Does Magic Need Rules?

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.

8 thoughts on “Does Magic Need Rules?”

  1. In my own world building project I let the story dictate the rules as well as characters roles. Priests manipulation of energies differs from adepts, magicians, witches or wizards. Each has their own understanding of the forces they use. I’ve made more rules for the wizards & priests, to limit them, but let witches be as powerful as need dictates. The main character however, is the single character with the least rules to his magic, but is limited by growth & lack of knowledge, learning as he goes, (as does the reader). Rules are given out by who the character learned magic from.
    “The master never teaches the student all he knows, he always holds back a gem of knowledge for himself.”

    1. I think that’s a great way to do it: letting the reader learn with the protagonist. Not only can the reader engage more fully with the world, but you can also conceal your info dumps inside the lessons. And I particularly love your approach of different “philosophies” of magic, if you will.

  2. I don’t think magic should have rules. Limits, yes. When you say rules, it makes me think there are a list of do’s and don’t’s. Don’t raise the dead, don’t make people fall in love and don’t ask for ultimate power. (Yes, quoting Aladdin here…)

    Limits I agree with. There should be a cost to having magical powers. You can only use so much of the earth’s energy to cast a spell or if you draw that much energy into you, you have to put some back… that sort of thing. Not like in D & D where you can only cast a certain spell once or twice a day or once every three days.

    Being all powerful tends to make the story weak. If the magic users can just flick their wrist, why the hell didn’t they do that and be done with it?

  3. I’ve found that its handy for the writer to know all the ‘rules’ or ‘science’ or ‘theory’ of magic her world(s), invented or adopted; however only through demonstration via the magic weaving characters need these governing factors be glimpsed by the reader. The old ‘do not tell the reader, show them’ thing is, to me, very important when it comes to magic. Magic can hence be well applied scientific theory but never quite reveal itself as such, hence keeping the acts of magic themselves ‘magical’ and maintaining a veil of wonder. Having said that I can recall at least one of my stories where I’ve shattered that rule, as magic itself explained its natural place in the world to a protagonist through an artefact. I felt this yarn verged on science fiction rather than fantasy as a result.

    1. It’s funny you bring up the scientific method. On a recent Writing Excuses podcast (7.30 Microcasting…Again!), Sanderson discussed the relationship between his rules of magic and the scientific method and how his rules can be adapted for sci-fi.