Sanderson's First Law

21 November 2012 21:17

Warning: This post contains spoilers for both my work and Brandon Sanderson’s work

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I am somewhat of a fan of Brandon Sanderson. A common theme in his novels are his well-defined and complex magic systems, which are inherently limitedin their possible applications. For instance, magic in Elantris is tied to nations, and declines in strength the further away one gets. In Mistborn, you have Allomancy, which uses metals as a fuel (with each metal granting a different ability). Once the metals run out, you are powerless.� But a common theme in all his novels is that the boundaries of each power are well understood, and explained early. There are many benefits to this approach: even the magical elements of the story become easier to understand, and a deus ex machine is less likely to occur. The whole principle is summarized 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. Sanderson’s essay on the subject (which I would recommend all fantasy authors read) is quite thorough in explaining the reasoning behind this. I agree with this law, and I understand the implications of breaking it. Unfortunately, the Gifts from the Hunter in the Dark series aren’t always as clearly defined as to fully satisfy Sanderson’s First Law. The Gift of the Destroyer is actually quite well defined and understood, and poses the least problems (unless we’re using it for Time Travel, then it gets a bit murky). In fact, most Gifts have clearly defined limits, but not all of those are known to the characters of the story, and as such, not communicated to the reader. It is commonly understood that the use of each Gift has the same effect as physical exercise, and that trying to use a Gift beyond your given strength will kill you, but the exact energy required by each Gift is not clearly defined. The protagonists know when they are approaching their own limits, but don’t quite know how much they can do before reaching them (and reflect on this as well).

All of these things can lead to an incomplete understanding of the magic system, and as such, may make the resolutions of the stories somewhat hard to swallow. The most obvious case in the Hunter in the Dark universe is the time travel mechanism and how it relates to memories of "other lives", but the Gift of the Seer can be troublesome as well. Of course, I have perfectly good explanations, but they are hard to include in the story without including cliches such as "the old wise man explaining the protagonist’s powers".

And that’s just the First Law. There’s the Second Law as well, which is the primary reason Sarina is not a main character in any of my novels. I’ll probably go into that in more detail in a later post.