This article follows on from the article “Have You Mastered The First Law Of Magic?”
Sanderson’s Second Law Of Magic
“Limitations > Powers” Brandon Sanderson, 2011
Essentially this law is saying that adding limitations to your magic system are what will make it both interesting and memorable in your readers mind. They force your characters to be more creative with their abilities and so it forces you to write more interesting scenes where your characters are using magic.
So what limitations can we put on our magic?
Some of the limitations I’m going to list below will be more beneficial to those authors who are using a hard magic system over a soft one.
In “Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds” Michael James Liljenberg describes a magic system as having “two parts, the gears, rods, and wires that work under the surface and the knobs you use to control them.” Liljenberg
I have directly quoted the descriptions used to make referencing easier however you should go and read the whole guide by Liljenberg as it is indeed a fantastic read as a start for your world building process.
Gears To Use In Your Magic System
“Mana – A root magical concept in which various fields of magical energy exist along side of the fundamental forces of physics like gravity and electromagnetism. Certain people, or races, or objects (or even technology) are capable of manipulating those fields in a variety of ways to produce a variety of effects. These fields may be elemental in nature (like fire, earth, air, water, life, and death), moral in nature (good or evil), it may just be that thought or consciousness is as fundamental a force as gravity (like the Force in Star Wars). The key is how the characters in your story manipulate them.
Chi – This is where the magic user calls upon his own spirit to power a spell. This is a good choice if you want magic to be a more subtle part of your world because you can easily limit the scope of magic by how much chi a person can draw on without causing themselves serious harm.
Astral – The spirit can interact with alternate realities that interrelate with our own. Magic is actually performed by an astral projection of the magic user’s self
Derivative – This is where the magic user’s powers are derived from other spiritual beings, usually gods. When you hear a spell-caster say, ‘In the name of . . .’, that’s derivative magic. The magic user needs to have a connection with and some sort of authority granted by the divinity or spirit. Abuse of derivative magic can have some very nasty side effects. One of the attractions to this sort of magic is it always gives the bad guys a leg up. The good gods usually place all sorts of restrictions on their followers, while the bad god is totally willing to let his minions use all the power they like.
Proxy – This is where the actual magic is performed by a spirit or familiar under the command of the magic user, like the Genie of Aladdin’s Lamp or Ariel, the sylph who served Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Or Dr. Morbius’ Robbie the Robot in the sci-fi version Forbidden Planet)” Michael James Liljenberg
Buttons and Knobs To Control Your Magic System
“Mental – The magical forces of your world are controlled by nothing more than the will and concentration of the magician. Perhaps the magic user can see threads of the magical energies or visualizes the result.
Shaman – The shaman is closely connected to, communicates with, and often channels animal and nature spirits. As such he is part of an animistic world. He can ask or even force the nature spirits to perform services or give information. These interactions are often deals, which obligates the shaman to the spirits he calls upon. These obligations may be simple offerings left at a shrine, or small tasks, or epic quests.
Random/Tarot – This is based on the idea that there is no truly random event. The spiritual fields surrounding people, places, and events constantly interact. Therefore a deck of cards, dice, or bones properly attuned to those forces will not fall in random patterns, but in patterns that meaningfully reflect the patterns of all those interacting ethereal forces. They can even predict patterns of events. Powerful cards may even be able to reverse engineer those patterns causing events rather then just predicting them.
Alchemy – by properly manipulating and mixing ingredients one can manipulate other objects or people even at a chemical/atomic level. This is not to say that it is chemistry. The eye of the newt and the leg of spider don’t react chemically to create a sleeping potion. The ingredients of a magic potion are based on the ingredient’s association with a particular trait, like love, beauty, sleep, vitality, hatred, strength, truth, deception, etc. So a potion to slow an enemy down might include ground snail shell or a potion for wisdom might have owl’s eyes.
Alchemist will usually be familiar with regular ‘bathtub’ chemistry as well, able to mix potions from natural drugs
Summoning – Magic based on summoning creatures from distant places, or from other spiritual planes of existence. These creatures may just be animals or they may be monsters, warriors, demons, angels, and demigods. You can have all kinds of fun with how controllable these beings may be (or how uncontrollable). Summoning is obviously built on a proxy magic foundation.
Necromancy – Magic based on manipulating death and the dead. This is akin to Summoning and usually must involve other forms of magical manipulation to control the spirits of the dead. Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy has one of the best-developed systems of necromancy I’ve every seen in a book.
Sacrifice – The magic user must offer some sort of sacrifice to seal an agreement with a spiritual being, or the energy released in the taking of a life (usually symbolized by the blood) is used to power a spell. This may involve something simple as leaving a small bowl of grain in a shrine or pouring a few ounces of wine on an altar. This may involve the ritual slaughter of a hundred people. Occasionally this is combined with ritualistic cannibalism, in which the sacrificial victim is consumed, imparting its spiritual energy to the sacrificer.
Erotic – Sometimes called Tantric. The idea that the energies released during seduction and intercourse can open one to altered states of consciousness or that one can funnel those energies to influence the world. Commonly this form of magic is associated with fortune telling. It is often vampiric in nature, sucking energy off the victim. It is also frequently used to seductively manipulate and mesmerize victims.
Physical – Physical discipline and precise forms of movement can control spiritual energies of the body and the world. This form of magic can appear as a simple hand gesture, or a series of karate moves, yoga poses, or a dance.
Vocal – Magical forces are manipulated by the spoken word. This can mean that the spoken word is simply a focus for the mind to manipulate the magic (as in the case of a magician that always says ‘presto’ no mater what spell she is trying to cast). Or it could mean that saying a certain string of syllables causes a specific effect. In this case what is important is the words and phrasing (and perhaps the language) of the incantation. Check out ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursula LeGuin for an example of a magic system based on a ‘true language’ where things can be controlled by knowing their names in the true language.
Musical – This is a variation on ‘vocal’. This is the idea that certain sound patterns can manipulate the magical forces of the world. They may need to be vocal, that is sung, or played on a musical instrument. This is based on the primal power of music and lyric on the human psyche. J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of this and you see it frequently in his writing. Indeed Middle Earth is the physical embodiment of the song of the Valar composed by Eru, the One.
Symbolic – This is magic controlled by written symbols, runes, or words. This is one of the most common magical methods historically employed. Ancient Roman and Greek sorcerers wrote spells on sheets of tin or lead, rolled them closed and threw them down a well. Oriental spell casters often use a spell precisely written on a strip of paper to seal a spirit or place blessing or a curse on a person or room. Often spells need to be performed in a precisely drawn diagram, or a box sealed with a precisely engraved symbol. Tattoos are another method employed using this type of magic.
Focus – The magic user needs an object, like a wand, staff, ring, gem, hoop, charm, doll, or ball to focus and control their power properly. The focus acts something like a magical antenna directing the magical energies. In some cases, especially wands, the object must be precisely moved to generate the desired effect.” Michael James Liljenberg
How To Limit Your Magic System Even Further
These act as a brilliant template to build your magic system around, however they are also quite broad in their application. So this is where as a writer we can become more creative. I’ve listed 5 examples below, 2 made up and 3 from popular universes, that will help you to think of interesting ways to integrate magic into your world.
What if you have a group of telepaths who gain their power from a chi system however they could only control it through physical actions and more specifically a head butt. If they wish to read someone’s mind or plant information in a person’s mind then they have to actually butt heads with that person. The harder the head butt the more information that can be transferred etc.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson uses a complex mana system that is controlled by a type of alchemy. In order to use their magical powers a Mistborn has to first consume a certain type of metal. Different metals relate to different abilities and not every magician can use every type of power/metal. Also the individual powers are very basic such as 1 power is the ability to push objects while another other is the ability to pull objects. If a character isn’t able to consume the metal they need then they have no magical abilities.
Your magicians come from a brutal society/universe because they can only cast magic when in possession of a mutilated trinket (focus) that may come from an enemy or beast they have butchered. Also different parts of the anatomy have different effects or strength (alchemy).
The Wheel Of Time uses a derivative magic system that is split between the genders. Men are super powerful but eventually go mad and the women are dominant and hunt down the male magicians – they can also connect together to become stronger.
Though in order to control magic each magician has to learn to control the different elements as each spell is made up of different blends of the elements. The elements are controlled by weaving which is a strand of magic created by a magician that any magic user can visibly see. This creates a number of interesting scenarios where the main characters are hiding from other magic users and so are afraid to use their powers in case the enemies see their weaving.
A favourite sci-fi example of mine is the Mass Effect universe. In Mass Effect magicians are known as Biotics and they have the ability to generate mass effect fields (mana) which can increase or decrease the mass content of space and time. However in most races Biotics are only practically strong enough to use “magic” when the individual has been surgically enhanced with a bio-amplifier (focus). Therefore they are limited by the technology in them (focus) and their own personal strength (chi).
As you can see the explanation of how magic works in a sci-fi universe usually includes a lot of science.
Weekly World Building Task
From last week you should have decided if you want to use a soft or hard magic system in your world. Reading the above article may have changed your mind but either way now is the time to develop the limitations of your magic system further.
Write down a list of limitations that effect your magic users. They might be as simple as “can only push objects” or “can only use fire”, however by using these simple limitations you can create complex situations.
If you have any great ideas for limitations then please include them in the comments below.