great casts!

    Posted by Kirk
  43. May 14, 2008 @ 9:54 pm


    Thanks guys and gals for a great week blogging. For three days straight I have checked the comments to see what people have posted. Martin and Guerry your last comments were right on. Also, looking forward to next week’s magic system segement. Dan, Howard, Brandon, and mystery Admin (or this really Dan?) thanks for providing me with weekly thought-provoking dish of quality entertainment.

    Posted by B.E.
  44. May 15, 2008 @ 8:04 am


    [...] usually get nothing but positive feedback about our podcasts over at WritingExcuses.com. This week, however, the discussion under the ‘cast has been especially enthusiastic, and listeners seem [...]

  45. May 15, 2008 @ 8:17 am


    I’d be interested in your take on Robert Jordan’s magic system. Especially Brandon’s take, as he’s in the position of having to really think about it.

    I find I think tWoT books are somewhere inbetween rule-based and no-rules systems. Saidar is very rule based, the rules are fleshed out well, and explained mostly to the reader, mostly because the Aes Sedai have been using and studying it throughout the age. However, there are Ter’Angreal that they don’t understand. There seem to be rules for them, but they haven’t figured them out, and we don’t know them. Until the end of the series there are a lot of other rules that aren’t revealed to the reader, as well (making of Angeal, the real nature of ‘stilling’ and what can be done about it, the nature of healing, etc).

    Saidin, however, is much more an unknown quantity. Obviously some of the rules are shared, but Jordan makes the point that not all of them are (the way Rand puts out fire would be deadly to a Saidar user because of the nature of the different halves, and the way in which the source is accessed and managed are two examples of stark differences).

    Rand is another great example in that the readers *don’t* know what he can do. Heck, *Rand* doesn’t know what he can do, he’s constantly doing things that surprise him and others around him (usually with the help of Lews Therin: The swirling death gates and many other things used in that scene, the dark-friend-seeking lightning in the stone of Tear, etc). We also find places in the books where known “rules” are shown to be false (unreversible stilling, the taint on the male half of the source) or are changed by the users of the magic. This was one of the most interesting things to me, that the users of the magic seemed able to change some of the rules. For Rand there are many circumstances where hard rules may exist, but they haven’t been revealed to either the reader or the character.

    So, I guess what it boils down to: Is it enough to have rules that you follow in writing without revealing them to the readers or even to the characters to satisfy Sanderson’s first law?

    Posted by pneumonochrome
  46. May 15, 2008 @ 8:56 am


    I might be biased because I’m in the middle of writing what I’d describe as an “urban fantasy” novel, but I think it was a great discussion on a very interesting topic, and very thought-provoking. Can’t wait for the next podcast. :-)

    Just one small (personal) nit I’d like to pick: It may be a good idea to define what you guys are talking about a little sooner than halfway into the discussion. The “oh, hey, and what we mean by rule-based magic is….” moment came rather late.

    Posted by Andreas
  47. May 15, 2008 @ 9:17 am


    pneumonochrome:
    To answer your final question, I’m very tempted to say no–your ability to solve problems with magic hinges on your ability to manipulate or exploit the rules of magic, and if the reader doesn’t know those rules then it will still feel like cheating even when the rules are actually quite firm.

    Consider a mystery novel, where the detective says “we know that Mr. Billingsworth is the killer because of this deposit in his swiss bank account,” except that the reader had no idea that anybody had a swiss bank account, or that it was important to the story. Within the world of the novel, that solution works because it is very strict and very simple and follows very clear rules, but from the reader’s perspective it’s a big fat cheat because the swiss bank account seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

    Now, on the other hand, rule-based magic that follows its own rules but never gets explained to us can still work if used properly. If one guy can shoot fireballs out of his hands, and does so throughout the book, and then uses those fireballs to solve the problem at the end, that’s fine–we don’t need to know how he does it, as long as we accept that he can. Guns are the same way: you point at something, pull the trigger, and the something dies; we don’t need to know how, we just need to know that it happens consistently. Now, if sometimes you pull the trigger and the target gets healed, or gets painted blue, or changes gender, then we’re going to get confused. If our fireball-shooting hero solves the final problem by shooting ice, that doesn’t work–we don’t know what rules your magic follows, but we know that our understanding of those rules has just been broken.

    In answer to your first, and much bigger, question, I’ll tell you right now that I don’t dare discuss WoT online. I get raked across the coals when I discuss Tolkien, despite knowing his work really well and usually being quite complimentary of it; Wheel of Time, which I don’t know very well at all and which has an even more rabid fanbase, I wisely stay away from.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  48. May 15, 2008 @ 10:08 am


    Glad you liked it Dan.
    Just allow me to correct myself, cause lack of caffeine does that to you…
    Its actually ”IN the neck of time” .
    I ll go get me some more coffee now.
    Great Podcast by the way, cant wait for part 2.

    Posted by Thanos M
  49. May 15, 2008 @ 1:36 pm


    To pick a comment nit: It’s usually written “in the NICK of time”

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/in_the_nick_of_time

    Posted by pneumonochrome
  50. May 15, 2008 @ 1:40 pm


    Dan: Thanks for the response. On rereading Sanderson’s First Law of Magics, I agree with you. And the way the law is written it indicates this rather unambiguously: ability to solve problems with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of the magic.

    Which leaves me still wondering about the magic in tWoT, because it certainly seems to me to defy that rule, but I still ove the books, and I think that Jordan has made it work, leaving me to try to analyze why it works.

    Posted by pneumonochrome
  51. May 15, 2008 @ 3:21 pm


    i think to an extent ‘sandersons’ law is flawed. i think it should be based on the permiation/use of magic in the story. the hobbit and lord of the rings have relitivly little magic use in them despite the magic races, really only gandalf, the rest of the wizards sauron and arguably galadriel and elrond are actually capable of using magic itself. thats the total in the ‘known world’ the rest is all object related, and thus heavily rule based. sting for example is a really good blade that glows near orcs. nothing else.
    magic works without clear explanation because magic is kept out of the reach of most characters and out of day to day life. we don’t need to know what makes sting work we need to know HOW sting works, and that Tolkien told us. if however the story where in tolkiens first age based around the smith who made sting we would need to know what he thinks makes sting work, and at least a level of magical knowledge equivalent to a laypersons understanding of electricity.
    to put it another way if magic is a part of day to day life we need to know as much about it as we know about electricity. there are experts and there is ‘common knowledge’. a romantic comedy does not need to know how electricity works exactly, it just needs to have it operate in loosely defined rules[which do not need to be explained unless your audience is unfamiliar with electricity]. if the story is called ‘the electrician and the circut breaker of doom’ then you had best explain a few things, especially if you are talking to tribals.
    perhaps as well there should be a distinction between ‘existent’ or ‘passive’ magic and active magic. i need to what makes an ent work less then how some one threw a fireball, despite the fact i’ve never seen a full grown tree get up and walk, but i have thrown fireballs. if i know what an ent is, can and can’t do i’m good. if ents can suddenly fly i need to know why.

    Posted by red
  52. May 15, 2008 @ 7:37 pm


    We were watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight, and it made me think of Dan’s comment about Superman forgetting his laser eyes. That sort of thing will toss a reader right out of a story.

    So, the famous scene where Indy is confronted by the swordsman. If I remember correctly, the swordsman practiced for weeks, and the scene was supposed to be a prolonged fight. However, something wouldn’t work right, or they couldn’t film it as planned, and we ended up with Indy taking care of the situation just as he should. Personally, I think any other way would have been Indy forgetting his “laser eyes,” and it wouldn’t have been the same.

    Posted by Guerry
  53. May 15, 2008 @ 11:27 pm


    First a disclaimer: I don’t know all of WoT. In fact I only got through the fourth book, but I really liked the magic system.

    And I think at least the elemental magic of teh Aes Sedai (And Rand and …) is very easy to understand for readers. In short:

    * There are five elements, four physical and one magical.

    * Mages can manipulate them.

    * Men are better with fire and earth (iirc), women are better with water and air. More exactly: In the beginning they can only grasp their respective elements, not the others.

    * You can only change what you can sense.

    * Stronger mages can weave more magic without tiring than weaker mages (in fact it scales massively upwards).

    * There are some exceptions and extras which make it more interesting – and which allow for Rand learning it.

    * Somehow artifacts where created and exist now, which can do about anything but are rare (I assume there are rules about them, but I didn’t get to the point where they get explained).

    I tried for years to put it into well working RPG rules, and I think I succeeded with finding a working base only about two months ago.

    The “cost goes down as you get stronger” prompted me to create too complex systems at first.

    So I think, that the books might not explain everything, but they hint at very many things, and readers can get a deep understanding of the basics of the system.

    And I think much works simply because of one well established assumption: “Rand is stronger than anyone else.”

    With that he can break down barriers without making the reader feel cheated.

  54. May 15, 2008 @ 11:50 pm


    I lingered some time on my own post, and I think I have to take back a part of it.

    The basics of WoT magic are very clear, but what exactly they can do with it, the patterns they can paint with their four elements, aren’t that easy to fix.

    But while reading the books I got a feeling for it and for what it can do, and that goes well as far as saying the reader can understand it.

    “If it feels right, then it’s right.” In the words of the Cast: I don’t feel cheated, when what happens in the book feels right. the question which still remains is: How do writers manage to make the magic feel right?

    Normally it’s important for me, that a magic system feels “real” but stronger (yes, that’s really as wacky as it sounds, but many writers do seem to have a very strong grasp on it), and WoT didn’t quite get that.

    But with its simple basic rules, it still was a lot of fun to read.

  55. May 15, 2008 @ 11:55 pm


    (sorry for posting thrice)

    And if I recall correctly, most of the rules laid out in the beginning had already been broken in the fourth book, but only for the powerful ones, not for the norms.

    And with that, the main characters had many tricks up their sleeves if they had to go against regular magic users.

    “I’ll just use that trick I learned from Gandalf and combine it with the one I learned from Sauron, then I can solve this.”

    Somehow this feels terribly like “use fork with doorknob” right now *gg*
    But that’s fun, too.

  56. May 16, 2008 @ 3:52 am


    I don’t think that magic should fill the same role as science and technology. To use it in that way strikes me as boring and unimaginative. Magic should be something /different/.

    If magic is just another set of deterministic physical rules, then all your doing is introducing a new physics (quantum mechanics aside) to your universe. Very few authors take this to its logical conclusion of university systems and entire levels of academia devoted to magic research. This entire view of magic strikes me as very limited.

    I think magic should be something entirely other. Unlike science, it shouldn’t be reproducible or systematizable. It shouldn’t be describable with a set of mathematical laws.

    Magic should have a will and a personality. It should depend on who and where and when you are, what you want, what you lack, what you’re striving toward, and it should do all of that in a way that’s not fundamentally mathematical. It should be driven by the hands of the fates or the gods or the cosmos.

    As such, magic shouldn’t merely be a “tool” used to resolve a plot. It should be a wild, dynamic plot device, perhaps even a character in itself. If you want to solve problems, don’t bring in the magicians, bring in the engineers.

    Instances where I perceive that this is being done:
    -The Circular Ruins, by Jorge Luis Borges
    -Professor Trelawney in Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

    Posted by George
  57. May 16, 2008 @ 4:08 am


    Just a quick offhand comment . .

    I see Clarke being quoted as saying:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Later, Barry Gehm said:

    “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

    Logical, but I don’t agree :P

    Florence Ambrose/Mark Stanley finally said:

    “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”

    That seems to sum up a lot of this podcast. If your reader doesn’t understand the system, or doesn’t -think- they understand the system, then it’s just Deep and Ancient Magic, not the ‘technology’ style of magic where you can reproduce results by reproducing conditions, or can plan out ahead of time what will happen if you do things just so . .

    Posted by Tibba
  58. May 16, 2008 @ 4:37 am


    Two more quick examples –

    Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien
    The Bible, by various

    I guess I’m saying that I think magic should work more like prayer. I don’t like magic as a new science because I feel like it’s a cop out. You take science, change a few details, and call it magic. That’s not a new system, that’s a new paint job on an old system.

    Posted by George
  59. May 16, 2008 @ 10:01 am


    George, from what I understand, you’re still following Sanderson’s first law. You don’t know that the magic will solve your problem the way you want it to because you don’t understand it. It is out of your control, so solving plot problems with it is unpredictable. It’s not dues ex machina. Take, for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn:

    Schmendrick, the bumbling magician, tries to use magic on several occasions to solve problems. We don’t understand what he’s doing, and for the most part he doesn’t either. He complicates things more often than not because most of the time, when he does get magic to work, it’s by pulling a “magic, do as you will” sort of attitude. But even when he finally does understand how to use magic, he only solves one plot problem: the unicorn being stuck in a human body (which was *caused* by his magical incompetence). That is the only problem he can solve with it. The greater problem, the one of the unicorn’s imminent imprisonment/death-like occurence, is solved through completely unmagical means.

    But in the end, even Schmendrick’s mistakes (turning the unicorn into a human) are found to help the characters go through their character arcs and brings the story to a fully satisfying close.

    This doens’t violate what these three are trying to say. Schmendrick doesn’t solve plot problems with his magic. The podcast focused more on rule-based magic than on non-rule-based magic, but they fully acknowledged that both sorts exist, and that both have their merits. I love both sorts, but for different reasons. It seems that you prefer a magic system that isn’t rule-based, but that probably just means you like magic for different reasons than some other people might. That doesn’t make them wrong and you right, or them right and you wrong. It just means you have different tastes.

    Posted by Conyngham
  60. May 16, 2008 @ 5:51 pm


    George: We weren’t suggesting that magic be “another set of deterministic rules.” We were stating that if there aren’t rules, the magic can’t effectively be used to resolve conflicts in the story.

    The difference lies in what you consider a “rule.”

    Sanderson’s 1st Law is, as Martin stated above, easily understood in the context of Chekov’s Law. If you pull a gun in the third act, you have to show it in the first.

    If the wizard needs to turn a bad guy into a frog in the third act, he needs to be experimenting with amphibious transmogrifications in the first.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  61. May 16, 2008 @ 11:26 pm


    i listened to the pod cast again. and i would like to say my previous post is almost categorically wrong, with the exception that magic in lord of the rings is more rule based than most believe. and that the reader needs to be given any common knowledge the characters have. much like if you where writing an american story for a nomadic mongolian audience, they understand much, but some things need explanation. the rest is trash. sorry to any one who read it.

    Posted by red
  62. May 17, 2008 @ 12:04 am


    I had a revelation recently, regarding the most rule-based magical system I know of: the D&D system. Fact is, it never made sense to me that you’d forget a spell after using it; that little quirk always bugged me. But I’m a full-time programmer and developer now, and damned if I don’t use an API and then forget the whole damned thing as soon as I fill my head with a different API. The Google Ajax API I could explain to you right now in detail, but I can’t–at the moment–think of too much to say about, oh, building a Joomla component or using Lazlo despite the fact that I’ve studied and worked with both a lot. My brain just doesn’t have room. And when I think, Oh, I can remember books worth of cr*p, why can’t I remember this? I realize that I CAN remember it, I just need to spend a few hours before bed tonight refreshing my memory.

    Right. Do I get a Level 10 dork, anyone?

    D

    Posted by Don Forrester
  63. May 17, 2008 @ 5:01 am


    First off, let me say as a Game/Dungeon Master, This podcast does make quite a bit of sense.

    Now, just so it is out there, I saw this podcast and it immediately appealed to me for a unique reason – I run a Star Wars/DnD Crossover game at the moment, and have seen firsthand what technology and magic have for parallels. They may not be the same, but it is a way of introducing something different into a medium (whether it be book, game or story) without making it unbelievable. For those that are looking for perfect examples of this? I shudder to think of how much flaming is going to go into this one, but look at the Die Hard trilogy. The technology in that is used to perform things that normally could not be done. Rational or not – it is a power that the character uses as a tool. Which brings me to a point that was not brought up in the podcast, and surprised me as such… In any situation, giving a character magic in any foundation is like giving a set of tools to someone – with the right working, those tools can do anything. If you have a rule-based magic system (DnD is my example of choice), then you need to figure out either combinations of spells or other uses of said spells within the rules. If you have an open system (nods to the Tolkien reference – great point, one of which I shall use now.) then you will have established either a cost to the person, or some sort of balance as to why the characters have that power. Limiting the tools so you do not gain Superman Syndrome is important in most cases – the perfect example of this is the Sword of Truth series…the main character has magic, but regularly is not using it for fear of the magic getting away. Just a geek thing I noticed while listening to the podcast.

    Look forward to more!

    Posted by Craig
  64. May 17, 2008 @ 4:25 pm


    since I’m sitting here and reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Series I can’t help, but why it appeals to me so much. One, it is our world. Two, it utilizes the rule based magic system and also a magic cost system. I do not know if you have read the series, but it seems to fit your discussion to t.

    Posted by paintflinger
  65. May 17, 2008 @ 9:16 pm


    While I do enjoy many stories based on the “soft” magic systems, the magic is neccesarily a peripheral element to a character driven story. I think that is exactly what we like about systems like that. Unexplained magic is a great wild beast lurking in the shadows just beyond the firelight. We can readily identify with the poor folks huddled around the cookfire wondering if the rustling in the brush is a wounded elk that saves us from starvation, or a snarling bundle of teeth and claws intent on making a meal of US.

    I should also point out to those who feel that a tech/engineering/mechanic type magic system lacks will, personality and character, that anyone who has worked for a long time with any given result of advanced sciene (be it automatic transmission or A.I.) will begin to speak of these simple results of methodical tinkering as though they do have a distinct personality or will of their own.

    Posted by Telyn
  66. May 18, 2008 @ 11:56 am


    Is there a middle ground here? I think it’s important for an author to understand how magic works in their world, and revealing parts of how magic works to the audience allows the reader to get an idea of the way it works and what limits there are, but if hold some of that information back (i.e., the author adheres to the rules but doesn’t clue in the reader as to all of them) you can still tap into the “wonder and mystery” element.

    One of the things I always liked about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (of all books) was Aslan’s description of the “Deep Magic” which the Witch didn’t fully understand, and which prevented Aslan from STAYING DEAD (because he was making a sacrifice for someone else) — sure, in terms of the book it was all analogous for a Judeo-Christian Theological concept, but in terms of a story it hinted at rules that governed very powerful events and something like that could conceivably allow an author to have the best of both worlds…

  67. May 18, 2008 @ 3:16 pm


    @Christopher B. Wright: I don’t think you’re necessarily describing a middle-ground. Sanderson’s First Law is a sliding scale, in which the more you reveal about your magic’s rules, the more magic your characters are allowed to use to resolve plot conflicts.

    In the case of Aslan (note: it’s been a while since I read the books…) we don’t know the Deep Magic rules that he does (not until after the fact), but we do trust him IMPLICITLY. We believe him to be as close to all-knowing and all-powerful as characters come in Narnia. When he agrees to exchange himself for Peter, we don’t know how he will make this come out for the best, but we believe that it will because Aslan=Always Right is one rule we know.

    For all that, Aslan isn’t a perspective character, so he’s ALLOWED to break Sanderson’s first law. :-)

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  68. May 18, 2008 @ 7:09 pm


    [...] Comments Howard Tayler on Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their RulesChristopher B. Wright on Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their RulesTelyn on Writing [...]

  69. May 19, 2008 @ 6:03 am


    [...] system has internally-consistent rules your readers can follow (per Sanderson’s First Law and last week’s ‘cast) you need to consider the ramifications of using magic in the worlds you create. Or at least, [...]

  70. May 20, 2008 @ 12:19 am


    Not a transcript, but I think I caught most of the points.

    http://mbarker.livejournal.com/70426.html

    And one more to go.

    Posted by Mike Barker
  71. May 21, 2008 @ 2:35 pm


    I have a comment for Sanderson, which may throw different light into his First Law.

    I recommend the reading of the comics “The Books of Magic,” and its three sequels that bear the same title, with “Summonings,” “Bindings,” and “Reckonings.” Some information on them can be found a this wikipedia article.

    Sadly, my copies are in new jersey, or I’d be able to reference them more directly.

    The particular feature I want to call to attention is that the primary PoV character, Timothy Hunter, is a mage in what I think would be classified as a “soft” magic system. It’s unclear what he can do, and what the limits of his power are — and even to those who “know” how magic works in the world, he has a distressing tendency to break the rules (From “Reckonings,” paraphrasing Leah: You can’t do that. You can make golems, and you can unmake them, but nobody’s ever remade a golem before.)

    One of the latter three actually lists the “rule of magic” that dominates the Books of Magic explicitly: for every external change, there is an equivalent internal change. This is probably another view on your statement about the costs of limitations of magic. I think you might view this as the engine that fuels the conflict.

    The series follows, in it’s magic, my own pet definition of what makes Fantasy Fantasy: internal, emotional, and metaphorical truths are transformed into external, physical, and literal truths. Tim’s relationship to his father, to Molly, to the strange people he encounters, and to himself change and grow, and his magic changes and grows with and because of them.

    In an odd twist, I might state that, although there aren’t any hard and fast rules limiting what Tim can do (and there are often very interesting ways in which he screws up) the reader still has a sense of the sort of places where magic will work, and what sorts of effects it will have, intuitively — through emotional identification with Tim, and observing the personalities of the characters. Magic is an outflow of meaning, and follows the narrative of the story in intuitive ways.

    I’d also like to point out the RPG system Nobilis, ref here, which has limited, very general rules, with an endless outlay of specifics to combine the effects of “Rules” and “Wonder” — there are five different type of miracles that can be performed (Divinations, Preservations, Creations, Destructions, Transformations) and a Greater and Lesser varriant of each, but each noble has their own Estate, which they can (preserve/create/destroy/transform/divine from), meaning that each Noble has a distinct set of powers all their own. It’s a playstyle that favor success strongly, focusing not on the difficulty of actions, but on the ramifications of different ways of solving them — a nice example of a mostly soft system in an RPG.

    Posted by Jesse Cox
  72. May 21, 2008 @ 2:42 pm


    Synthesyzing (sythesizing? sithesyzing? blast it, I need a spellchecker…) a few points above from (way) above:

    Karl notes the Deryni novels as an example of a Hard magic system. It’s indicated, however, that the “hard” magic of the deryni needn’t follow the fairly “psionic” rules that it does. In particular, there are magic artifacts of past ages, which seem to follow a much more “sorcerous” paradigm, particularly the cubes and the altar. There’s lingering wonder working in from the fact that there are rules, and they are followed…but it’s pretty clear that they’re incomplete, just one way of making the “magic” work.

    Posted by Jesse Cox
  73. July 7, 2008 @ 10:07 pm


    laser for paint guns

    How does the rss feed work so I can get updated on your blog?

  74. August 7, 2008 @ 10:16 pm


    I have another great reason for having magic rules in your books: Breaking them.

    In the Anita Blake series, for instance, Laurell K. Hamilton spends a lot of time clearly defining the “magic” that the vampires, werewolves, and necromancers are capable of. She adheres to them very closely. Then without warning she’ll totally break those rules. The result of this is both the reader and characters going “No way!!”

    It’s an odd but really powerful effect. When you place rules on magic to the point at which they become totally explainable and commonplace, much like the rules of gravity or physics, breaking them makes the magic *really* feel like magic. Unexplainable magic.

    Of course, she is always sure to explain exactly what happened after the fact, and those rules *do* carry on to each subsequent book, thus making even that “magic” commonplace. Only to break it again in a further book, etc. In becomes a bit redundant after a bit, but the initial effect is very powerful.

    As a side note, I call this the “Dragon Ball Z magic system”. Those familiar with the anime probably know what I’m talking about.

    Posted by Tayruh
  75. August 20, 2009 @ 11:03 am


    In the discussion about Gandalf, you mentioned him not being the the main character because he could do magic that we couldn’t understand. Then it was brought up that Harry Potter’s wands are just “magic guns”. It was then that I realized that I have seen these two concepts combined in the character of Dr. Who. You have a character that is magical in that we don’t understand how his highly advanced technology works. Most of the problems he faces are solved by shining a fancy flashlight at a computer or a lock and presto! In the end though, this is fine, because we are seeing him from the viewpoint of his companions.

    P.S. I know Dr. Who is not a book, but it was the first thing that came to mind. And I’m referring to the newer Dr. Who series, I’m not going to apologize for being born in the late 80’s. I also google searched Gandalf to make sure I spelled it right, for fear of the wrath that would come if I made a typo.

    Posted by Michael Greene
  76. October 19, 2010 @ 1:33 pm


    I know I’m late to the party, but this was a great cast. I enjoy having magic systems, but I never really thought about it before.

    But more important than praise, I want to ask, do you any advice for how I can introduce and explain a magic system without having an apprentice character?

    Posted by Andrew
  77. October 21, 2010 @ 6:02 pm


    [...] to classify my magic system. So, as usual, I went to look for a Writing Excuses episode and found this one on Magic Systems. [...]

  78. August 9, 2011 @ 10:11 am


    A bit late to the party, but I was listening to this podcast on my way to work, and I realized something. While I completely agree about the wands in Harry Potter being effectively magic guns, I think Harry Potter does, for the most part, follow Sanderson’s Law, in that Harry solves relatively few of his problems with magic, and when he does, it’s usually with well defined spells (Accio and Expeliarmus being the most common). In seven books, Harry only really solves the final conflict with magic three times, and in two of them, it’s a specific bit of lore Harry has found out earlier in the books.

    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire does break this rule, with laws of magic showing up with no prior hints at all (slightly justified in that Harry himself had no idea this would happen, but it’s still not following Sanderson’s Law).

    The podcast did make me realize that I need to quantify my magic system a bit more thoroughly, but since my main character cannot cast magic, I’m not in that big a hurry.

    Posted by Beacon80
  79. August 19, 2011 @ 3:16 pm


    I just discovered this podcast recently so this comment comes after many. I really like this podcast and especially this episode because so much of the advice is based on common sense. “Magic needs rules…” to me, that’s common sense.

    I thought of something while listening to this podcast while working on a Magic System for my own work. Maybe this is a new can of worms; maybe it just restates something someone else said somewhere else multiple time or maybe I’m completely off-base, but I’d like to mention it anyway, I think there is a Third Law of Magic with a Corollary. I want to mention it because it’s how I’m approaching my Magic System and Worldbuilding.

    Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic

    Sanderson’s Second Law/Taylor’s First Law: Magic doesn’t happen in a static white box. (I would word this, “Magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” but anyway).

    Proposed Third Law: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are directly proportional to how well the character understands said magic.

    Corollary: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are not proportional to how the character chooses to use said magic

    Explanation: Magical ability almost never comes with an instruction manual (like the Handbook For The Recently Deceased). Throwing that first spell did not also give Harry Potter a book entitled, “How to Use Magic”. Using The Force to help blow up the Death Star did not also teach Luke how to pull Star Destroyers out of the sky. Vin would have never learned how to use the other metal abilities… you get the point.

    Even if a Magic system exists and functions in a world, its biggest limiter is the people using it. When building a Magic system, think about how people learn to use it and how much they can learn about it on their own.

    Is it User-friendly? How much of a learning curve does it have? How much of the system can a character learn about on their own without instruction? Does gaining magic automatically conjure a handbook for the recently ensorcled?

    Let’s say your magic system is represented by a desktop computer loaded with all the fixings. Even if the character figures out how use word pad, the computer by itself doesn’t mean the character will figure out on their own how to code in C#.

    Another way to look at it: Throwing a Baseball is easy. Throwing a fastball is hard and if you try and figure out on your own you may just end up with serious injuries.

    Also, how well known is the Magic in the society(The Second Law)? If so, it comes to the corollary:

    Corollary: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are not proportional to how the character chooses to use said magic

    If Wizards choose to use their Magic to affect every facet of life, say goodbye to the faux medieval world and welcome Magepunk. If Fireballs & Lightning Bolts exist in a world of knights on horses without any real defense against it or restrictions on its use, the mass formation battle between the Knightly Army and the Wizard Army will look like less like the Battle of Gondor and more like the Battle of the Somme.

    If Wizards choose to stay in their little towers, then the Magic system affects nothing outside of that tower. If the local religions deem Magic to be the stuff of demons, devils and ultimate evil(Even if it isn’t) that Wizard won’t make an impact on the world, being too busy getting burned at the stake.

    When making a Magic system, ask if there are any social limits on its use. Is Magic a sacrilege or a sign of divinity? Is it fashionable or the sign of eccentricity? Is it illegal to turn lead into gold or are people doing it and gaming the system? Are people abandoning its use or pushing its boundaries?

    I hope this line of thought somehow contributes and I look to forward to more podcasts on writing.

    Posted by Bradford Y.
  80. March 1, 2012 @ 5:22 am


    [...] Writing Excuses Season 1, Episode 14 [...]

  81. July 26, 2012 @ 12:01 am


    This is speaking as a devout Harry Potter fan, so my opinion may be a little biased, but where does it have inconsistency in rules?

    But my bigger concern is drawbacks from using magic. I don’t think there has to be any huge immediate cost, because the consequences of your actions can be cost enough. You don’t “lose energy” or whatever if you use a machine gun, but the consequences can be catastrophic enough without having to have any kind of physical cost. Otherwise the immediate cost gets a bit annoying for me. Eragon DEFINITELY annoyed me, but I thought Harry Potter did a very good job with taking care of the consequences of your actions in using magic.

    Posted by Chuckabeth
  82. January 8, 2013 @ 7:55 pm


    [...] so I’ll probably return to this topic periodically, but until then, I want to leave you with this episode of Writing Excuses, which has stuck with me from their first season (which makes it most of five years [...]

  83. January 29, 2014 @ 1:44 pm


    […] their episode on magic systems, the Writing Excuses podcast filed everything from the Force to mutant powers under the aegis of “magic”. Allowances must be made for the hosts’ need of a convenient term to frame their discussion, […]