Sanderson’s Laws of Fantasy Writing

Today I had the privilege of meeting the wonderful Brandon Sanderson a second time. I wish I could say I didn’t fangirl again, but I did. I was so in awe of this man that I completely forgot any and all questions I wanted to ask him. Got three of my books signed though, and got a tiny pep talk from him when I told him my dreams of winning a writing competition were crushed a couple of hours earlier – cheered me up right away.

God I will forever treasure these books.

But anyway.

I didn’t just meet Sanderson the author, I also met Sanderson the professor. And he was brilliant. I wish I had him as a teacher back when I was still in school. The workshop we had him was titled, “Sanderson’s Laws of Fantasy Writing”, and it was really quite enlightening. The laws are applicable not just to fantasy, of course, and the wisdom should really be shared. This is all paraphrasing of course, and I’m just relying on my notes here!

Onto the laws!

Law No. 1: Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. 

Essentially, Brandon describes magic as a continuum between logic and wonder, and you oscillate between the two, feeding the reader just enough logic to understand what’s going on, then giving them something that fills them with a sense of wonder. Brandon, a self-proclaimed plotter (or “outliner”), works on the basis where he deliberately leaves holes in his magic, enough to give the readers an idea of how it works and its limitations, before bowling them over with a new revelation. Ideally, you would know the entirety of your magic system from the start, so as to avoid falling into traps where the magic solves the problem in a way that doesn’t make sense or essentially feels like cheating.

Law No. 2: Flaws and limitations are more interesting than powers (OR: What a character can’t do is more interesting than what they can do). 

According to Brandon, a flaw is something wrong with the character that they have to work on, and a limitation is something that cannot change and has to be worked with or around. A character can be weak, but they can strive to be strong; however, a character who is blind cannot change their circumstances. He gave the example of Superman, where he said that we would be much interested in seeing how he struggles to win the affections of Lois Lane, than perhaps see him answer the question of, “Can Superman crush a boulder?” A story occurs when something goes wrong, and that can be set up with magic, through flaws and limitations; i.e. they aid in creating conflict. Limitations can be divided into three parts: a) limits of power; b) cost (which could be financial, health, resources, etc); and c) the limitations of learning.

Law No. 3: Magic systems are better if explored deeply instead of expanded widely. 

In Sanderson’s Mistborn series, he explores three magic systems. When he started writing The Stormlight Archive, he was asked if he would have like 20 or 30 magic systems in this 14-book series. Though he was enthusiastic at first, he quickly came to realise that that would be difficult to accomplish, and decided to focus on a few, expanding them and delving deep into them, rather than having  an “expansive ocean that’s only 3 inches deep”. This also applies if you’re creating a race or a completely new culture, or even introducing new characters – it is better to focus on a few you’re completely comfortable with, rather than touch on many in such a way that the readers don’t get to know them well or connect with them.

Law No. 4 (or Law Zero): Always err on the side of what is awesome (OR: Always choose what’s AWESOME).

This is by far my favourite rule. It felt to me as something like, “If all fails, all you have to do is be awesome.” I especially love this about Sanderson. More often than not, when he talks about writing this or that, he goes like, “It would be just so COOL to do this.” There’s almost a child-like wonder about it, and it’s infectious to see him talk so enthusiastically about his magic systems. Whenever he feels like something isn’t right, he ignores his previous rules and uses what he feels in his guts is the coolest thing to do. And it really, really shows. Whenever I’m reading his books, I’m often struck with the thought, “MAN THIS IS SO COOL.”

So there you have it. Sanderson’s Laws of Fantasy Writing (or a brief overview of them anyway). I feel like they’re something I would definitely be able to employ in future writings!

What do you make of them? Do you have any rules you follow when you’re writing?

I should also add that the full lecture will be made available soon here, so keep an eye out for it!

8 thoughts on “Sanderson’s Laws of Fantasy Writing

  1. The first book signing I ever attended was one he did in Lansing last October, for Shadows of Self. I’ve loved Brandon Sanderson’s work ever since I happened to pick up Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. Thanks for sharing!

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