So I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. In my story, magic is new to my fictional world. Some people have a knack for manipulating the power and can do things with it (good or bad things). But they are still learning, experimenting. As the story progresses, magic becomes more widespread, more powerful, and the “rules of magic” change. As I write (and re-write), I’ve had to decide just how strict, how well-defined, and how explicit I need to be with these rules. Looking around online, it appears I’ve stumbled into a very big debate.
Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson has written about his two laws of magic and how vehemently many authors disagree with him. The laws basically boil down to “magic should have rules.” Sanderson doesn’t want magic to be the way out in every story, because that weakens the story. Instead, constraints on the system can create opportunities for struggle and creativity on the part of your characters. Under Sanderson’s opinion, rules drive the story.
As an aside, he does note that some books have more rules while others have less (he says his stories fall into the “more rules” camp, and if you are familiar with the magical system of Mistborn, for example, you’ll probably agree with his assessment).
Here is a counterexample by Antonio del Drago in which he argues that magical systems might be a distraction from a good story. He advises authors to prioritize a good story over a well-defined set of rules for magic. So long as the magic serves the story, that’s all you need. According to del Drago, your story should drive the rules.
Now I’m on record for saying magic should have limits. There should be some cost to acquire magical powers and some cost to use them. And I don’t think del Drago and Sanderson disagree fundamentally–they both want a story that is well-told. I think they just attack the problem from different angles.
So what have I learned? Focus on the story. Set some boundaries. And don’t let creating magical rules distract me from actually hitting my daily wordcount. What’s your take on rules for a magical system? Necessary or not? Just another worldbuilding exercise that leads to procrastination instead of productivity? Leave your opinion below.