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2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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Thank you! During the early days of my career—before I got published—I found myself naturally creating a new magic system for each book I wrote. I'm not sure why I did this. I just found the process too involving, too interesting, to stop.
For Mistborn, I came to the book wanting several things. I wanted a great magic system that would enhance the graceful, martial-arts style fights. This was going to be a series of sneaking thieves, assassins, and night-time exploration. And so I developed the powers with a focus on that idea. What would make the thieving crew better at what they did? I based each power around an archetype of a thieving crew. The Thug, the Sneak, the Fast-talker, etc.
At the same time, I wanted to enhance the 'industrial revolution' feel of the novels through the magic system. I wanted something that felt like an industrial-age science, something that was a good hybrid of science and magic. I found myself drawn to Alchemy and its use of metals, then extrapolated from that to a way to release power locked inside of metal. Metabolism grew out of that. It felt natural. We metabolize food for energy; letting Allomancers metabolize metal had just the right blend of science and magic.
For Warbreaker, I was looking back a little further, shooting for a more Renaissance-era feel. And so, I extrapolated from the early beliefs that similarities created bonds. In other words, you could affect an object (in this case, bring an object to life) by creating a bond between it and yourself, letting it take on a semblance of your own life.
Moving beyond that was the idea of color as life. When a person dies, their color drains from them. The same happens when plants die. Vibrant color is a sign of life itself, and so I worked with this metaphor and the concept of Breath as life to develop the magic. In this case, I wanted magical powers that would work better 'in' society, meaning things that would enhance regular daily lives. Magical servants and soldiers, animated through arcane powers, worked better for this world than something more strictly fighting-based, like in Mistborn.
I have tried to boil it down to three 'rules' or 'laws' I follow when writing magic systems.
1) The author's ability to resolve conflicts in a satisfying way with magic is directly proportional to how the reader understands said magic. 2) Weaknesses are more interesting than powers. 3) If you change one thing, you change the world.
Basically, the first one says "Don't pull things out of the air. If you want the magic to work, make it REAL and reliable. If you would rather have an air of mystery, which is fine, don't explain the magic—but don't make it do heavy lifting in the plot, either."
The second one says that what the magic CAN'T do is where your story and your character conflict comes from. Allomancy is interesting in part because it relies on metals that can run out. Steelpushing is interesting because you can only Push directly away from yourself.This forces the characters to work harder, and makes the story more interesting. The most interesting things about Superman or Batman are their flaws—the things they can't do, the things that weaken them, their limitations.
3) Magic in a world should be interconnected with the politics, economy, science, religion, and everything else. The author must think through the ramifications of changing small things.
Next two magic systems you might see: 1) Disease magic. Bacteria have evolved to the point that they try to keep their hosts alive by granting them magical powers while you have the disease. So, you catch a cold, and can fly until you get over it.
2) I've got a a very cool 'throwing spheres of light' magic that I'm working on...which, when you break it down, was inspired by seeing how accurate baseball pitchers were and thinking about how that could be weaponized in a fantasy world.
3) That guy with his ice soap has me thinking about "freezing stuff in water" magic. Like, potions that do things only after they thaw...
Hello Mr. Sanderson, thank you so much for visiting our group!
You seem to purposefully invent a system of magic for each book/series you create. I think that Warbreaker was one of the most unique I've ever read. Do you have a reason or story behind this habit?
Yes—both. Back when I was trying to break in, I spent many years writing books and not getting published. I was under the impression (it's just one of my beliefs) that it would be easier for me to break in doing a lot of different standalone novels, or first books in a series, as opposed to writing all in one series and putting all my eggs in one basket. For that reason, I got a lot of practice finishing one book and starting a new one that was in a new setting in a new world.
For me, a new setting/world means a new magic system. Magic is part of what draws me to fantasy, being able to play with the ideas behind it. It's what engages me; it's what excites me. And so part of the real fun of starting a news series is developing a new magic system. In a way that's kind of like the little twinkie or whatever that I'd hang in front of myself in order to get me excited about a new series. I'd be just coming down off a writing high at the end of a book, and I'd still be excited about the old series, its characters and world. Creating a new world is a lot of work, but there's an excitement to it as well. I'd focus on that and say, "Look, I get to create a new magic system, let's see what I can play around with for this book." So because I got used to doing that, that became my modus operandi, my method of working. That still excites me. Oftentimes it's the opportunity to create a new magic system that gets me excited about writing a new book.
Laurel, thank YOU for reading my books and giving me a reason to stop by!
Do you spend the most time on your magic systems, or do you find yourself spending equal amounts of time on other aspects of worldbuilding/plot such as religion/culture/language/geography/etc?
It really depends on the novel. With some I spend a lot of time on areas that in others I don't spend much time on at all. With every book I spend a serious amount of time on the magic system. That's consistent—it's just something I like to do.
For a given book or series I may spend more time on a given aspect. I'd say the other big aspect that takes a lot of time is characterizing the characters the right way. That takes a lot of work, but I tend to do that during my actual writing period, whereas I spend the planning period focusing on worldbuilding and plot. It's when I actually sit down to write a chapter that I explore who a character is, and so it's really hard to pin down timewise which one I spend more time on. And that varies based on the book.
Can you explain the process that you go through to come up with your magic systems. So many fantasy books today have a "black box" type of magic system — in that you don't know how things happen but the caster just suddenly shoots a fireball out of his arse. Yours are in—depth and set out a very distinct give and take that the reader can understand.
All of your systems are unique, so again, how do you get to the point where you have a complete magic system that you feel is ready to put into a book. Since this is a discussion about Warbreaker, how specifically did you come up with biochroma?
I don't know if I can answer that question in the short space afforded by a discussion forum. But in general with my magic systems I'm looking for a variety of components. Most of them start with just an "Aha, there's something there!" moment in my head — either it's a plot hook or a conflict hook or a visual hook or something like that. I'm usually looking for something that does what I find exciting about magic, which is straddling the line between mysticism and science. And I'm looking for new ways to explore that. So when an interesting scientific concept occurs to me, and I can take it in the direction of "what if," that's something that I find fascinating.
For Mistborn, for instance, telekinesis mixed with vector science was interesting to me. In Warbreaker it was the concept of sympathetic magic — the idea that you can create something that's like something else and it will have power over that. I wanted to try and take it in a direction I hadn't seen before and blend that with the concept of animation, bringing inanimate objects to life. Those were intersting concepts because at one point people believed in both of these things as real forms of magic. They believed they could make it work. The myth of the golem goes way back, and the idea of sympathetic magic was around not too long ago — in fact there are still plenty who believe in it, in various forms of superstition.
So I look for a blend of concepts. I usually look for an interesting visual paradigm — something that will work in a way that helps the reader visualize the magic. I don't want it to all happen nebulously in the back of someone's head. (And speaking of rear—end fireballs, I do believe I read a webcomic where someone did that. It was Thog Infinitron...I guess it wasn't a fireball.) But anyway, I'm looking for something that you can see and follow the process of what the character's doing in a way that makes sense.
I find that if there's one thing to take away from this, limitations on magic are more interesting than the powers themselves. And so I'm always looking for interesting limitations, because that forces me to be creative and forces my characters to be creative with what they have.
How many magic systems have you gotten rid of, and how do you decide which ones to keep?
It’s an ever growing process. I mean I’ve started tons of magic systems, dozens, maybe hundreds, and I keep them based on how viral they all are, against the other magic systems I’m thinking of, how well this one appeals to me. Sometimes it depends if I have a book that will fit that magic or not.
For instance, some books are very action-oriented, and some magic systems are not very action-oriented, so the magic needs to fit the book, so they just keep on kind of spinning there till they work.
I really want to know, Brandon how do you get these ideas about so diverse and innovative magic systems?
It just happens. I don't know. It's a blend of who I am — my science background, what I like in fiction, mixed with the way my mind works, what stories I seek to tell. I can't say specifically where I get the ideas, because they're all different. It's just part of my makeup.
Complex "magic" system in Mistborn, and the complex one in Elantris; what base ideas do you build from for this?
For Mistborn, Alchemy and biological metabolism. For Elantris, Chinese linguistics and geometry mixed.
Three things make a fantasy epic work for me. 1) A complex plot with plenty of twists and turns that comes to an explosive climax. 2) An imaginative magic system and setting that feels both real and wondrous at the same time. 3) Deeply personal characters dealing with issues that transcend genre. (This is the most important one.)
I approach my writing from that above philosophy. I am probably best known for my magic and my settings, where I try very hard to give the reader a unique and different experience, one they haven't gotten from other fantasy books. I am also known for my endings, where I try very hard for well-foreshadowed—yet still surprising—twists and climaxes.
However, magic is only as interesting as the characters who use it. A plot is only gripping for me if I care about the characters. Danger and action sequences mean nothing if we don't CARE about the people who might be hurt or killed.
Robert Jordan, through his writing, taught me that. Characters first, everything else second.
Yeah. One of the functions of getting published like I did—taking as long as I did, and working how I did—when I was trying to break in—and even in those early years when I didn't know about breaking in—one of the things I did was pop frequently from project to project. I didn't write sequels. In fact, I haven't brought this up before, but when I sold Elantris, I was actually on my thirteenth novel. That's how far along I was in the process. Mistborn is my fourteenth, so you can read my sixth and my fourteenth. I felt that if I just sat and wrote sequels in the same world unpublished, number one it would be bad for me professionally because I can't really send book two to a bunch of editors, and say "Hey, look at this!" I can only send book one, so if I wrote six books and only had the first one as something that I could try and entice editors with, then I think it would have been to my detriment. Instead I wanted to have six different books—standalones, and beginnings of series—that I could be sending out, and if[?] I could immediately send them something else, and say "Hey, if there's something you liked in that one, maybe you'll look at this one and see that I'm getting better," or "Maybe you'll like this one better," things like that. That was my philosophy. So I got used to always writing a new setting, a new world, and a new magic each time I wrote a book.
Partially, also, though, as a writer, this wasn't just market-field, it was because I wanted to develop something that was my own. I mentioned it before—I think that writers should add to the genre, and I myself was a little bit annoyed with the genre in the late '90s and early 2000s. Maybe I've overstated some of the impact that the children's book had because of that, but I don't know. I was one of those that was like, "Really? Do I really need to read yet another book that is about a guy who lives out in the rural woods and discovers that he is the lost king and needs to go find this magical artifact so that he can save the world. Do I really need to read that again?" I mean, Tolkien did a great job of that, and you know what, Robert Jordan did a really good job of that, and you've got Terry Goodkind with...I mean, with so many people telling this story, do we really need another one? And I think the late 90s, at least for me, is when I finally got tired of it, and I'd read Robert Jordan, and I said, "Look, I don't think this can be done better. How can you tell me you can do it better than he's doing it? Why am I going to read your book?" And that influenced me a lot as a writer. When I was trying to break in, I actually tried writing a story like that, cause I felt like that's what everyone wrote, that's what got published, and I got a little ways into it and said, "I just...I can't feel it. What am I doing that's new? What am I adding?"
And so I was trying a lot of different things. I was trying to explore. Those first six novels of mine, in fact, were—well, the first five in particular—were very different. I wrote several science-fiction novels. I tried a cyberpunk, I tried a social science-fiction, I tried a comedy—I tried lots of different things, trying to find my voice, and at the end, when the dust settled, after doing that, I realized what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was kind of the postmodern epic, so to speak. The child of the 80s and 90s who is aware of what happened with the monomyth and all this stuff in science fiction and fantasy, and say "Yeah, what's next? What happens next? And how can I do something different? How can I do something new? Where can we take this genre?" New magic systems, different styles of plot. That's partially where Mistborn came from. Mistborn is the [?] which really doesn't work for books like it does for movies, so realize this isn't the only thing the book's about, but one of the big influences in me writing the book was the idea of me telling the story where the monomyth had happened. The monomyth meaning Joseph Campbell is here with the thousand vases, you know—young hero goes on a quest to defeat the great evil, and what if he failed? What if the Dark Lord won? What if Voldemort at the end of Harry Potter had said, "You're just a stupid kid!" and killed him, and taken over the world? What if Frodo had kept the ring, or Aragorn had kept the ring, or even Sauron had just gotten it back? What happens next? And that's where that trilogy came from.
Alcatraz is an interesting story because...Mistborn is the first book that I wrote knowing that it was going to get published. It was my fourteenth novel. Always before then, I'd always written just whatever I had felt like next, and it was the first time I had to consider, "Wow. Elantris is getting published. How do I follow it up? What do I do next?" Originally I'd planned to release next a book called The Way of Kings, which was number thirteen—the book I wrote right before Mistborn—and as I was revising Way of Kings, I had this deep-seated feeling that I wasn't ready for Way of Kings. I'd written the first book, and it didn't do yet what I wanted it to do. It was a massive war epic, and was very intricate, enormous world, and thirty magic systems...I mean, it was actually beyond my skill level at the time. And I said, "I need practice writing sequels before I start a massive epic like this." I'd never written a sequel before.
And that's when I sat down and outlined the Mistborn trilogy, wanting to write an entire trilogy straight through so that I could have beginning, middle and end done by the time the first one came out. And I actually was able to achieve that, as a side note; I had written Hero of Ages by the time The Final Empire, the first book, needed to be in for its final draft, and so I was able to—I think it comes through in the trilogy—I was able to make it completely internally consistent. You don't have the problems in that where you have...in some series where you get a little ways into it and then realize the author's just making stuff up, and trying to...and being self-contradictory, and things like that; I didn't want that to happen, and I think I needed to practice doing that with the training wheels, so to speak, of having them all done before the first one came out—before I tried launching into something where I would just have to trust my outline in order to do that, if that makes any sense at all.
So, I sat down and wrote the first two Mistborn books back-to-back. First draft done of Mistborn 1, sent off; started the first draft of Mistborn 2, and was revising Mistborn 1 as I was finishing Mistborn 2. I got done with Mistborn 2, and it was the hardest book I've ever written, partially because of the grueling hours I set for myself—I wanted to get these all done—but mostly because I'd never written a sequel before, and I was so used to doing something new with every book that I wrote, and so I had to train myself into writing sequels. And after I got done with Mistborn 2, and was trying to write Mistborn 3, I realized I need, just for my own creative process—the way I've trained myself—I have to do something completely different now. I have to take a break for a little while and just do something off-the-wall in order to reset all of those tumblers in my head, get back, and write the third Mistborn book, because otherwise I felt that I wouldn't be approaching it fresh enough. I wouldn't be approaching it having enough passion for it. I felt I would started it burned out, or at least burn out to the middle of it.
And so because of that, I sat down with that writing prompt: a one-sentence line that had come to me one time, just when I was hanging out with some friends, and I hurriedly typed into my phone, and said, "Huh, I should write that story one day." And the line was: "So, there I was, tied to an altar made from out-dated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians." And I wanted to do what—I sat down with this—I wanted to do something very different from the Mistborn books. Number one, I wanted to do something humorous. Number two, I wanted to play off of the very things that were in danger of becoming clichés to myself, if that makes sense, to keep myself fresh, to say "I need to go completely different directions so that I don't just become a cliché of myself". And so I wanted to do something very wacky with the magic system that I could never do in an epic fantasy book, because I want those to all feel consistent and scientific. And I wanted to do a first-person narrative instead of a third-person narrative, to do something different again, and I wanted to write for a younger audience. Mostly though, I just wanted to write something off-the-cuff, which was more like a stand-up routine version, or...not a stand-up routine. More like an improv. You know, it's not just joke after joke, but it's an improv story, starting with a kid who discovers that librarians secretly rule the world.
Partially, at this time, I'd also been reading The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, which has some fascinating aspects and some very annoying ones, the annoying aspects being, I don't like a lot of the cheap tricks he uses narratively to just pull you through the story, cause they get a little old, but beyond that, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I don't believe that the Catholic Church, or anyone, has these secret cabals. I mean, they make for great stories, but I don't think that it's there, and so I wanted to tell a silly conspiracy theory book, and so I picked librarians ruling the world. And so what Alcatraz became was a short—for me; 50,000 words—novel that talks about fiction in general. There's a lot of Alcatraz, the narrator, addressing the audience and talking about what literature does, and what authors do. There's a point where he goes off about how authors are sadists—because we want to put you through all these terrible emotions—and explains and talks about it in what is hopefully a humorous way, but kind of digs at the roots of what makes someone want to tell stories.
And there is a goofy magic system. Everyone in the books who belongs to the Smedry family—he's Alcatraz Smedry; it's a—anyway, they're the Freedom Fighters who resist the Librarians. They all have really dumb magic powers. It's kind of like a Mystery Man sort of thing, if you've seen that movie. Alcatraz's grandfather, who introduces himself near the beginning of the book, has the super-power...um, his super-magical power is that he can arrive late to appointments. Alcatraz in the book meets someone in the book who is really magically good—his power is that he's magically good at tripping. Another guy who is magically good at speaking gibberish. Alcatraz himself has the super-power of breaking things—he's really good at breaking stuff—and I just based these magic powers on silly, goofy things that me or my family do—being late to something is what my Mom always said—and then trying to twist them on their heads. You know, later in the book, Grandpa Smedry will arrive late to a bullet when someone shoots it at him, so it just barely misses him. You know...fun stuff like this, where I take preconceptions and turn them on their heads.
And that's where Alcatraz came from. I didn't write it saying "I'm going to publish this." I wrote it saying "I need [to write] this." I finished it; I sent it off to my agent, and said, "Surprise, I wrote a different book than you were expecting me to." And he wrote back, and said, "Wow, this is actually pretty good! You wrote it really fast—I can tell; it needs a lot of revision—but I think I could sell this, if you want to put the time into revising it." So over the next year or so, I did some revisions and some drafts and some work on it, and we sent it out, and lo and behold, it had nine publishers want it. Four of them got in a bidding war, and it went sky-high and turned out to be this wonderful thing that Dreamworks Animation actually optioned it before it even came out. And so, yeah. It took on this entire life of its own.
I sold to Scholastic four novels in a series. I have just finished the fourth one. There may be subsequent volumes, depending on things—particularly depending on if...um, when things calm down for me; the amount of work I have to do right now prohibitive for me entering into another Alcatraz contract; my attention really needs to be on the Wheel of Time at the moment—but, the third one is coming out in October; sometimes they appear on shelves a little bit early. They're a little bit tougher to find in hardcover than my other books because—I've been told, and maybe...I dunno—it seems that children's books...Scholastic likes to market directly to the schools and libraries, and that's their main method of doing it, at least with my books. They've sold as many that way as they have in bookstores, and the bookstores are kind of hit-or-miss on having a copy. Only about half of them get copies in, and so Amazon might be your best bet, or going to your local independent and asking them to order you a copy, and the paperbacks are generally easy to find, but the hardcovers are a little bit tough to find, but the first few chapters are on my website. If you're looking for something that's lighthearted—that's not ridiculous, but it's lighthearted—has some comedy to it, but really has me looking at the novels in the fantasy genre, in specific, from a postmodern view, just trying to break it down and see what it does, and telling a story with it, then you might enjoy the Alcatraz books.
Well, thank you for that answer.
Well, considering that the Wheel of Time's magic system was a foundational inspiration for the way I do magic systems, I'd say this wasn't actually as big a problem as one might assume. Yes, Mr. Jordan does some things with magic very differently than I do. But his use of an underlying logic, mixed with excellent visual imagery and a science to the magic, is part of what I've long loved about the series.
The biggest trouble for me has been remembering which specific combinations of which specific powers create which specific weaves.
How many magic systems did you go through before deciding on the one in the book?
Building the magic for a world is not something I’ve simply been able to drop in, usually. I generally am working on lots of different themes and ideas in my head *laughter* When I’m planning a novel and the magic will fit a certain story and influence how it goes and I will do a lot of building and practice to see if that’s working and do a lot of, I’ll do a lot of pre-writing and see how the magic influences the plot, influences the setting. If these things are also intertwined then it’s not a drag and drop so to speak and usually even if I pull out a magic, I’ll really be pulling out parts of it and replacing it with other parts.
For instance with the Mistborn books Allomancy was in one form there from the beginning and yet what the powers that Allomancy could do often I was ripping out and adding new ones in, in order to better fit the novel and the narrative I’m shooting for. So for Way of Kings I’ve kind of taken a—the series I’ve been working on for quite a while, people have read the online interviews and things like that. I generally took a ‘more is awesome' approach to the magic systems and yet because of that I didn’t want the first book to be overrun by them, it would be very easy for my books to simply become interesting gimmicks about a magic rather than a story about characters and the story that happens to them, and so I was actually very careful to not overwhelm with the magic in this book. Which is actually somewhat ironic because this book, I built into it somewhere around thirty magic systems and yet I didn’t want to overwhelm and so the first book, there are only hints of any of them but generally when I was world building this I came up with a great idea, I worked it into the magic system rather than saying "Oh, let’s do this instead."
It's interesting that this book would be the first one I publish. Many of you know that when I finally sold ELANTRIS, I was working on my thirteenth novel. By the time ELANTRIS was released, I'd written fifteen separate novels. Very few of these are sequels, and of the fifteen, ELANTRIS is actually number six.
One of the things I pride myself on as a writer are my magic systems. I spend a lot of effort and prewriting on them, and I strive very hard to make them feel like nothing a reader has ever experienced before. MISTBORN, the book that will come out a year after ELANTRIS, is a very good example of this.
ELANTRIS, however, is very interesting in that I don't actually get to spend much time with the magic. Or, at least, I don't get to spend much time showing it—the magic of this book is broken, and so while we find out a lot about it (and I think it's distinctive in its arrangement) we don't get to see it.
In the end, when the magic finally gets restored, I think it actually loses just a bit of charm. I developed this magic system to be an interesting and original puzzle—and so, when you finally see it working, I think there's a fulfilling payoff. However, in its actual form, it isn't generally as distinctive as some of my other magic systems.
The language metaphor I use in this chapter is one of my favorites in the book. Hrathen's attitude can be quickly summed up in the way that he decides it is all right to preach to the people in their own language. He admits that he probably shouldn't do such a thing, but the logical justification is just too strong for him to deny.
I've spoken earlier about how fantasy books tend to place modern-like characters in more archaic settings. The Seons in this book are one of my rationalizations for the way that people act. I believe that a lot of our civility and maturity as a global culture comes from our ability to communicate quickly and effectively with one another.
Instantaneous communication changes the world. It makes countries seem less distant, and it allows for faster resolution of problems. Often times, when I'm creating a magic system, this idea is one of the first that I consider. Can this magic provide for instant communication or travel? If it can, I can use that to shrink the world, allowing me to place characters in more distant settings and still have them tied to the plot. (This isn't something I have to do often in this particular book. However, the ability to communicate with Wyrn and Sarene's father does have the effect of shrinking the world, making it easier to plot such drastic events in such a short period of time.)
This is the first chapter where I really start to get into the magic system of the book. There will be much more later. Some people have accused me of writing science fiction that masquerades as fantasy. That is, of course, an exaggeration. I like fantasy idioms—the deep characterization, the slower plot progression, the sense of wonder and magic—far more than I like the science fiction counterparts. However, I'll admit that I do design my magic systems with an eye for science. (Or at least pseudo-science.)
The idea of a runic magic system is not new. I've seen several other authors write some very interesting runic systems (David Farland, for instance, has a particularly good one.)
The twist I wanted to bring to my novel was twofold. First, I wanted to focus on what went wrong with the magic—therefore really allowing me to get into its mechanics. Secondly, I wanted the runic system to be more mathematical than it was mystical. Raoden hints at this in the chapter, and you'll get more later. However, the idea of runes that include qualifiers and functions appealed to me as a little more distinctive than some of the other systems I'd seen before.
So, in this chapter we get to have a nice look at the 'mathematical' style to AonDor. To be honest, I'm not really a math person. I did well in my classes, but I never pursued the skill long enough to get deeply into theoretics. That's why there aren't any specifics in these chapters—I try to give enough to imply that AonDor works like mathematical proofs, but I don't include any specific ratios or equations.
My goal was to get across the 'Feel' of the magic without actually having to get into number crunching—which is something at which Raoden's much better than I am. (Though, it's less numbers and more of an understudying of length, location, and combination.)
5) The magic in ELANTRIS was designed to be one of its more unique points, which makes it ironic that for most of the book, it doesn't work. What were your thoughts on this? Did you like the scientific approach to magic, or would you have preferred something more mystical? What parts of the magic system and its plotting did you like, and which did you find unimportant?
You have written extensive essays about the usefulness to fantasy authors of having rules that govern their system of magic. Do you these inscribed on a stone tablet above your computer or are they closer to guidelines?
[Laughs.] They're definitely closer to guidelines. The thing about them is, when I write out these rules, I'm really getting at things that I'm figuring out as I go along. A lot of these things I did more instinctively earlier in my career, but as I realized what was making better stories for me, I came up with these methodologies for ways to approach fantasy. That means that in some of my books, I don't follow them 100 percent because I'm still figuring them out. It's really just a way of looking at writing for myself that helps me create better stories.
You have written essays about two of "Sanderson's Laws" thus far. Are there other laws?
Yeah, there are, but I haven't managed to get them pithy enough, which is why there are no essays about them. [Laughs.] Once they solidified in my mind and I can explain them in a way that's entertaining, I'll put them up. The essays are trying to explain my process in an interesting and entertaining way.
There is another one I'm trying to work on about how everything should be interconnected in a fantasy world. Let's go historical: Say everyone can change lead into gold. It doesn't just change making a few people wealthy. It changes the entire dynamic of the economy; it's going to change power balance for kingdoms and governments; the people who can do this will become resources and powerhouses. It changes everything.
In fantasy, one of the big things we need to do is explain the ramifications of making small changes. Figuring out how to reduce that to a pithy law is something I haven't figured out yet, but that will be Sanderson's Third Law, at length. We'll figure out how to do that eventually.
You have made a distinction between "hard" (defined) and "soft" (undefined) approaches to the use of magic in fantasy novels and suggest you ere more on the harder side. Why is that?
One reason is that it's just what I enjoyed reading. Many of the magic systems earlier in fantasy's history were very soft. There were wonderful stories there, but I felt that that ground had been tread very well. It wasn't until the '90s that I read people who were doing harder magic systems, and I really liked them; they clicked with me.
I have a bit of science background. I started in college as a biochemistry major before jumping ship to English, where I found things a lot more fun. What interests me about fantasy is not necessarily doing whatever you want but changing a few laws of physics and exploring the ramifications upon the people and upon the world itself. That fascinated me; it interests me.
It's one that that fantasy can do that no other genre can. We ask the "What if?" and I like to explore that. I've made kind of a name for myself doing that. I'm certainly not the only one, but a hallmark of my style is that I build a system of magic that doesn't ignore the laws of physics. I'm not a physicist, so there are going to be some flaws, but it's fantasy. At the end of the day, it is fantasy; it's not physics with a different name on it. We're doing something fantastical, but I do try and consider the scientific ramifications and write a story that explores those.
In one of your essays, you write that you like "mystery more than...mysticism" in your novels. Elaborate on that.
I, as a reader, like the tension that comes from "Can I figure it out?" That's one of the things that keeps me reading, "What's going on here? Can I figure it out?" The difference is that mysticism is something you can't figure out. That's alright for the stories that do it that way, but I prefer to be able to look at it and go, "OK, something is going wrong."
It goes back to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Many of his early stories about robots are about, "OK, these three laws are interacting in an interesting way." It's really a mystery—"Can you figure out what's going on here?" There's this wonderful pay off in reading where you go, "Wow, that just works so beautifully." That's one of the aspects of writing that I enjoy.
We're talking a lot about magic systems, but any time this topic comes up, I like to point out that any good story is about characters. Magic is what fantasy does uniquely. Certainly it's a hallmark of our genre, and we need to approach the setting in a cool way for our stories, but if you don't have cool characters, the story is going to fail, no matter how great the magic is.
My goal is to create a story that is an enjoyable read because the characters are enjoyable. Then, after that, I like to go with my magic system and try and make something you've never seen before. But no amount of world building is going to succeed if the characters are bland.
What, in your mind, makes the Wheel of Time series so popular? Why has it retained an audience that is willing to wait so long for it to conclude?
I think it's depth of characterization. That's something that Robert Jordan was phenomenal at. His use of third-person viewpoint gets you really close and intense with these characters, and you fall in love with them.
He was also very subtle with foreshadowing, which I appreciate. He did a great job with that. And his world building is quite spectacular. He has a magic system that straddles that line between hard and soft, and I really love a lot of the things he did with it.
Those things all came together, but first and foremost, it was characters people love. He did that viewpoint so well. When you're in someone's head, you feel like you know them. These characters became my friends growing up; they're like my high school buddies. I can only assume that that happened with a lot of readers.
Actions and reactions. Kelsier's little explanation here is probably the most fundamental and important thing to realize about Allomancy—indeed, about a lot of my magic systems. I like to follow physics as best I can. I think it's more interesting that way. Kelsier's mention that you can't just fling things around randomly with the mind is a kind of dig against Star Wars and other magic systems with telepathy.
Certainly, you could come up with systems that work they way they do. However, I personally find it more fascinating—and more logical—if a person is only able to apply force directly.
It really is the way the world works. You apply a pressure, and something moves in that direction. For strong forces, people can only push away from themselves or pull toward themselves. It makes perfect logical sense to me that a magic system would work that way.
Of course, I might just be a loon for trying to apply so much physics logic to magic in the first place.
The pathway that Vin uses is called a Spikeway—or, at least, that's my informal title for it. I had a lot of trouble deciding how I was going to move people between Luthadel and Fellise (which, by the way, used to be named Tenes. I changed the name because of conflicts with other names in the book. And, for the life of me, I can't remember which names those were.)
Anyway, the spikeway occurred to me as an interesting application of the magic system that also solved a narrative problem in the book. I needed to get Kelsier back and forth quickly. So, I devised this. Often, this is the way things like this occur to me in writing. I'll see a need—such as Mistborn needing to travel—and fill it by applying the magic system in a logical way. This is one of the advantages of writing Hard Fantasy, where the rules of the magic are very well defined. You can actually be creative in the way you apply things.
Yes there is. I don't have a pithy way to say it yet.
Do you want to try to describe it anyways?
Yeah, the best magic systems are interconnected with the world, with society, with culture, and the development of the setting of a book. The next level you want to think about is how does your magic affect your gender roles, how does it affect your government, your religions, all these things.
They all have to be interconnected.
Yes. But I don't have a pithy way to say it, so once I come up with a good pithy way to say it, then I can actually write it.
No, I'm always looking for something that strikes me. And I'm looking for things that haven't been done before. Things that will make nice conflict, that walk the line between science and superstition.
That's what I love, that it's all super scientific but it also has magic.
If you will Google Sanderson's First Law, and Sanderson's Second Law, I have two essays that I wrote about how I do magic. They're both on my website, but Google will find them easier than trying to find them on my website.
Did you ever read Master of 5 magics?
I did. That's old school.
Yeah, not great stories, but wonderful magic.
Yep. Great magic. That's what I felt about them too.
When will the next Mistborn (Alloy of Law era) come out?
It will probably come out after the next Way of Kings. Next Way of Kings is next Christmas, the next Alloy of Law era book is probably the following Spring or something like that.
Are you planning two more or three more?
I will do as many of those as strikes me. The Alloy of Law books are a deviation from the main world plotline.So it's just for fun. I'm not going to commit to how many I'll do or not do. Just whatever's working.
I've read a bit online about how you have an overall storyline covering all of your novels, but I really don't know much about it. I was wondering if you could expand and explain.
Okay. The overarching story of all of my novels. This warrants some backstory. If you weren't familiar, I wrote thirteen novels before I sold one. I spent a lot of time practicing and learning, and I love big epic grand series. However, you know, you can't grow up reading the Wheel of Time without loving big series, but advice I heard early on was, selling a big series is actually pretty hard from a new author and if you, for instance, spend your life and you write like six books in the same series, and you send off the first book to someone and they don't buy it, you can't really send them the second book because, you know, they've already rejected that, and so it's really putting all of your eggs into one basket, and that doesn't end up working out for some people. I didn't want to do that; I wanted to expand my chances, and so I wrote thirteen novels in different worlds, all with their own different magic systems and own characters. But secretly I loved the grand epic, and so I started connecting all these worlds during my unpublished era, and telling a hidden epic behind them all that I was setting up for.
Well, eventually I sold book number six, and embedded in book number six was a bunch of this stuff for the hidden epic, of course, and six is actually one of the ones where I first started doing this. My first five were kind of throwaway novels. It was six, seven, eight, and nine that were really involved in this. Six was Elantris; seven was a book called Dragonsteel; eight was a book called White Sand; and nine was a book called Mythwalker, which eventually became Warbreaker, which I eventually rewrote and released as Warbreaker. So that four-book sequence was very ingrained in this kind of hidden story behind the stories. When I started publishing these books, I just kept it going, the hidden story, the hidden epic.
Now one aspect of this was that I didn't want people to have to know all the books that came before to understand what was happening in any one of them. So, for instance, if you read these you don't need to know anything about the hidden epic. It is back there behind the scenes for some day when I actually write a series dedicated to it, that there will be all this foreshadowing, but it will never directly and in really important ways influence a given series. For instance, you don't have to have read Elantris to understand Mistborn even though technically they're sequels; Mistborn is technically a sequel to Elantris, just set on a different planet.
There is one character who has appeared in all of my novels, and several other characters who have jumped between novels. For instance there's a character from Elantris who is in The Way of Kings—one of the main characters from Elantris shows up in Way of Kings under hidden auspices, but it's pretty obvious; the fans found it really fast, those who were watching out for it—but that sort of thing. So, there is a story going on behind all of this that I will eventually tell, but what do you need to know about it right now? That all of these things are basically Easter eggs right now. None of them are dominating the storyline at all; it's just a bunch of cool Easter eggs that eventually will mean something to you. So the character to watch out for is called Hoid; it's a pseudonym he usually uses—pseudonym is I guess the wrong term; the alias he normally uses—and he's all over in the books, so if you watch out for him you'll see him.
Letting Magic be Magical
Some who have followed my website probably know how the concept of using magic in fantasy novels intrigues me. It's probably my favorite aspect of writing in this genre, and is what keeps me firmly fixed here. I'm not likely to wander to other types of books because I find the freedom and challenge of writing fantasy—of worldbuilding and designing new laws of physics—to be too compelling.
A while back, I started toying with a theory about how magic works in fantasy novels. It went something like this: The more you explain how a magic works, the less wonder there is to that magic—but the more chances you have to use the magic in solving problems. (I once summarized this as the humbly titled "Sanderson's First Law of Magic: Your ability to solve problems with the magic system in a book is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.")
I'm still toying with this theory. There are holes in it. For instance, it really should read something like "Your ability to solve problems with magic and NOT ANNOY YOUR READER is directly proportional to..." After all, you can do anything you want in a novel you're writing. You just risk alienating or annoying readers if you do certain things.
I've actually struggled with this concept in my own books. I want there to be a sense of wonder to the stories. Magic has to be magical. And yet, I love playing with science and physics, and writing blended science fiction fantasies where the magic feels in many ways like a classical-era science. In this way, every single book I've written has been a tiny bit steampunk, though the trappings of that are very hard to see. (I work very hard to give my books the FEEL of an epic fantasy, no matter what I'm borrowing or mixing from other genres.)
This is all harder than it looks. Sometimes, I feel I've erred a little too much on leaving a sense of wonder. (Questions about how the magic works for the characters and readers to explore.) When you do this the wrong way, you end up with Deus Ex Machina at times. And yet, explain too much, and the beautiful, magical feel of the fantasy world is gone.
I'm still playing with this balance. But I'm curious to know what you all think. What is your preference? Straight-up science based magic, or something more wondrous like Tolkien used? Do both work for you, if done right? Who approaches the different avenues the right way?
Magic and Wonder
Okay, wow. I don't want to put you on the spot, but... You think Jordan, LeGuin, GRRM, Brooks, Hobb, Erikson, Zelazny, and Donaldson ALL got WORSE the longer they wrote in a series? You think that they were strongest at worldbuilding, so the longer they went, the more the novelty wore off of their worlds, and there was much less left to hold the stories together? That it was not character or plot that made them good, but exploration of worlds?
This is...yes, let's just let this one die. Admittedly, perhaps you wouldn't count each on that list. (It seems, from what you’ve been mostly focused on Jordan without wanting to say it.) My argument will continue to be this: There have been stumbles, but I think it’s due to the nature of the form, not bad writing. We just haven’t explored the epic fantasy long enough to have figured out the ways around all the pitfalls. And if we do figure it out, it will be from the perspective given by standing upon the shoulders of the greats.
Anyway, on to Magic.
If you dissect the magic too much, do you risk it dying on the table? Certainly, you do. Any time you explain a magic, rather than allowing it to remain mysterious, you are trading some of the sense of wonder for something else. An ability for the reader to understand the world, and what the characters are capable of. If you give a character a magic box, and say that when it is opened, something magical will happen that's one thing. If you tell them what the magic box does when it is opened, that trades some of the sense of mystery and (a smaller bit) of the wonder in exchange for a plot point. Now the character can open the box consciously, and influence the world around him/her by what is in the box. Done cleverly, you've traded mystery for suspense, which do different things.
When you start explaining why the box works like it does, you also make a trade. You trade more of your sense of wonder in exchange for an ability for the character now to extrapolate. Maybe figure out how to make boxes of their own, or change what the box does when it is opened. You make the character less of a pawn in a scheme they cannot understand, and more of a (potentially) active participant in their destiny.
I'm certainly over-simplifying, and I don't want to understate the power of either side. A sense of wonder, mystery, and a smallness to the characters was essential for such works as The Lord of the Rings. If you'd known exactly what Gandalf could do, and why, it would have changed the experience. Instead, you are allowed to feel like Frodo and Sam, who are moving through a world of giants, both literally and figuratively.
However, there are always going to be trades in fiction. What is it you're trying to do? I tend to gravitate toward worlds where the science adheres to the scientific method. And so long as something is repeatable, it can be studied, understood, and relied upon. You don't have to understand the HOW, so long as you know the WHAT and a little of the WHY. What is going to happen when I open this box, and how can I change the effect?
Done really well (and I'm not certain if I do it really well, but I hope to someday get there) explaining can still preserve a measure of wonder. The classical scientists discovered, explained, and tried to understand science. But the more they learned, the more wondrous the world around them became, and the more answers there were to be found. I think it is important to establish that there IS more to be learned, that the answers haven't all been found.
What do you want to know about the process? I sometimes have to be vague about what I did and what RJ did, as Harriet prefers people to read the books and enjoy them without spending a lot of time trying to pick out the differences between our styles. I can try to answer a few questions if you pitch them at me, though.
I don't have any questions, I just wanted to thank you for all of your hard work and dedication that you have put into finishing this series.
I picked up this series about 10 or 12 years ago, and being in Randland helped me get through some tough times. I was very sad when Jordan died, and when Harriet made the announcement that you were going to finish the series, I must admit that I had my doubts.
So I figured I would take a look at your work, and picked up Mistborn. That book was awesome! So after finishing the trilogy, I was like "Ok, this guy can write, he is the perfect pick to finish WoT."
I wanted to jump in and start reading The Gathering Storm, but by that point it had been a while since I had read Knife of Dreams, so I went back and started at the beginning, and when I got to the books you wrote, I was very impressed.
There were so many good moments in The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight, I don't know where to begin. The one that stands out the most in my mind is Mat's story at the end of Towers of Midnight.
Anyways, I'm really looking forward to the release of A Memory of Light. You rock, Brandon Sanderson!
tl;dr: Just wanted to let Sanderson know how much it means to me that he has done such a stellar job in completing one of the fantasy series that is near and dear to my heart.
It has been an honor.
I've read things before from you saying that you received a lot of written guidance as well as ideas that hadn't been fully fleshed out by Mr. Jordan to help you take the stories towards the conclusion he'd always had in mind.
Once you had worked through the stories that Mr. Jordan wanted to be told in your head and got down to writing, was there anything that you really wanted to include or thought would have a special level of awesomity but felt that you shouldn't because it went against (or would probably be against, under different circumstances) the ideas Jordan had?
For clarification, did you ever feel like a character should experience something that Mr. Jordan hadn't mentioned or had clearly discouraged? Or feel that something should happen that Mr. Jordan hadn't conceived or didn't want?
This is a good question. Yes, there are things I'd have done differently—but out of respect for Mr. Jordan's desires and the integrity of the series, I haven't done them. For example, I like to use magic in ways that Mr. Jordan didn't. You see me playing with this a little bit in my use of gateways. There are many things possible with weaves (particularly since you can tie them off) that I feel exploring would have changed the focus of the stories in ways I don't think Mr. Jordan would have wanted.
One thing that specifically came up once was me wanting to delve more into the Heroes of the Horn. The Wheel has always turned, and time is infinite. If people can occasionally be added to the Horn, that would mean that the number of people tied to the Horn is also infinite unless people get unbound as well as bound. I wanted to explore this idea—in conversation only, this isn't a plot point—but was persuaded by Team Jordan that RJ wanted nobody ever to be unbound, and that exploration in this direction would go against his vision for the world.
Thank you for your answer, I've never had the pleasure of interacting with you directly before, although I am making my through your series of lectures on YouTube (that I've always assumed you consented to?) which are truly very informative.
You mentioned that there are aspects of the world of the WoT that you would like to explore in ways that Mr Jordan wouldn't. Would you be interested in writing spin off books, perhaps with different characters set in the same universe/world? Regardless of your interest in doing something like that, would you ever be allowed to?
On a slightly related note, do you feel that there are any aspects (characters, magic, unexplored possibilities etc.) in the WoT series that have since influenced your other writings?
The main reason I haven't done things like this is because it's not my world, and I feel it should remain closer to RJ's vision. So, even if I were to do spin offs (which I don't think will happen) I would feel the same constraints. My goal has never to be to turn the Wheel of Time into something else; there is plenty of room in my own work to explore magic as I like to explore it. In the Wheel of Time, the magic is RJ's—and should remain true (as much as possible) to his vision.
I would say that RJ's work, and my experience on the WoT, has taught me a number of things. RJ was far more subtle in some of his plotting than I am, and I'd like to think that seeing that has helped me learn to be better in that area. I also like how wonderful his third person limited viewpoint can be, as proven by Mat. (See the other answer I gave.) The way he shaped a narrative to the character giving it is amazing, and has influenced me greatly.
Thanks again for the answer. I'm going to be far more conscious of Mat's narrative from now on with that answer!
The Way of Kings, released in 2010 and the first in a scheduled 10-novel series titled "The Stormlight Archive," follows the story of three individuals from different strata of a society through a medieval feudal world thrashed by violent storms.
The author said he also drew heavily on the concept of numerology in Chinese culture to create his magic, because numbers in Chinese have diverse meanings.
"In English a one is a one but in Chinese each number and character has multiple meanings, so the idea of numerology as a superstition and almost as a science was very fascinating for me," said Sanderson, known for the complexity of his magic systems.
Calligraphy has also made it into Sanderson's novel.
At the end of The Way of Kings, one of the characters paints a calligraphic symbol on the ground then burns it.
"You paint it and set it on fire, and that is a prayer in this world," Sanderson said. "That is something I drew from the Chinese culture."
The writer said his satisfaction comes from knowing that his books are reaching "not just niche readers" but people who may not have read a lot of fantasy but are trying out the genre.
It is "extremely satisfying" to know that they have been translated into other languages, he said.
His novels have been praised for their impressive characters, plausible worlds and well thought out rule-based magic systems.
"The fact that readers are enjoying it says to me that they like a little bit of wonder, a little bit of imagination, but they also like it to make sense."
Tactical use of gateways is honestly all me. I hadn't even played Portal before I wrote these books. I have since went back and played it, and they're doing some of the same fun stuff. That was me from years and years ago as a guy who likes magic systems reading the Wheel of Time books and saying, "If I had gateways, this is what I would do." In fact, I had built up some magic systems using things like gateways that I will never be able to use now, because I got handed the master magic system with gateways.
Team Jordan was somewhat uncomfortable with my use of gateways, in a lot of ways. They felt I was pushing them. But my response back was that I didn't want to push the magic system in other ways; I didn't want to be inventing a lot of new weaves. I didn't want to be doing a lot of things like that, because I felt it would be taking the system too much in the directions I take the Brandon Sanderson systems. I really do like Robert Jordan's magic system, but I wanted to take some of the specifics that had already been done, such as gateways, and say, "Here's where you can extrapolate with them."
As for other things that have been discussed in the fandom—I certainly wasn't as big a part of the fandom as I am now, not anywhere near it. For instance, I didn't care about Asmodean until I started talking to other Wheel of Time fans, and it was a big deal to them, and so it became a big deal to me. There are certain things that through fandom and talking to other fans you tend to rally around, that I kind of wanted. One was a reunion between Tam and Rand. There are other things like that, that for a long time we'd been waiting for and we'd talked to each other about, and we'd imagined what they'd be like. Those sorts of things did influence me; I had to be really careful not to be too influenced though. Being too influenced would lead me to put in lots of inside jokes, things like Narg—that would have been letting the fan in me run too wild. So I did have to rein that in.
It’s hard for me to separate the years of talking about the Wheel of Time with friends and reading about the Wheel of Time from what I eventually ended up doing in the books. Once I did start working on the books, I didn't go plumbing through fan forums looking for things that should be included. I specifically stayed away from things like that, though I did suggest to Maria at times that she should watch and see what people were expecting, so that we would know what things we were not going to end up fulfilling, and could be prepared for them.
Being a fan for so long, there was a danger that I would come in and say, "Well, this is my chance to fix all the things that have bugged me about the Wheel of Time." But I realized I couldn't approach the story like that.
Robert Jordan handles magic systems in a different way from how I handle a lot of mine. He works harder to preserve the sense of wonder than I do. I explain more nuts and bolts. He reserves the right to say, "We don't know how this works." I had to tell myself my job is not to change that. That's how his magic works, and it works really well like that. Even though on the Sanderson's First Law scale, it is much more to the middle than mine are. Mine are on the right side (right meaning direction-wise, not correctness-wise), where his is more toward the middle and Tolkien is more toward the left side. And I didn't want to push it.
The balance that I struck is, I was going to do my best to avoid a lot of new weaves [different kinds of magic], and I was going to take the existing weaves and push them further along the scale than I would let myself [in my own books]. The two instances are what happens in the world of dreams and gateways. I told myself, I am going to play with these two parts of the magic systems and let myself do some of the fun things I will do with magic. I am not going to spend a lot of time inventing new parts of the magic.
I really have always liked, obviously, his system, which is part of why I love the books. His system had this nice mix between the visual aspect—I really loved the weaving, and things like this—and it had some interesting ramifications on physics and whatnot, and I also liked a lot of the sense of mystery to it, in that they didn't know everything, which is one thing that I like, when a magic system—you know, I like to write very rule-based magic systems, but I feel that, if you know everything...I mean, we don't know everything about physics; we don't know everything about science, and so how can you know everything about the magic, which is the science of a certain world? That said, Jim generally was more flexible with himself on allowing himself to do different things with the magic. He had a more open-ended magic system, I would guess. A lot more weaves were created, and things like that, and I tend to make my magic systems more restrictive.
Because of this, growing into the books, I worried that, working in a system where I was uninhibited in that way, that I would just go completely bonkers. [laughter] And so, when I sat down to work in this system, I decided it was...when necessary I would develop new weaves, but that I would resist the urge, and that there had been so much developed by Jim so far that I would use weaves either in the books or from the notes whenever possible, and I would prefer to take those and try to go new places with them as opposed to developing lots of new and different weaves, which is why you see me doing things like pushing gateways a little bit further, because I thought there was a lot of room to explore there, or pushing what Perrin does in the wolf dream, and these sorts of things, because these are established systems that Jim created for me, and for all of us, and I felt there was so much room to move in those that I didn't need to go other places. There are some places in the books where a new weave was appropriate, and we did that, but I tried very hard to cap that, because I worried I would just do too much, if that makes any sense.
I really enjoyed working with it. In fact, the Wheel of Time...in a lot of ways, the Wheel of Time doing what it did had prevented me in my career from ever approaching doing those things, if that makes any sense. Because I loved the Wheel of Time, I didn't want to be repeating something that...I didn't want to be, you know, accused of just copying Robert Jordan. And so, because of that, you don't see me writing a lot of the types of things that he did, like you know I'd always wanted to do a dream world, but I never did a dream world because the Wheel of Time had done one so well. And then when I was able to work on this, I got to kind of do all of those things that I'd made off-limits to myself because Robert Jordan had done them already, and done them so well, and it was pretty awesome to be able to do that. It was one of my favorite parts about doing this, is all these things that were on my list of "Robert Jordan did this so don't do it," suddenly became things I could do. So... [applause]
And as a follow-up to that, I think that, instead of just being the magic system guy, I think that Brandon has every right to be the good, quality compelling character guy. So... [applause]
I've always been a daydreamer; that's probably why I ended up doing what I do now. Books, for me, come when I've got a lot of good ideas bouncing around in my head, and several start to combine together. It's like a person trying to match various colors in a room; you try out different shades together and see what works. Except I'm trying out different ideas together and seeing what kind of chemical reaction I get.
With magic systems, first of all, I'm looking for something that fits the book that I'm writing. So for instance, in Mistborn, I was looking for powers that would enhance what thieves could do. I was also looking for something that had one foot in alchemy, in that kind of "coming-of-age magic into science" way. Alchemy is a great example because it's a blend of science and magic... well, really, a blend of science and superstition, because the magic part doesn't work. So something resonates there.
I'm also looking for interesting ways to ground the magic in our world, and using something mundane is a great way to do that. Magic is naturally fantastical, and so if I can instead use something normal, and then make it fantastical, it immediately creates a sort of ease of understanding. Burning metals sounds so weird, but it was chosen for that same reason, because we gain a lot of our energy through metabolism. We eat something, we turn the sugars into energy, boom. So that's actually a very natural feeling. When I started writing out some sample things, it felt surprisingly natural, that people eat metal and gain powers, even though it sounds so weird. It's because of this kind of natural biology. So I'm looking for that.
Once I have a magic system, I look for really great limitations. Limitations really make a magic system work better. A good limitation will force you to be creative, and your characters to be creative. Pushing and pulling metals is basically telekinesis, right? But by making it center of mass, you can only pull directly towards yourself or push directly away from yourself... Number one: it's vector science. It has one foot in sciences. Number two: it feels very natural to us because this is how we manipulate force ourselves. Number three: it limits things so much that it forces creativity upon the characters. There's that sweet spot, where they can be creative and do cool things, where it doesn't become too limited, but it also keeps you from having too much power in the hands of the characters, so they are still being challenged. I'm looking for all that, and on top of that I want to have good sensory ways to use magic.
I don't want to have two wizards staring at each other, and then be like "and they stared at each other very deeply! And then they stared harder!" I don't want it all to be internal, which is where the lines for the metals came from. You see something, you push it forward. The pulses that some of the Allomancers use, they'll hear. I wanted sensory applications.
Your work is often praised for unique magic systems with interesting limitations, like the application of the laws of physics to the abilities of a Coinshot in the Mistborn series. What kinds of limitations do you think have the most potential?
There are lots of ways to go with this answer. It depends on how creative you are with your storytelling. I like to found my magics with certain rules so that I can force myself and my characters to be more creative in their application. I think that a good magic system is going to have some of this. Granted that my way is not the only way; there are a lot of great stories that don't do magic the way I do it. But if you're trying to tell a story where the way the magic works is a very big part of the story, then limitations are vital. I would say the best limitations are ones where creativity is forced on the part of the characters.
I don't like limitations such as kryptonite—this one thing negates the magic, which focuses the story around having it or not having it. I like limitations that are intrinsic to the magic and have a logical sense. When I can, I like the limitations to be bounded by the laws of physics—what requirements will physics put upon this magic that will make the characters have to use it in a more natural way.
The other big thing is that I split out costs and limitations in my head. A limitation is just what the magic can or cannot do, just like we have limits in our own world to what a physical body can achieve. Costs are what you pay for the magic, and these can add an economic component to a book and a magic system; they can add a lot of ties into the setting, and a great magic, I think, has a lot of ties into the setting.
What did you find most interesting about working within the Infinity Blade universe?
I was really interested by something that may be surprising to you, and that is the constraints that I had. I find that good creativity commonly comes from having really interesting limitations. I often say this about magic—the best magic comes from what the magic can't do—and the best characters are the ones who have really interesting limitations. In the same way, a lot of times the best stories come when you have some really interesting constraints. You can't have too many—but let me give an example.
I saw that they have healing magic in this world, and it works like standard video game healing—boom, you just drink a potion or cast a spell and you've been healed. If you look at that from a real-life perspective, that is way too easy to be interesting narratively, and it also has all kinds of wacky ramifications for the way society works. So I took this and said, "How can I make this work in the actual framework of a story, in a way that's interesting, different, that people haven't seen before, that does not contradict the video game, and yet also doesn't break the economy of this world?" So I built things so that drinking a potion or using a magic spell heals you but it also accelerates your metabolism and ages you for as long as it would have taken you to heal naturally from that injury. So what we've got here is something that doesn't really affect the video game at all, but if you look at it world-wise, yes we've still changed the world somewhat, but now there's an enormous cost. You don't want to heal every time you get a little cut, because you're taking weeks off your life. Taking the chance to heal yourself is only going to be something you're really going to do if it's life or death for you.
And your Mistborn series, like you said, it is more serious. Tell us a little bit about the Mistborn series.
Okay. One of the things I felt that I wanted to do, when I finally did break in, was find some way that I could add to the genre, rather than re-treading the same ground. I felt that I wanted to try and look at the fantasy genre and do plots that hadn't been explored yet. And the Mistborn books are my attempt at doing that.
A lot of epic fantasy has this same sort of concept. This young protagonist, raised in the rural area goes on a quest to defeat the dark lord. And it's a wonderful, powerful story; it's the story that Tolkien used to an extent; it's certainly the story that Robert Jordan used, and you see it coming up over and over again in fantasy and I worried it had come up too many times. And so the Mistborn series came from me saying, "Well, what if he failed? What if this kid, this plucky protagonist, you know, went to save the world and it went all wrong?"
And it failed? Oh!
What if Frodo kept the ring? Or what if Sauron had killed him and taken the ring? What if Voldemort killed Harry Potter at the end of book seven? What happens? And the way that I approached this is saying, "Okay, that's happened. You've got your generic epic fantasy story that all happened, and the hero failed." Thousand years later, now what? And it focuses around a team of thieves who get together and decide, "Okay, the prophecies were lies, the hero didn't save us, the world is essentially enslaved. Let's try this our way." And their plot is to rob the dark lord silly, use the money they get to bribe his armies away from him, and over throw the empire. And that's Mistborn.
You know, Brandon, as you were talking about the Mistborn [series], you brought up some memories of my childhood. I don't remember what this series was, but I read this series that exactly was kind of like that: you know, the character is a normal person, he's great, throughout the series, but the very end, it doesn't all turn out right. He becomes evil and the series ends! And it haunted me. My whole life. And I still don't remember what the series was. I wish I would have remembered it, but . . . yeah, that's a very interesting concept and it doesn't happen very often.
I was tempted to actually do that. I felt that would have been too much of a downer. Which is why I jumped forward a thousand years and then used kind of flash backs to tell the story of what happened a thousand years ago, because it's not as clear cut as I've made it sound.
Well, that series I mentioned, I mean, that scarred me for life. [laughs] So I'm glad that you did a little different at the end there.
The other thing is I would have had to write it as a kind of more generic fantasy at the beginning and then take it other places, and I wasn't sure if I could do that because I don't know if my heart would have been in it, trying to write a fantasy that is more generic.
The other big thing I like to do with my books that I hope does something new and interesting is try to approach having interesting different types of magic. And I think the best fantasy books do this, and I wanted each book that people read of mine to have a new magic system. I like to write magic that feels like it could be a science, that in this world there's another branch of science that we don't have in our world, that if you explore and apply the scientific method to it, you can figure out how it works. And I tend to write stories where we've got people figuring out the magic. They're working in sort of a magical renaissance. That's the theme for my next series, The Way of Kings, which is what's going to be coming out next year, is the idea that we're living in a world where people are discovering the magic and bringing it back to the world and trying to figure out how it works and actually applying reason and science to it to get some hard numbers on what it can do and what it can't do.
With your debut novel Elantris (2005) you made some noise with the intriguing storyline, imaginative magic system and the fact that it was a standalone book. What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Mistborn, a series that follows the more traditional trilogy format, and in particular The Well of Ascension, which is the middle volume in the trilogy, oftentimes considered the weakest of the three? What about the positives of writing a series opposed to a standalone?
Mistborn was difficult because it was the first trilogy I'd ever written. I want all my books to feel like standalones because I really like wrapping up a story satisfactorily in one volume, but with the Mistborn books I had to make sure the story was consistent across three volumes. The Well of Ascension was particularly difficult in that a second book in a series has to effectively recap what happened in the first book, without being too repetitive. Also, a second book has to end in such a way that it leaves readers wanting to read the third, but I've never liked big cliffhangers. I struggled with finding a balance in these two things with the second book. To me, the advantages to writing a trilogy are that I can develop characters further and get more in depth into the world. For example, I could develop three magic systems in Mistborn instead of just the one in Elantris. People like to read about continuing characters, and it is fun for me to be able to expand on some of the side characters.
How did reading The Wheel of Time inspire his magic systems?
The first influence was Robert Jordan's focus on human characters over fantastical ones. He felt that Jordan's concept of weaving was complex and interesting, as opposed to magic systems of authors such as David Eddings. With the Wheel of Time, the rules and restrictions on magic made characters more clever and interesting. He didn't want to modify the WoT magic system but he did explore two aspects of it using ideas he had as a teenager: the World of Dreams and gateways. He avoided adding new weaves because the series was coming to a close.
Hah. So in Cosmere, does physics work the same way in the physical realm as it does in our world? Specifically, particle physics; and are atoms made up of protons and neutrons and electrons, and is light photons, etc?
So what's at the core of an atom of Atium? Ate-teum? Also how do you pronounce it? At-teum?
Yes. And the matter is just normal matter, but it's wrapped in the spiritual. The Spiritual DNA [or something] is what makes it magical.
(Note: he might've said slightly more about this but I didn't write it down and I don't remember. Sorry for not bringing a tape recorder :(/> )
It depends on if you count the vague 'science' of a soft science fiction as magic. If you look at something like "Firstborn" or Legion, there are only faint magical elements. However, since I'm not a hard SF writer, they are there.
I'd say that once in a while, I feel myself wanting to write something along those lines—but I've never had an idea that wasn't at least marginally sf/f that screamed at me to write it. What can I say? It is the wonder and the imagination of sf/f that made me into a reader in the first place. Whatever idea I come up with, I find that adding some speculative fiction elements makes me more excited about it.
There are connections in the things you mentioned above, though I don't want to speak of specifics yet for risk of spoiling future revelations.
As for blurring the line between what makes sense and what is fun...I err on the side of the fun. However, part of my meticulous planning is about how to make the fun make sense. I feel that is part of what makes this genre interesting. I decided I wanted to do a story about the Knights Radiant, with the Plate and Blades. From there, I spent a long time thinking about what would make those kinds of weapons reasonable and important to a society.
You can do anything, but do try to focus on laying your groundwork and being consistent.
This is a difficult question to answer in the space given. I'm going to assume you've read Sanderson's First Law and Sanderson's Second Law, the rules I place upon myself in writing magic systems. I assume you've also watched the lectures on the topic.
I'll just answer the second part of your question, then, and leave the above to answer the more general "What is your process?"
Every bit you add to magic's cohesiveness does take away from its sense of wonder somewhat. It's a trade off. However, it doesn't have to steal everything. Letting characters be able to use the magic, but leaving them without understanding the WHY it all works is part of this. (Better if you know why and can start dropping hints.)
There will always be mystery in the world to a character with an inquisitive nature. If they are asking questions, wondering, striving to learn and explore, you will have wonder in your books.
What influenced the creation of the writing system in Warbreaker?
He'd been writing a lot of kind of grungy booksâ€”Mistborn and Elantris are all sort of grimyâ€”and his (editor? agent? one of the two?) pointed that out and suggested he write something colorful.
I think I didn't phrase my question clearly enough. He answered with an explanation of the magic system's origins instead, which is interesting but not what you wanted.
You create some of the most elaborate magic systems in fantasy today; these systems function as intrinsic parts of your worlds and characters. Typically, how do you address the different types of magic systems in your different books? Do you define these systems before you start writing the books, or do they evolve and develop as you go along?
The answer to that is yes! It's different for every book. With my Cosmere books—which are the shared universe of my epic fantasies—I need to be a little more rigorous. There are fundamental underlying principles that guide the magic systems, and so there's a larger developmental phase before I start writing the book. Then I stick more strictly to the rules I've given myself.
All the way back in 2007, I was writing one of my epic fantasies, and it just wasn't working. I needed a break to something creative, different, and distinctive. So I jumped ship, abandoning that epic fantasy, and wrote The Rithmatist instead, which had a lot less planning than one of my epic fantasies.
With something like The Rithmatist—which is outside the Cosmere—I'm allowed a little more freedom, which is one of the reasons I like writing books like this, where I allow myself to develop it as I write. The magic was the first thing that got me excited about The Rithmatist, so I based the book around it.
The first thing I wrote was the scene—now late in chapter one—where Joel watches Fitch get defeated by Nalizar in the classroom. It started out on a chalkboard, but I eventually moved it to the floor because that made more sense. As I was writing these chapters, I developed the Rithmatic lines and let the story feed the magic and the magic feed the story in a way that some writers call "discovery written."
I have a technical question here re: gemstones in The Stormlight Archive. How are the lines drawn between different types of gems? Emerald and Heliodor are both varieties of the mineral beryl. Emerald can get its color from trace amounts of chromium, vanadium and/or iron. Heliodor gets its color from iron combined with microscopic crystal defects. So, is the line between these two defined by color? If so, would a heliodor lose its usefulness if it were heated (which would turn it colorless or pale blue). Is it defined by trace elements—in which case, how do you deal with emeralds, or with aquamarine (the blue variety of beryl, which can also contain chromium or vanadium in small quantities and is mostly colored by iron)? Sorry for getting so technical, but this gem nerd needs to know!
I actually spent a long time working on this while building the world. You'd probably be amused by how long I spent on it. Chemically, many of them are actually very similar, as you pointed out. I tried doing the book originally with them all being different, not using any that were basically the same crystal with different colors, but it didn't work out. There weren't enough, and so I had to stretch to make it all work.
So, I went back to the original, and decided that color was enough to differentiate them. Just as steel and iron are very similar in the Mistborn world, emerald and heliodor can be very similar—but produce different effects. The idea here is that the physical items (like the metals or the crystals) provide a key by which magical interaction occurs.
So, in a long winded answer, a gemstone with an impure color would be considered like a bad alloy in the Mistborn magic—it either wouldn't work at all, or would work very poorly. The chemical and color signature needs to be of a specific variety to provide the proper key to accessing the power of transformation.
Why does Scadrial, which has two Shards, only have three manifestations of investiture, (Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy) but Sel, also with two Shards, has five manifestations of investiture (AonDor, Dakhor, ChayShan, Forgery, and Bloodsealing)?
Sel's magics are much more regionalized than Scadrial's. Each area has its own manifestation, but they're all actually the same magic. So really there is one magic on Sel—much as Windrunning and Lightweaving on Roshar are kind of different magics, but also kind of the same.
Is there anything in any of your books that, after the fact, you wish you had done differently?
Yes and no. For example, I think that some of the explanations in Elantris for how the magic works at the end are not terribly clear. However, at the same time, it is the process of making mistakes like this that helps us learn and evolve as writers. Beyond that, going back and changing a piece of art to be something else kind of defeats the point of creating different works of art as one changes as a person. So I don't know if I'd change the mistakes.
I love how many authors we get on this subreddit, it's amazing. Not sure if you meant this forum or not but it's still cool. I hope I see Brandon Sanderson one of these days, I have a stupid question for him.
I've been terrible about my reddit pms lately. Better to ask here.
About Miles from Alloy of Law and his regenerative powers. If he was bisected down the middle and the halves were separated immediately before the healing process could begin, would the two halves each regrow into a whole Miles?
Good question. In all of the Cosmere's Shard-based magics, the greater portion of a bisected body regrows the lesser portion. If it were done EXACTLY halfway, the soul wold jump to one or the other randomly and that would regrow.
Amusingly, this first came up in 1999, six years before I got published. (I see someone else already mentioned the situation where I had to consider it.)
As little add—on Sanderson has stated that at its core, Shard-based healing is about restoring the person back to themselves. So someone who wears glasses and gets shot and healed, will still need glasses as that is how they (or their soul) sees themself. I assume this would happen in more extreme cases too, some one who had a limb amputated at birth gets healed at another time, the limb will not be restored because they see themself as an amputee, even if it is within the magic's ability to restore limbs to some one who recently lost one.
So... wait a sec, the Lord Ruler got decapitated at one point...
What did he do with the severed head? Mount it on the wall?
He mounted it SIDEWAYS? :P
Actually, this is kind of a sillier followup to a silly question, but could you use Forgery to say 'actually, this half had 51% instead of 49%' and temporarily clone Miles?
Boy. That's a can of worms, right there...
Androl and Pevara
In working on the Black Tower plot, one thing I realized early on was that I wanted a new viewpoint character to be involved. One reason was that we didn't have anyone to really show the lives of the everyday members of the Black Tower. It felt like a hole in the viewpoint mosaic for the series. In addition, each Wheel of Time book—almost without exception—has either introduced a new viewpoint character or added a great deal of depth to a character who had only seen minimal use before. As we were drawing near to the end of the series, I didn't want to expand this very far. However, I did want to add at least one character across the three books I was doing.
I went to Team Jordan with the suggestion that I could fulfill both of these purposes by using one of the rank-and-file members of the Black Tower, preferably someone who wasn't a full Asha'man and was something of a blank slate. They suggested Androl. The notes were silent regarding him, and while he had been around, he so far hadn't had the spotlight on him. He seemed the perfect character to dig into.
A few more things got spun into this sequence. One was my desire to expand the usage of gateways in the series. For years, as an aspiring writer, I imagined how I would use gateways if writing a book that included them. I went so far as to include in the Stormlight Archive a magic system built around a similar teleportation mechanic. Being able to work on the Wheel of Time was a thrill for many reasons, but one big one was that it let me play with one of my favorite magic systems and nudge it in a few new directions. I've said that I didn't want to make a large number of new weaves, but instead find ways to use established weaves in new ways. I also liked the idea of expanding on the system for people who have a specific talent in certain areas of the One Power.
Androl became my gateway expert. Another vital key in building him came from Harriet, who mailed me a long article about a leatherworker she found in Mr. Jordan's notes. She said, "He was planning to use this somewhere, but we don't know where."
One final piece for his storyline came during my rereads of the series, where I felt that at times the fandom had been too down on the Red Ajah. True, they had some serious problems with their leadership in the books, but their purpose was noble. I feel that many readers wanted to treat them as the Wheel of Time equivalent of Slytherin—the house of no-goods, with every member a various form of nasty. Robert Jordan himself worked to counteract this, adding a great deal of depth to the Ajah by introducing Pevara. She had long been one of my favorite side characters, and I wanted her to have a strong plot in the last books. Building a relationship between her and Androl felt very natural to me, as it not only allowed me to explore the bonding process, but also let me work a small romance into the last three books—another thing that was present in most Wheel of Time books. The ways I pushed the Androl/Pevara bond was also something of an exploration and experiment. Though this was suggested by the things Robert Jordan wrote, I did have some freedom in how to adapt it. I felt that paralleling the wolf bond made sense, with (of course) its own distinctions.
Finding a place to put the Pevara/Androl sequence into the books, however, proved difficult. Towers of Midnight was the book where we suffered the biggest time crunch. That was the novel where I'd plotted to put most of the Black Tower sequence, but in the end it didn't fit—partially because we just didn't have time for me to write it. So, while I did finish some chapters to put there, the soul of the sequence got pushed off to A Memory of Light, if I managed to find time for it.
I did find time—in part because of cutting the Perrin sequence. Losing those 17,000 words left an imbalance to the pacing of the final book. It needed a plot sequence with more specific tension to balance out the more sweeping sequences early in the book where characters plan, plot, and argue. I was able to expand Androl/Pevara to fit this hole, and to show a lot of things I really wanted to show in the books.
This isn't a bad look at the issue, though I think one major point is missed: What type of story are you trying to tell?
Worldbuilding any element of a fantasy novel can overwhelm and distract. Yes, there are people who spend too long on their magic systems—just as there are people who spend too long on their linguistics, their geography, or their religions. "Too long" is hard to define, however.
It depends on the type of story you want to tell, the world elements that are important to the story and characters, and your preferences. I'd contend that LotR had a well-defined magic system for Tolkien, but he didn't include viewpoint characters who used the magic. Therefore, he didn't let the magic system steal the show. However, try to do a superhero story without a well defined magic system. It doesn't usually fit to treat it the same way.
Harry Potter also has a very strict magic system for a given book. The books do not have strong cohesion of magical principles—characters often 'forget' they have powers, or the like. However, what we're given in a book generally remains consistent through the book, and is important to climactic moments within that book. It's not the most strict of magic systems, but I feel it is more to it than the author is giving credit.
That said, this essay accurately defines some of the problems with focusing too much on your magic, particularly to the detriment of actual writing time.
Feruchemy ended up being a balance system, because of how polar Ruin and Preservation were. Any world with at least two Shards will result in a similar phenomenon.
Like Roshar. There is something like that going on there.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Practice. Don't worry about anything other than finding time to write—then spend that time on your stories. Publishing shouldn't worry you; nothing should. Just practice.
Indeed, I cannot underscore enough the value of belonging to a good critique group. I would also offer up Brandon's Laws (again from Wikipedia):
"Sanderson's First Law is that "An author's ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic." While originally created as a rule for magic systems in fantasy novels, Sanderson has specified that this law need not apply just to fantasy, but is also applicable to science fiction. This Law was originally defined in Sanderson's online essay "Sanderson's First Law". In the essay he qualifies the two extremes of design as being:
1. Magic/technology has well defined rules that the audience understands. As a result, one can use this to solve conflict more easily as the capabilities are cleanly defined. Sanderson classifies this as "Hard Magic". C.L. Wilson in her essay "Worldbuilding 101 — Making Magic" advocated this method of creation, stating, ". . . create your rules, then follow them."
2. Magic/technology has unclear or vague rules, or none at all. This allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader, but the ability to solve problems without resorting to deus ex machina decreases. Sanderson classifies this as "Soft Magic". Lawrence Watt-Evans specifically advised "The trick is to be a benevolent and consistent deity, not one who pulls miracles out of a hat as needed."
Sanderson's Second Law is "Limitations > Powers", that a character's weaknesses are more interesting than his or her abilities. It was initially set down in Episode 14 of the podcast Writing Excuses. John Brown, likewise looked to Sanderson's work in his own essay involving magic systems, noting "What are the ramifications and conflicts of using it?" Patricia Wrede likewise noted several issues on this topic ranging from magic suppressing other technologies, to how a magic might affect farming. In explaining the second law, Sanderson references the magic system of Superman, claiming that Superman's powers are not what make him interesting, but his limits, specifically his vulnerability to kryptonite and the code of ethics he received from his parents.
Sanderson's Third Law is that a writer should "Expand what you already have before you add something new."
Sanderson's Last Law is that a good magic system should be interconnected with the world around it. Sanderson points out that magic does not take place in a vacuum. It is related to the ecology, religion, economics, warfare, and politics of the world it inhabits. The job of the author is to think farther than the reader about the ramifications of the magic system. If magic can turn mud into diamonds, that has an effect on the value of diamonds. Sanderson states that readers of genre fiction are interested not just in the magic system but how the world and characters will be different because of the magic."
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
What power I would choose depends on how rational my brain is that day. It makes the most sense to have Wolverine's regenerative powers. At the same time, it's not like I'm jumping off cliffs or getting into fights. So I probably wouldn't do much with this power. But in the back of my mind, there's a part of me that says, "Boy, would I really love to be able to fly!" Which is why a lot of the magic systems in my books wind up dealing with people having powers that let them soar in the air.
I would have bet big money you'd have chosen Allomancy as your superpower! For those unfortunate souls who haven't yet read Mistborn, Allomancy allows people to "burn" (metabolize metals in the body for magical powers) ingested metals, thereby enhancing various physical and mental capacities. Burning iron enables the Allomancer to pull on metals. Burning steel enables pushing. Burning copper hides Allomancers from others, while burning bronze reveals them. Burning zinc enflames emotions, while burning brass dampens emotions. Burning tin enhances the senses, while burning pewter enhances strength and toughness.
Brandon's Mistborn Allomancers cleverly use a combination of burning iron and steel to effectively fly. 'Nuff said.
How do you imagine all this magic? Tell us briefly of your rules of magic.
Seven or eight years ago, I was thinking about what I love in fantasy. My love of the fantasy genre is this sense of another world that really couldn't, but for a while, we pretend that it could. With a science background, (I started my academic life as a chemist) I like to imagine worlds where our fundamental laws of physics don't apply but other fundamental laws of physics do. And so, for me, I like "magic" to be a new branch of physics that only exists in these worlds. That sounds a little sterile. It's more sterile than I wanted to sound because I think science has this wonder to it, and as you discover and you learn, there's this beautiful sense of discovery.
It's where the great discoveries of our age is happening and scientific. I love particularly the era at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. The feel the people had for science back then—I often find myself writing in my books during a similar era, an age you might call an enlightenment. That's really the Renaissance, a little post-Renaissance age of industry where people are discovering that the magic follows rules and laws.
I have rules for myself about how to write my magic systems and these are really just storytelling rules. I call them Sanderson's Laws. I can't really go into depth in an article here. (I've done essays on them, you can Google them.) But they're really writing advice to myself. I call them Sanderson's Laws, not because I think everyone should follow them, but they are laws I follow myself.
They have to do with things like properly laying the foreshadowing for my magic so the reader understands what it can do and looking and exploring the different aspects of what a magic can do rather than adding a ton of new powers. Taking one power and setting (to see) if I can really explore it in its depth, things like that.
4. If Calamity did come (and most of us did not turn evil), what power would you want? Would you be a hero? Villain? Switzerland?
What power I would choose depends on how rational my brain is that day. It makes the most sense to have Wolverine's regenerative powers. At the same time, it's not like I’m jumping off cliffs or getting into fights. So I probably wouldn't do much with this power.
But in the back of my mind, there's a part of me that says, "Boy, would I really love to be able to fly!" Which is why a lot of the magic systems in my books wind up dealing with people having powers that let them soar in the air.
Honestly, I want to think I'd be a hero, but as I've mentioned, the reason I wrote Steelheart was because of a moment where I had intense anger toward someone else. And that moment of me imagining myself destroying someone else because of a minor annoyance is part of why I wrote this book. I was frightened of myself. I'd like to think that I'd be a hero. I'm worried that I wouldn't be.
Sanderson's Three Laws of Magics:
1) An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
2) Limitations > Powers (i.e. "Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.")
3) Expand what you already have before you add something new.
In the years leading up to and during his time concluding The Wheel of Time series, Sanderson developed three Laws of Magics for the fantasy genre. He's been quick to point out on his blog that the laws merely serve as "guidelines" for his own writing, but his insight is revolutionizing the traditional approach to fantasy writing.
Literature has a history of ignoring rules when it comes to magic—it is magic, after all. But the 21st century is cultivating a new breed of reader who doesn't take magic for granted. Sanderson's laws appeal to their desire to understand how Dorothy's ruby slippers transport her between worlds and why the Phial of Galadriel shines brighter when used by Sam vs. Frodo. From allomancy to surgebinding, the magic systems in Sanderson's novels are both incredibly original and comprehensively detailed.
Beyond his penchant for establishing unique systems of magic in multiple worlds, Sanderson has a tendency to dream astronomically.
"At some point," Sanderson says, "I was inspired by Michael Moorcock's Multiverse and the way Isaac Asimov eventually connected his Foundation novels and robot novels, to write a 'stealth' series into the background of my novels." Enter the Cosmere.
An entire universe distinct from our own, the Cosmere consists of 10 (and counting) planets with autonomous magic systems, geographic characteristics and storylines. All of Sanderson's novels (excluding his YA and The Wheel of Time titles) exist within the Cosmere, but each planet's book(s) can be read independently of the others. In simpler terms, Sanderson has subtly connected everything—so subtly, in fact, that only one character is granted the ability to travel between worlds.
Hoid, the world jumper and mysterious fan favorite, appears in every Cosmere-set novel. But don't plan on always recognizing him; the intelligent trickster favors disguises. And, to be honest, no one besides Sanderson understands Hoid's significance at this point.
"I have said before that choosing a favorite [character] is a tough question," Sanderson says. "Very tough. I'll have to say Hoid, but I can't say why without giving spoilers."
How much time do you usually spend on creating a magic system?
It really depends on the book, the length of the story, and how integral to magic is to that particular story. Some are as fast as a couple of days; some take months and months. It is also difficult to answer this question because I spend a lot of time thinking about a book before writing, and the Magic is often part of that. I will often spend years with an idea growing in the back of my mind before writing—and in those cases, the actual "outlining" may take a month, but that doesn't begin to cover the time spent on the idea.
Is there anything in particular that inspires you to come up with new stories and/or magic systems?
Really, anything can be the seed. Reading about science and scientific discoveries tends to be the most helpful, but I can't say specifically what leads me to create them. (Though I'd suggest looking at "Sanderson's Laws" of magic for a longer explanation.)