In September I wrote about Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn book, The Final Empire, and what it taught me about introducing a complex magic system in fiction. Today I want to examine how Sanderson builds his fantasy world.
When you’re devising a fantasy world, you’re filled with so many ideas that it’s so tempting to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Unicorns! Zombies! People who can shoot fire out of their eyeballs! The Mistborn series, you remember, centers around the concept of Allomancy, where gifted Mistings and Mistborns can burn different metals to gain certain abilities. Based on a brief overview of the plot and setting, you’d think Sanderson, too, came up with a billion new ideas to make this world, right? Actually, he only came up with one major change, and figured out what the world would look like once that idea went into effect.
This is also known as Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic Systems, part of Three Laws of Magic Systems he’s devised over the years while writing his books. That’s not to say that every single fantasy writer on the face of the earth has to follow them, but they’ve worked for him. Here’s the law:
- Extrapolate from one or two big changes (or magical things) before you go and change everything.
In other words, start with an Earth-like setting. Change one thing about it (in this situation, come up with something magical) and figure out what other things would change because of that magical something. Chances are, that’s enough to create a strong, believable fantasy world without adding in unicorns and zombies.
Here’s how it works in The Final Empire. The major change is that magic, based on the use of metals, exists.
The primary focus in the first book is Allomancy, where people can swallow metals and burn them to enhance their abilities. Now, it would be too easy if everyone could do that, and at the same level. So Allomancy is a gift granted only to the nobility by the Lord Ruler. The peasant-like skaa aren’t supposed to have it. Additionally, most Allomancers can only burn one metal, so they’re called Mistings. Those who can burn all the metals, known as Mistborns, are very rare.
Because Allomancy is a special gift, the Lord Ruler has outlawed intermarriage between the nobility and the skaa. People being people, though (no matter how magically gifted), some of the nobles like to enjoy themselves with the skaa. This has led to a few illegal Mistings and Mistborns among the skaa, like Kelsier and Vin, our heroes.
Already Sanderson has diversified the magic and combined it with an understanding of human nature to complicate the world’s social structure. But he doesn’t stop there. He introduces Feruchemy, a related magic where users can wear metals instead of swallowing them, in order to store up their own abilities for later. For example, a Feruchemist could wear a pewter bracelet and stockpile his or her own strength to use in one dazzling burst of power. This ability is confined to people from the Terris region. There’s a third metal magic system that he barely touches on in The Final Empire, as well.
By considering the basic premise (that magic based on the use of metals exists) in several iterations, Sanderson creates a complicated, three-branched magic system that reflects diversity within his fantasy world. He further uses it to devise a social structure and regional differences, all of which suggest a world as complex as our own. To me, that’s the most exciting part to consider as a writer: how just one magical addition or change can ripple throughout your imagined world.