So you have chosen to write fantasy. Behind this door, a world full of mystical creatures, legends, and warriors awaits. And, most likely, magic. One of the most alluring elements of fantasy, magic is also one of the most complicated ones to write. It is easy to get lost on who has which power and how they interact with each other. Luckily, Brandon Sanderson, author of over twenty SFF books, has assembled three pieces of advice that could help you navigate these treacherous waters. Remember, however, that everyone’s process is different, but it is always good to have other writers’ perspectives, guides, and starting points.
Note: Information and advice are taken from Lecture #5: Worldbuilding Part One — Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.
1. Your ability to solve a problem with magic (in a satisfying way) is directly proportional to how well your readers understand said magic.
When it comes to explaining your system, keep in mind the magic spectrum. At one end, we have what Sanderson calls the “sense of wonder”, at the other, the “problem solving with magic”. Most fantasy novels fall somewhere in between, but, in theory, as you give more explanations, you will walk farther away from the sense of wonder. This is not something bad, but keep in mind it will create different emotions. It all depends on how soft or hard you want your magic system to be.
A common mistake among fantasy writers is to save the lives of your characters, mostly at your climax or the end of your story, through a new mechanism and power. Or, in short, having random magic save the day. Instead of doing so, make sure you give your character a set of tools to work with since the beginning. This way, your characters will rely on their wit, and it will be more satisfying for the reader to watch them evolve. This will probably fall under the “problem-solving category”.
But, just as you can have a tool kit, you can also use a mystery tool. The characters must learn to use it as well, so it won’t save everyone out of anywhere. It always comes with something unexpected. The mystery tool is useful for plot twists, and for turning the sense of wonder into a sense of horror. When using it, ask yourself “how could I use this tool in a way the readers are not expecting but could have anticipated?”.
This last question involves promises, payoffs, and foreshadowing. There are two contrasting, general setups to go for:
If _ then your characters are saved. Keep in mind that the narrative should do everything it can to make readers forget that “blank”.
If _ then your characters are doomed. But, in this case, your characters did not get that “blank”.
So, to conclude, having your characters figure out a problem, get understanding, and survive, is more satisfactory for the reader than then them failing to figure out a problem but still succeed.
2. Flaws, limitations, and costs are more interesting than powers.
Sure, powers can be unique and thrilling, but it is the challenges that come with them, that encapsulate storytelling potential. There are four options (but not limits) to work them out:
Flaws are elements attributes characters could change, or something about the magic they do not understand yet. However, through effort and character development, they will find a solution to this problem. Limitations are elements characters must learn to work with instead of worrying about fixing. Costs will vary depending on how much, and in which ways are characters using magic. A cost could be a resource that they could run out of, or something to be sacrificed. In both cases, costs create narrative tension. (Spoilers for the Shadow and Bone trilogy ahead) For example, a character flaw in the Grishaverse is Alina not having control over her powers. A limitation is her not being powerful enough without the three amplifiers. And a cost - a sacrifice- is the Darkling having to turn people into volcra to expand the Fold.
One to fix through effort, one to work with, and one to weigh.
When you try to figure out these three challenges, remember to ask yourself what do you want your character journey to be; and what will the climax look like.
3. Before adding something new to your magic, see if you can instead expand what you have.
A couple of days ago, I saw a TikTok about a girl who had been working on a fantasy novel for almost a decade. She had dozens of languages, a hundred species, diverse geography, and countless political and religious systems. And there I sat, looking at my screen, thinking about the magic system I still had to polish.
It is easy to say that I felt like I was falling behind. I was already drafting, I knew I could not include a ton of worldbuilding I did not understand myself. This was until I went through my notes on Sanderson’s lecture and remembered that “one idea done really well is better than a hundred ideas barely touched on”. To dig deeper into a concept, to explore how it works, and make sure you understand its details, might result clearer (for you and your reader) than to include everything you can think of on paper.
During his lecture, Sanderson explained how worldbuilding is like exploring a hollow iceberg. People will see the tip and assume there is a huge block of ice underwater. However, they do not expect the iceberg to be hollow. This means that you will explain the indispensable elements of your story, and hint that the rest is there. The truth is, not every book can include a highly detailed encyclopedia to describe politics and geographic anomalies.
Going back to the room analogy, having an organized place with coherent furniture but many mysterious doors can be better than one messy room where you sleep on the walls and use chairs as ladders. Except, of course, that you are working with the messy room, and want your readers to explore and make sense out of it.
You have chosen the fantasy realm, and you now have your tool kit to work with. It is up to you to decide how will you use each tool, and which advice to follow. Let’s rewind to the first law again, because you have your own choice to make:
Will you choose soft, or hard magic systems? Keep tuned to the blog and do not forget to sign up to the newsletter to continue with your path.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.