Laws of Magic - The Art of World Building
Feb 052021
 
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Sanderson’s use of the word “law” led me on an interesting thought exercise that adds clarity to creating magic systems. According to Merriam-Webster’s The Third New International Dictionary, “Law is a binding custom or practice of a community; a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority or is made obligatory by a sanction (as an edict, decree, rescript, order, ordinance, statute, resolution, rule, judicial decision, or usage) made, recognized, or enforced by the controlling authority.” Laws are authoritative, definitive, to the point, and arguably avoid explanation to minimize public arguments when accused of breaking one.

By calling his principles “laws” and asserting that there are three of them, Sanderson invokes comparison to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. However, Asimov’s laws were invented for specific stories and societies described in those stories, meaning they are actual laws there. By contrast, Sanderson has proposed three laws for building magic systems. But no world builder is beholden to another’s ideas on this (and he admits he does not intend that). His laws do not apply to any society, invented physics/limitations, world builders, or even stories. He cannot enforce them except on himself, which applies to us: we can choose what to enforce on ourselves.

Sanderson’s laws are restated here as a single sentence for comparison. None are declarative and each leaves room for interpretation:

  1. “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
  2. Limitations are greater than powers.
  3. “Expand what you already have before you add something new.”
Local Laws

Compare those to the following laws I invented for this section. These are laws that might exist in a city or sovereign power, both of which have authority to impose and enforce laws. They are designed to instruct people on what’s permitted and when. We might craft something similar for localities.

  1. Magic shall not be performed within the city limits except within designated areas or by those holding a valid permit.
  2. Magic shall not be used to inflict physical harm or death on a living being except in defense of one’s own life or that of another.
  3. Magic shall not be performed on the Holy Day.
Laws of Magic

What about laws of magic? These would delineate what is possible and what isn’t, due to the equivalent of physics for magic, like nature’s “laws.”, such as the law of gravity. These would be discovered and defined by the species/races through experience and observation of what [usually] works and what doesn’t. Here are some examples:

  1. Black Magic and White Magic cannot be performed by the same wizard.
  2. Magic cannot be performed by virgins.
  3. Magic can only be performed by spells, or by items imbued with spells.
  4. Wizards of the Moon must be exposed to two hours of moonlight each night to perform Moon Magic between then and the next moonrise.
World Building Laws

What about laws that world builders should follow when creating a magic system? This is what Sanderson intended. These are ones that will impact the storytelling we do and what local laws and laws of magic we design; as such, they should come first in our work. The next section has my thoughts on this.

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