On Writing, Magic, and Brandon Sanderson

Cover of "The Way of Kings (The Stormligh...
Cover via Amazon

As I’ve mentioned before, I recently started a new job.  And as contrary as it may sound, this has actually meant that I have had more time to read.  When I was unemployed and staying at home all day, I found other things that I could do instead of read, but now that I’m at work, my list of acceptable activities to do during a down moment has shrunk.  But it does include reading.  So I have been reading.  And I have used this opportunity to reread some old favorites as well as catch up on my list of must-reads.  Not surprisingly, both lists include books written by Brandon Sanderson.  I have read everything that he has written now, except for his Wheel of Time books and I have thoroughly enjoyed his novels.  He creates complex characters and puts them in impossible situations and allows them to grow and do amazing things.  But what I love most about Brandon Sanderson is the incredibly inventive magic systems he creates for his books.

Most books of the Fantasy genre, when they include magic are pretty much the same: spoken spells or incantations.  This is not surprising when we consider that those who are writing these books know all too well just how much power the right word at the right place can have.  Writers are used to the fact that written or spoken words can change the world or create new ones, and we see this reflected in their works.  From Tolkien to Ursula K. LeGuin to J.K. Rowling, we have magicians who, armed with the proper knowledge of language and words, can do marvelous works.  This is the tradition that we have even going back to Shakespeare, a man who understood the true power of language if ever there was one, and even to the Bible which reports that God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

But Brandon Sanderson has come up with unique and very interesting magic systems for each of his books, no two are the same and they are unlike anything else I have read.  I don’t want to give too much away, I highly recommend you read his books, but just a brief overview of the way in which magic works in the different Brandon Sanderson novel-worlds.

Elantris — Magic in Elantris is, without giving too much away, since one of the major plot points is the main character figuring out how magic used to work and how he can use it again, it is based in symbols drawn in the air.  This link has a better explanation.  It is somewhat tied to language, but power is drawn from the symbols.

Mistborn — In Mistborn magic is all tied to metal.  There are different ways in which individuals interact with metals and different metals allow different abilities.

Alcatraz Smedry series — The Alcatraz series is aimed at a younger audience, they are young adult books, and in that way they are a lot more fun.  Magic is based around glass, with different types of sand making different types of glass that give different abilities.

Warbreaker — Warbreaker is hard to explain, but it is a wonderful book that I thoroughly enjoyed.  And the magic system is very complex.  It is based around what Brandon Sanderson calls Biochromatic breath, which as it sounds involves color and breath.

The Way of Kings — I am still reading this book, but I am 800 pages into it.  Out of 1001.  What is interesting about this novel is that the magic system is never really explained, it is described in detail as if the reader were already familiar with it, as if the reader were a citizen in this world.  By reading one understands that magic is tied to light and storms and something called Shardplates and Shardblades.

These are all amazing novels with magic being central to the plot, and Brandon Sanderson has developed rich worlds and strict magic systems that function almost more as science than magic.  The rules of magic are usually clearly stated and defined and understood, and then followed.  In his podcast Writing Excuses, in which he and other writers talk about different aspects of writing, he has come up with Sanderson’s First Law, “An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”  If the magic is clearly defined then it can be used to solve problems and the reader is okay with it, if, though, the magic is not clearly understood, when it is used to solve problems it appears more as a deus ex machina.

And so, as I write, and as I try to develop worlds in which to set my novels, I would like to try and emulate Brandon Sanderson.  He has clear rules for his magic and it is not used frivolously.  I like the almost scientific feel he brings to the subject of magic, and he shows that he has thought through even all of the limitations that his magic system has, forcing his characters to work around them.

I have been thinking a lot about water lately.  After rereading the Mistborn series and the different ways that metals were used to create three different and distinct magic systems that are similar, I was thinking about the different ways in which water could be used to create power — as water wheels turning gears, a very rudimentary way of getting things done; as steam power, which is more sophisticated, but has the drawbacks of needing water to turn into steam; and then as hydroelectric power.  I am still figuring out how I would use these three elements of water in my world, but this is a start.  We’ll see where it goes from here.

5 thoughts on “On Writing, Magic, and Brandon Sanderson

  1. Very interesting. In the last 9/10 years I have become obsessed with Fantasy and Science fiction. I am very interested in reading Sanderson’s works but have some questions. It may sound weird but I am word sensitive….meaning I’m not a fan of crude or “dirty” language. How clean are his books in terms of language? Also, are these easily available at half price books or should I be looking online?
    Thanks for this blog…Very enjoyable!


    1. The language in his books is entirely clean, especially the Alcatraz series, which are directed at a younger audience, but are still a fun read. I would highly recommend all of these books to anyone looking for a great story, with complex characters and, of course, well-thought out magic systems.

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