Jared Barneck’s Laws of the Magical Arms Race
17 Saturday Dec 2016
Written by J. Abram Barneck in Writing Tips
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Recently I was reading Brandon Sanderson’s three laws of Magic Systems.
- Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. 
- Brandon Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic
Limitations > Powers . In short, the limitation of magic should be greater than the powers of magic.
- Brandon Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic
Expand what you already have before you add something new. 
The first and third laws are particularly excellent. I feel that they define what we already subconsciously know. By defining these laws, Brandon has helped many authors quantify why a piece of their writing is working or not. I am not sure if his second is exactly accurate. I think limitations is too narrow a word. I also think that there can be powers without limits but their is a cost or consequence that is always proportional to the magic used.
As I contemplated the second law, I found there is a a set of magical laws that I follow that is not listed among Brandon Sanderson’s laws. These laws revolves around magic that is used primarily as weapons in battle. I call it, the Magical Arms Race.
Let’s define magic, the Magical Arms Race, and Magic Arms Race Progression so we all know what we are talking about.
- Magic = Any power that is not available to the average human. Magic includes spells by Wizards, Magics, Druids, Witches, Sorcerers, Necromancers, etc. Also, comic book powers, such as superhero powers, are a form of magic. Futuristic technology, particularly in Science Fiction, can be a form of magic. Even just Olympic/Pro/Title level sports skills could be considered a power and treated like magic.
- Magical Arms Race = The competition between two magic users to have the most powerful magic.
- Magical Arms Race Progression = One side or the other learns a new magic or power that either cannot be countered or that counters magic that previously could not be countered. Or one side or the other increases in strength in some way that gives them a clear advantage.
So here are J. Abram Barneck’s Laws of the Magical Arms Race.
- When magic is used for warfare, a Magical Arms Race always exists.
- A single spell or power, on its own, can only solve conflicts once or twice.
- With each use of a spell or power, the oppositions ability to counter that spell or power increases.
- The protagonist should only win a major conflict while supposedly losing the Magical Arms Race.
- The cost of resolving a conflict with magic should be equal to or greater than the size of the conflict.
- If the protagonists is winning the Magical Arms Race when a major conflict occurs, the protagonist must lose.
- The bigger the distance by which the antagonist is winning the Magical Arms Race, the greater the victory, and happier the reader.
Law 1 – When magic is used for warfare, a Magical Arms Race exists
In any back and forth conflict that involves warfare, with any kind of power, magic or otherwise, an arms race always exists. To forget to include this in magical warfare will leave the story with a huge hole. The reader might not understand why this hole exists, but they will feel the hole and believe something is missing from the story.
There are always two or more groups. The group that is winning the Magical Arms Race is the group that has the most spells that can’t be countered while at the same time having the ability to counter the most spells.
Harry Dresden is a straight up Wizard, and Jim Butcher writes him pretty well. But in Book 12, he needed more power (and a new backbone, cause his is broke). Ebenezar McCoy uses his magic to drop a Soviet Satalite on a high ranking member of the Red Court (on of three types of Vampires in the Jim Butcher’s Dresden World). That starts a magical arms race. The Red Court wants to fire back. They up the ante, and target both Harry and his grandfather. They capture Dresden’s daughter and prepare a spell that will kill everyone she is related to. Dresden has to counter by becoming Mab’s White Night, to combine his awesome Wizard power with the power Queen Mab of the Fairies bestows on the White Night.An agreement that requires he can first save his daughter.
Let’s look at Star Wars. What can be considered magic? Obviously there is the force. But did you also consider that it has two magic systems? There are two and they are opposites: the force and technology. We learn quickly that the Empire is winning the Magical Arms Race in both the force and technology. The Jedi have been killed and those still alive are in hiding. The Empire has a new Death Star that can blow up a planet.
Let’s look at a power that isn’t magic in Rocky. Particularly Rocky IV. What is the power? Great boxing. The average human is not a great boxer. In Rocky IV, the Russian Ivan Drago is shown as being so much more advanced than Rocky that it would be impossible to win. Ivan Drago is clearly winning the Boxing Arms Race.
Law 2 – A single spell or power, on its own, can only solve a major conflict once
Let’s say you have a Wizard, Merlin. He defeats Mordred with a fire spell. A few chapters later, Merlin uses that same fire spell. If He defeats Mordred again with the same spell, the reader will be left disappointed. Its like a fan watching a live event (say the Superbowl) a second time. The fan already knows what happened and there isn’t any emotion to the Superbowl anymore. Similar if the same trick works twice in a novel, the second one lacks any emotion. It kills the conflict. Without conflict, the reader is left bored.
Star Wars Episode 7 was fun for some but many fans have complaints. One of those complaints is that the major ending conflict was resolved almost exactly the same was as in Star Wars Episode IV. A small group, with one having the force, destroys the Death Star/Star Killer. J. J. Abrams used the same power to destroy the Star Killer and fans noticed. Fortunately, other factors, fan nostalgia, charismatic characters, etc., made it forgivable, but fans clearly would have preferred that resolving the Star Killer had not been done the same way as resolving the Death Star.
Law 3 – With each use of a spell or power, the oppositions ability to counter that spell or power increases
This is very similar to the second law, but includes the use of magic that occurs outside of a major conflict. When not dealing with a major conflict, a spell can be used multiple times. However, it should become less effective each time.
Let’s provide an example from Harry Potter. Harry Potter uses Expelliarmus quite often. It works a few times, not just once. But soon, it stopped working. Then he tried to use it during the multiple Potters scene. Many of Harry’s friends used the Polyjuice potion to make themselves look exactly like Harry Potter. That way, Voldemort and his minions wouldn’t know who to chase when Potter tried to escape the Dursley’s just before coming of age. During the chase, Harry uses Expelliarmus and if fails. Worse, the other side used it to their advantage. They determined which of the many Potters was the real Potter.
Law 4 – The protagonist should only win a major conflict while losing the Magical Arms Race
This law could be nicknamed “The Underdog law.” If you write a story where the protagonist obviously has the advantage, and then the protagonist wins easily, what is going to make your story compelling? Where is the conflict? Why will your reader care? Well, the reader won’t care. In fact, the reader might not remain a reader very long.
Let’s look at a famous non-magical story. Rocky IV. A classic boxing movie. The average human is not a great boxer, so boxing could be looked at like a superpower. Rocky challenges Ivan Drago, who is far superior and well ahead in the Boxing Arms Race. Unfortunately, Rocky never really beat Apollo Creed outright, and Ivan Drago just defeated Apollo Creed convincingly. So Rocky’s boxing power is clearly losing the arms race to Ivan Drago’s boxing power. Rocky, through great effort, trains hard, exposes a weakness, and wins the unwinnable fight. He is the constant underdog.
In my first novel, Fire Light, Jake is just learning to use magic. He has cast a single spell. He can’t beat anything. Then the Nightwalker finds them. They run. O’Brien tries use some vials of magic. They are only temporarily effective. They are using magic bug losing. The Nightwalker catches up to them. It isn’t until Jake is so close death and worse, only at the very brink of destruction, is he able to overcome and win, with what is the most awesomest magic missile scene every written.
Law 5 – The cost of resolving a conflict with magic is directly proportional to the size of the conflict
When a conflict is resolved without a cost, readers get bored and don’t care.
Jim Butcher gave an excellent example of this in Changes, which we discussed above. To take become the White Knight and battle the Red Court, Dresden is taking on a cost greater than death: his freedom, his soul, and perhaps his goodness. On top of that, he has to sacrifice a woman he loves, his daughters mother, in order to save his daughter, himself, and his grandfather, as well as keep his friends alive. There is also a secret cost, that you know about if you’ve read the series, that his Mollie Carpenter has to both exact from Harry and pay herself. The proportion his success costs him is vast and because the conflict is vast.
We can be a little forgiving in a series if we don’t see the cost right away. In Star Wars IV, the number of X-Wing fighter that die are minimal compared to the take down of the Empire’s Death Star. However, the cost isn’t felt until Episode V, Empire Strikes Back. The Empire started actively hunting the resistance. Their base on the ice world of Hoth was destroyed. Also, by destroying the Death Star, Luke Skywalker’s existence was revealed to the Empire and to his father, Darth Vader. This lead to Han Solo being encased in carbonite, Luke losing his hand, failing to complete his training. Ultimately every part of the resistance gets their their butts kicked, and they are lucky to escape with their lives.
In my first novel, Fire Light, Jake is clearly losing the magical arms race to the Vampire King. In order to win, he had to suffer greatly. A main character is stabbed in the heart. Another character dies. A character becomes a Vampire. Another character is left paraplegic. That victory was great and so was the cost.
Law 6 – If the protagonists is winning the Magical Arms Race when a major conflict occurs, the protagonist must lose.
This is only true for the protagonist, and is not true for the antagonist. It is completely OK for the antagonist to be winning the Magical Arms Race and then also win. In fact, this may be true for every conflict in the story up until the climax, where the protagonist finally pays the great cost to win.
To continue with the Star Wars idea, the Rebel Alliance had just taken out the Death Star. Going into Episode V, the Resistance seams to have taken the upper hand the Magical Arms Race. Then there is a battle at the ice world Hoth. The Empire shows their superior strength and shows that they are at the top of the arms race.
To continue with the Rocky IV idea, Apollo Creed is a great boxer. He appears to be the best in the world. Boxing is his magic or power. He is winning the Boxing arms race. He walks into a fight thinking he is the best. His opponent, Ivan Drago, doesn’t just win, he punches Apollo so hard that he kills him. Apollo doesn’t just lose, he dies.
The bigger the loss, the more the reader will care.
Law 7 – The bigger the distance by which the antagonist is winning the Magical Arms Race, the greater the victory, and happier the reader.
In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the distance was huge. Vin had no chance against the almost immortal Lord Ruler. In Star Wars, the resistance had no chance against the Empire and it’s world destroying death star. In Lord of the Rings, it was the Sauron and the one Ring, more powerful than Gandalf or Lady Galadriel, with a dozen Nazgul and vast hordes of Orcs, Goblins, and Uruk-hai. In Terry Brook’s Elfstones of Shannara, it was the entire realm of demon’s against once city and one dying tree.
Whatever the story, make sure that there is no way the protagonist can win. Yet make sure that when the protagonist does win, the reader fully understands why. Make sure it is not Deus ex machina. Make sure that the cost is high, something that perhaps the protagonist had never considered paying before and only at the moment, when the protagonist would pay the ultimate cost, does that option even come to light.