Created By: bobfrank on July 23, 2012 Last Edited By: bobfrank on August 4, 2012

Sandersons First Law

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Some works of Speculative Fiction use magic, Sufficiently Advanced Technology, or Applied Phlebotinum in highly mystical ways; they can do whatever the author requires to make the story interesting. Others take a very different route, making their magic or high technology subject to strict and well-defined in-universe rules. But under what criteria should an author choose one approach over the other?

According to Brandon Sanderson, using this choice effectively is closely related to a second factor: whether or not the story allows the protagonists to use the magic to resolve problems in the plot they find themselves a part of. He formalized it as Sanderson's First Law:

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

In other words, if the protagonists are going to use magic to solve their problems, the reader has to understand ahead of time that this is something they are capable of doing. If not, the reader will feel that the author is simply making stuff up as he goes along. In stories where the rules of magic are not explained, it is useful for flavor and description, and to give the story a sense of ordinary characters being caught up in part of something much bigger than themselves, but they will rarely be able to actually magic their way out of trouble if the story is well-written.

Note that this only applies to resolving problems, according to Sanderson. Magic can always be used to create trouble for our heroes!


Examples:

  • Brandon Sanderson has a distinct preference for the Rule Magic side of things. He's stated that to him, "obviously magic has to have rules," and it shows in his writing. Each world has its own set of well-defined rules, and a major theme in most of his works is the characters figuring out how to do new and interesting things with magic within those rules in order to further the plot. In fact, discovering a highly significant, foreshadowed-but-overlooked aspect to the rules of magic was a major element leading directly to the climax of Elantris.
  • The Lord of the Rings is on the other end of the scale. Despite the party traveling with one of the most powerful wizards in the world, the focus is on the non-magical characters, and it shows.
    • When Gandalf tries to open the way to the Mines of Moria, he wastes time using all manner of unlocking and opening spells, before finally figuring out that the lock is not a spell, but a riddle. (The Movie takes it one step further: Gandalf never does figure that out; one of the hobbits does.)
    • When Gandalf tries to use his magic to confront the Balrog, the party ends up losing him.
    • And at the very end, Frodo finally tries to solve his own problems by claiming the ring, which the reader understands would be a Very Bad Thing, and the only thing that ends up saving the day is Gollum's intervention.
  • Harry Potter plays with this: new powers and magics are frequently made up as necessary, but after they show up in-story, they're given some sort of rule and used consistently from there on. It works surprisingly well.
  • Violating Sanderson's First Law is the reason why The Sword of Truth is frequently accused of Deus ex Machina. The audience is frequently told that magic works based on a highly rational and scientific set of rules, and there's a fair amount of Magi Babble scattered throughout the books to assure us that the characters understand exactly how magic works, but the readers never get any sort of detailed explanation. So when wizards (particularly Richard) come up with some spell to save the day at the climax of one of the books, (which happens multiple times,) it inevitably comes across as an Ass Pull on the part of the author.
  • In the Myth Adventures novels, readers see Skeeve taking lessons in magic and picking up new techniques, so it's readily apparent what his abilities and limitations are. He's usually free to use these powers to deal with his problems, and when that's not an option, the reasons why he can't (e.g. scarcity of force lines) are also explained.
  • In the Lord Darcy stories, Master Sean's discourses on magical theory make it clear to readers why he can identify and analyze some clues to a mystery, but not others. The information he obtains via magical means is always of value, although it's still left up to Lord Darcy's intellect to deduce what it proves about the crime. Magical effects not related to forensics may or may not be explained, but ones that aren't (e.g. how Master Sean's carpetbag returns to him) are usually played for comedy; if they're a direct element of the crime (e.g. the Tarnhelm effect), they'll be explained as well.
Community Feedback Replies: 18
  • July 23, 2012
    treewa
    Something similar might apply to science fiction, where you there is usually a tendency to explain how an important piece of technology works, unless it's already a well-know stereotype tech, like a teleporter or a ray gun.
  • July 24, 2012
    DragonQuestZ
    I say this should be In Universe Examples Only, as some would natter over whether magic really is explained enough.
  • July 24, 2012
    bobfrank
    How would that even work when the entire point of it is the readers' ability to understand the rules of magic?
  • July 24, 2012
    abk0100
  • July 24, 2012
    Generality
    Contrast Reverse Polarity.
  • July 25, 2012
    Eric119
    The description of the The Lord Of The Rings re the door to the Mines of Moria applies only to the live-action movie, not the book.
  • July 27, 2012
    bobfrank
    Argh, you're right. It's been too long since I read the books. I'll fix that...
  • July 30, 2012
    TBeholder
    so, uh, "it's not going to be an Ass Pull if it already was an integral part of the story". God news. =) IMO worth adding as Fan Speak, but without examples - it's not even a proper sliding scale. Present examples already tend toward either gushing or worming up the scale and gushing.
  • July 30, 2012
    Sackett
    Isn't this Magic A Is Magic A
  • July 31, 2012
    bobfrank
    Magic A Is Magic A is about one extreme end of the scale, what Sanderson calls "Hard Magic." It should probably be noted as a Sub Trope.
  • July 31, 2012
    DragonQuestZ
    The examples just look YMMV, since some will argue that they got how the magic worked.
  • July 31, 2012
    SharleeD
    • In the Myth Adventures novels, readers see Skeeve taking lessons in magic and picking up new techniques, so it's readily apparent what his abilities and limitations are. He's usually free to use these powers to deal with his problems, and when that's not an option, the reasons why he can't (e.g. scarcity of force lines) are also explained.

    • In the Lord Darcy stories, Master Sean's discourses on magical theory make it clear to readers why he can identify and analyze some clues to a mystery, but not others. The information he obtains via magical means is always of value, although it's still left up to Lord Darcy's intellect to deduce what it proves about the crime. Magical effects not related to forensics may or may not be explained, but ones that aren't (e.g. how Master Sean's carpetbag returns to him) are usually played for comedy; if they're a direct element of the crime (e.g. the Tarnhelm effect), they'll be explained as well.
  • July 31, 2012
    TBeholder
    It's just a Fan Speak term for "Ass Pull can be prevented". No more, no less.

    And not a trope, since it merely postulates a relation.
  • August 2, 2012
    Sackett
    This should definitely be named something else.

    I like Brian Sanderson, but we usually don't name tropes after people.

    Also, I'm still not seeing how this isn't Magic A Is Magic A.

    The trope description is all about the "Hard Magic" and says nothing about a scale. Also, as written this is just Sanderson's opinion about how authors should write fantasy.

    Currently this is not trope worthy, and will just end up in the TRS if it is launched.
  • August 4, 2012
    bobfrank
    @Sackett:

    First, it's Brandon Sanderson, not Brian.

    Second: have a look at the Laws And Formulas section. I see:

    ...and that's just from the first half of the alphabet. So if any such rule about not naming tropes after people exists, we certainly seem to have a de facto exception for Laws And Formulas.

    The rest of your criticism seems to be simply that there aren't enough examples under the "soft magic" side of the scale. That's nothing but Needs Wiki Magic, and is certainly not a valid reason for calling it "not trope worthy."
  • August 4, 2012
    DragonQuestZ
    I call it not trope worthy because it's a subjective idea. Not all viewers will find magic the same amount of explained.
  • August 4, 2012
    fulltimeD
    I think this might be a trope, because it does have story relevance. Specifically, this applies relative to the weight of the problem. IE in Star Trek, replicators can make anything that's not living, up to and including any kind of food a character could desire from thin air, and they're pretty much handwaved, but the Problem Of The Week will of course be difficult to solve, and will require much more Technobabble including analogies and metaphors that are accessible to the viewer. That being said, it might come pretty close to being People Sit On Chairs, since this is pretty much story structure whether or not a setting has Magic or Sufficiently Advanced Technology, or is mundane like Present Day: the problem relevant to the story is more difficult to solve than things like daily logistics IE how does the main character afford such a huge apartment if he is only a temp office worker in New York City or who the hell are these random people who show up to his parties but never call or just hang out?

  • August 4, 2012
    fulltimeD
    And the criticism that this is YMMV is, I think, totally valid.
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