After delving into Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic in a blog a few weeks ago, I was extremely interested in what one of the modern masters of fantasy had to say in his other Laws. So, naturally, I went on to the second. What Sanderson touched on is, in my opinion, relevant to more than just magic, but to storytelling in general.
In short, Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic claims that limitations are greater than power. At least in terms of building a good story.
What he means is that the limits put on a character make that character more interesting than any power that they might have. He uses the example of Superman, stating that it is not the strength, flying, or invincibility that makes us interested in the character. In fact, DC comics are flooded with heroes and villains who can claim the same powers. What makes Superman interesting are his weaknesses and moral boundaries.
In my personal opinion, I think that Superman has become a boring character - at least in recent movies. He is bland, boring, and predictable. What makes him more interesting, however, is when we are forced to think about his limitations. For example, in the Injustice storyline, Superman breaks his moral code by killing the Joker. This is a stark contrast to his previous limitations, where he wouldn’t kill anyone at all, and sets up a character with the same abilities, but new boundaries.
So you can see clearly, in this example, that it is not the powers (aka magic) that makes Superman a better character, but the limits placed on him. But what does it do for the story? Sanderson claims that limitations create tension, struggle, and character depth. Without limitations, a magical hero might never face conflict, and they would be unrelatable, so powerful that they would be one dimensional.
For the record, “limitations” does not just mean the limits of powers. It means weaknesses and flaws, and could even refer to costs. One of my favourite characters to play in video games is a necromancer-style character, a spellcaster that manipulates life and death. Specifically, spells that require sacrifice to work. It not only makes the spells more meaningful (and usually powerful, too), but it makes you think about your actions. In a story, having a cost makes every action more meaningful.
And, if you read my review of Carrie Miller’s The White Raven, character flaws are not a bad thing, either. Her main character, Aven, is a witch with unparalleled power. She is able to influence Nature itself. But one of the best parts of her character is that she has a short temper that usually comes back to bite her, an aspect that makes her relatable and fallible. It makes her character stronger. Sure, her power would be neat and awe-inspiring if it went unchecked, but it is a much better read about the times when Aven’s flaws create conflict and struggles.
So, again, this is technically a Law of Magic, something that was inspired by and can be applied to creating magic systems. However, every author - especially those in the fantasy and sci-fi genres - would be wise to apply this rule to their characters as well. Power is captivating, it is the driving force behind wars, passions, and relationships. But it is how power, characters, and magic are limited where we find the true substance of a story, the parts that draw us in and make it real for us.
Leave a comment below describing a story you have read where the limitations on magic or the flaws of a character enhanced the experience for you. Next week will mark the release of another Behind the Scenes blog, this one about demons. However, expect a future addition to that series in the coming months that will examine, in great detail, the magic systems that exist within Archangel.