World Building is a concept we often associate with fantasy, science fiction or magic novels. But all stories exist within their own world and if we’re to know our characters, and write them well, we must understand the world we are building and the characters within it.
As with all laws, they exist in connection with each other. Brandon Sanderson has written about his three laws of magic and we wondered if we could use these to help us create better characters and fuller worlds for them to exist in – no matter what area we’re writing in.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magic states that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. Does that mean we need to come up with a lot of rules for our world and know every clause within them? Sanderson says no. Some writers will; some won’t. Science fiction will generally have fixed rules, while fantasy is often less fixed with rules appearing as the author needs them. But not always. In short, an author’s ability to solve conflict in their world is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the world and the characters in it.
A story set in a current-day Queensland school is a world many of us would consider ourselves familiar with. We’d also have an idea of the characters who might appear there. A great story requires the author, and the reader, to understand the ‘magic’ of that world. What are the unique properties of this school and it’s setting? What makes it different from every other school? Who are the people who populate this story? A school yard conflict involving two students has a certain set of rules, but we cannot assume our reader knows those rules. As the author, we need to ensure our readers have enough cues to understand how the world we’ve created works and why our characters react the way they do in the various conflicts they find themselves facing. When you’re close to your work it can be difficult to know if you’ve achieved this or not. If that’s you, it’s time for a second opinion.
The second law according to Sanderson is that limitations are greater than powers. He uses the analogy of Superman, whose susceptibility to kryptonite and strict moral code are far greater indications of his character than his superpowers. It’s an interesting way of thinking about our characters, whether they have magic/super or any other powers. Heading back to our school yard setting, it is our characters weaknesses and limitations that make them interesting and determine how they react to the situations they find themselves in. Peer groups, pressure from parents and lunch room power groups are all familiar school elements that a character’s limitations will infuse unique reactions. The cracks and limitations of the world we create are likely to provide more interesting storytelling opportunities than a picture-perfect world.
Finally, the third law states that the author should expand what they already have before they add something new. This is a great reminder for any writer that our story is like the tip of the iceberg. Every character has a backstory we need to summarise, and every world has a history we need to weave naturally into story one thread at a time. But if we keep adding elements to our story and rules to our world before tidying up what we already have planned, things can get messy. Our world becomes the priority over the characters and the conflict within it, and these vital aspects of your story might be overlooked or underdeveloped.
Sanderson has some great writing advice and if magic is your thing you’ll enjoy our Writing Magic workshop with Karen Foxlee. You should also be sure to register for GenreCon and get all the updates. You won’t want to miss a thing!