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Transcript for Episode 1.14

First, I cheated by reading the liner notes. So there it says

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well be the reader understands said magic.

Soft Magic: no rules, but don’t solve problems for the characters with it, either.
Hard Magic: rules, so the characters can use it to solve things — if they are clever.


Now, back to the podcast.

Which begins with a quote of Sanderson’s First Law (after a bit of humor about the hubris of naming a first law after yourself). And then some discussion of what this first law means:

  • The ability of the protagonist to resolve conflict — to use magic, they must understand it.
  • One of the major criticisms of fantasy is that you can just do anything
  • for example, in the original Star Trek, any time there was a problem that they couldn’t figure out how to solve, Spock would just have some kind of crazy new thing. He would grow new eyelids or whatever.
  • In Next Generation, the writers said that they would write up to the point where the character would talk about technology and put in braces [technobabble here].
  • that business of solutions surfacing at the last minute
  • is cheating
  • we want to talk about good magic, where your reader is excited and feels that the magic is a strength
  • you want your reader to believe in your magic — to live in the fantasy
  • story about Brandon Sanderson’s first WorldCon panel, where he was asked to talk about magic and started with the statement that obviously for magic to work it has to have rules — which immediately caused a long argument.

What do you gain when the reader does not understand the rules?

  • You tap into the collective unconscious. We’ve all had the dream of going to school naked, being a fish out of water. A hero who does not understand what is going on is someone we can empathize with — but they can’t solve problems with magic.
  • A sense of mystery, a sense of wonder
  • we’re talking about rule-based magic — how it works — not the rationale — which is world building
  • in X-Men, the mutant gene is world building, but there are no inherent rules for what abilities that each mutant has,  although each one has a set (and they discuss Wolverine’s rules)
  • Another example is Superman — if you ask anyone, they can tell you what he can do. But ask them what Gandalf can do, and no one is sure. That’s the difference between rule-based and non-rule-based magic.

What you gain from having a rule-based magic?

  • You have the ability to use magic, it’s a set of tools that your characters can be very clever in using
  • it captures the reader’s imagination
  • provides a stock of foreshadowing and story devices. These are surprising, yet inevitable given the rules
  • have the ability to have an apprentice, someone who is learning the system
  • there’s a sense of wonder there. But it’s not the unknown wonder of awesome, scary magic, but the sense of wonder that I could learn that, I can imagine doing that.
  • You get the possibility for really interesting different takes on magic

Final words

  • I don’t know Jack about it because I’ve never done it yet.
  • Hard fantasy: when the rules are logical, it appeals to a different set of readers

Whoops – out of time, and we’ll come back to this next week.

The quick-and-dirty summary? Magic without rules may be impressive and awesome, but you can’t let your characters do much with it. Magic with rules, on the other hand, let’s your characters be clever in applying the rules that you have nicely laid out for them to work through. So think about what you want your viewpoint characters to do – be dazzled by the background of magic or actually use it in resolving their problems?

Current Mood: mischievousmischievous
Current Music: I’ll Think Of A Reason Later, Lee Ann Womack