Brandon Sanderson pretty much says it all, but I just want to make sure people have a chance to see his 3 laws on magic and talk about how I use them. I also want to discuss how to take one of your existing magic systems and apply the rules to them in order to improve and add depth.
So, here are the three laws. I'd greatly suggest checking them out.
Sanderson's first law
Sanderson's second law
Sanderson's third law
Basically, the three laws can be summed up like this.
1. Mysticism v near tech-like
-If magic only causes more problems and doesn't ever actually solve problems for the characters, then you will need little to no explanation of it. But, if your characters are running around, slinging fireballs and using their magic to solve their problems, then you need to explain more. The more you use it, the more the reader needs to know about it.
2. Your magic can do anything, but what it can't do is more important.
-Magic is fun and makes for good action, but the tension comes from what your magic cannot do. This also goes into what your magic costs and what your character has to sacrifice to use the magic. AKA limitations, costs and weaknesses. The more someone knows about your magic, the more they will know what your characters can't do. This gives the reader that 'one page before the character' foresight to see trouble coming. This is a wonderful tension device.
3. One power with many applications is greater than one-hundred different powers.
-Magic with depth is always better than shallow magic with a million different powers. Being able to use the same power in different ways makes a scene much more interesting, not only for the reader, but for the writer, as well. It makes the writer think about different ways to use the power and how each scene can be altered by the magic.
So, for me, I try to use the laws when I create the magic system. Sometimes, I think about the opening line first to get me interested in the story (as with Painting), but usually, I create the magic system first.
1. I come up with a cost. I try to think of something that would make the magic abundant but restricted at the same time. The cost, to me, is the core of the magic system. With my Nano this year (Mind that it will change after the first draft) I came up with two costs: 1) potatoes--the magic user must have ingested potatoes. 2) a specific item for each of the ten powers--the user must have a specific item to link the power to in order to actually use the magic.
2. I come up with the powers themselves. I generally pick a random number and make that total amount of powers. I apply the third law to this part and really hammer out the different ways a character could use each power and how someone could exploit them. For my Nano, I came up with ten different powers. 1) Standard elemental manipulations. 2) Physical enhancement. 3) Phasing. 4) Fast travel. 5) Armor. 6) Hide self. 7) Enhanced senses. 8) Healing. 9) Mind control. 10) Anti-aging.
3. I come up with limitations for each power. I try to pick things that make the user not want to waste their power, but not so bad that they won't actually use the power. For my Nano, I have two major limitations. 1) Each magic user is only born with one link (wink wink), thus they can only use one power at a time. 2) The different items that are required for each power are limited in power, and some are more rare than others. For example, physical enhancement requires a ball-point pen while phasing requires a gold coin of a certain weight.
4. I come up with counters and weaknesses to each power. Some powers offset other power while some powers make you vulnerable to other things. Taking the Hide self and Enhances senses powers as an example of offsetting powers, they also have weaknesses. Hiding yourself reduces your senses while enhancing your senses makes you stand out and easy to find.
5. Finally, I think of different ways to use each power and how people could abuse them. I put the abuse in use in a sample scene and think of ways, to counter the abuse, restrict the abuse and how to exploit the abuse. This really came into play with the Mind control power, but I don't want to spoil my Nano just yet.
As far as applying this system to your magic systems. First, make sure you have solid rules for your magic system, even if you will stick more to the mystic side. Write out your costs and limitations of each power. Then create counters and weaknesses for each while thinking about how each could be exploited. From there, combine powers that are similar or make a new power that can do two different things. Add more ways to use your powers and then try to apply it to a scene that uses magic. Now that you have everything set in stone, you apply the scale to your story. If it is mysticism, you just have how your magic can work. If it is tech-like, then you can go about explaining your rules in your writing. One thing to note though don't do it in an info-dump.
I hope this helps.
Thanks for reading,
Next: Emotions cheat sheet