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Lyle’s Three Laws of Magic

Yesterday I came across an article about creating a magic system for your novel, and on impulse tweeted to say that I disliked the phrase “magic system” when applied to written fiction. This sparked a lively debate, and afterwards I thought it would be fun to codify my conclusions in a set of rules.

OK, they’re not so much rules, more what you’d call…guidelines :)

1. Magic cannot be all-powerful

"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath
"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath

I think most writers (and readers) understand this one. If magic can do anything, there’s no narrative tension, because there’s no problem it cannot solve. There must be at least some hard limits on what it can do. Popular limits include: only some people can perform magic; they have specific talents and can only do certain types of magic; powerful magic comes with a high cost. Many fantasy worlds combine all three, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as it stops magic from being a “get out of gaol free” card.

You don’t have to define down to the last detail what magic can do, but you really, really need to know what it can’t do.

2. Magic that’s too logical becomes science

This is a more controversial one, and the point that provoked the Twitter discussion. As someone pointed out, this is the inverse of Clarke’s Law, i.e. “any sufficiently advanced magic system is indistinguishable from technology”.

I know there are some readers who love the Brandon Sanderson approach, i.e. highly detailed rules of magic, but to me all that does is make magic an extension of the science of your universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m often tempted to create a fantasy setting that, like Discworld, is literally how pre-modern people believed their universe to be – but I think you as a writer need to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

More to the point, as I said on Twitter, the reader shouldn’t be able to hear the rattle of a ghostly D20 or envisage a “magic points gauge” falling. Don’t make your magic so mundane and mechanistic that it reads like a poorly written RPG novelisation!

3. Magic should tend towards entropy

What I mean by this is that, whilst your character may think of magic as a tool that can get him out of trouble, you as the writer should be thinking of ways to use it to get him into trouble :)

A lot of fantasy worlds do this in a very simplistic way, by making magic illegal, which is fine if that fits your setting. It can also be used for comic effect, e.g. the archetypal inept apprentice who tries to light a candle but instead makes it explode! However it can also be done more subtly, by setting up unintended consequences. That thunderstorm spell over the battlefield might break the ranks of the enemy, but the resultant rain could easily cause the nearby river to flood and wash away the bridge the characters were relying on to get to the castle in time to stop the usurping prince from slaughtering the rest of the royal family.

You can also have magic be just plain unreliable. The reason that so many humans throughout history have believed in the reality of magic is the same reason that gambling is addictive: it works just often enough, and with sufficiently gratifying results, that our optimistic brains overlook all the failures. You don’t want to go too far with this, though. If your magic randomly fails at a crucial moment, it can feel as clunky as a story in which the hero’s mobile phone batteries go flat just when he needs to make that vital call. At the risk of contradicting rule 2, failure needs to be logical or at least plausible, rather than completely random.

 

So, there you have it – my three laws of magic for fantasy writers. Go ahead and break them if you want to, though – after all, it’s your universe!

Comments

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Paul (@princejvstin)

Thanks, Anne.

To use a *positive* RPG metaphor (because I am wired that way), in your view, magic should provide negative aspects or Complications to the player characters. Solve one problem, but have a non-positive consequence as as result of using that magic somewhere along the line. But you (as in the characters) can’t mundanely and inductively figure out the cost.

Magic is powerful–but magic cares unpredictable and unforeseeable risks.

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JRVogt

Always fun to see which laws or limits people imbue their magic with. I definitely agree that magic must have limits–in fact, pinning down what it can’t do almost gives you more creative space in which to explore what it can. That odd situation where being forced to work under restraint means your solution becomes more inventive out of necessity.

Great thoughts!

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Anne

Thanks, Josh! I just threw the initial thought out there, and was a little surprised by how many responses I got. So often it feels like one is tweeting into the void…

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JRVogt

Indeed. You should see the reddit comments going on from the Dribble of Ink post. Fascinating to see what people take away from it.