Brandon Sanderson’s 0th Law

Brandon Sanderson’s 0th Law

I’m late to the party.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has been around for a while but I just cracked open the first book. Why did I wait so long? The truth is I’ve always been late to the party, it’s like a personal preference or inbuilt mandate in my system. I just don’t do new things. I like to let them settle in, get patched, read some reviews, finish some other million year old media I’ve been consuming. But, here I am, reading Mistborn and it’s everything I hoped it’d be. This most recent episode of the podcast was partly inspired by reading this series and getting really (as in ‘my wife and kid miss me’) into it.

The 0th Law

Err on the side of awesome.

Brandon Sanderson’s 0th Law

Sanderson has gotten a lot of well earned praise for creating magic systems that are deep and intriguing. He’s also done a ton of work on establishing methodologies and crafting terms to help other authors navigate their magic systems. He gets the credit for first developing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ as they apply to magic but that’s a long simpering post for another day. The 0th Law of magic systems is essentially this: “If in doubt, make it awesome.”

It’s pure gold. It’s pure worldbuilding gold.

That said, I’ma tweak it.

Since starting this podcast Seth and I identified something critical which Sanderson touches on with this law. Worldbuilding coherency has more to do with themes than it has to do with simulationism. This law highlights the idea that we’re not trying to make a perfectly scaled ship in a bottle we’re trying to make something that ‘feels’ right. This is why Sanderson identifies it as the 0th law. The most fundamental of his rules on creating magic.

Here’s the thing though. What if ‘awesome’ isn’t what you’re going for? There are tons of great magic systems we could put our hands on but let’s look at one in particular: Tolkien. Yeah, I’m sorry (and also not sorry), Tolkien again. His magic didn’t inspire ‘awesome’ from his audience, Gandalf rarely has epic showdowns that highlight magic in a way where ‘awesome’ might come to mind, or, at least not exactly awesome. Gandalf’s magic was subtle and mysterious and the magic of Middle Earth was often subdued in its outplay. You might say that when magic is used in Tolkien’s world ‘wonder’ might be a better word than awesome. It seems like Tolkien was trying to create something of unfathomable depth when he crafted his world rather than something that makes us fist pump in the air he made something that makes us pause. They might be rooted in similar emotions but it hits different.

Is it possible that Tolkien’s version of the 0th law might be ‘err on the side of inspiring wonder.’

I can think of other creators who apply this law differently as well. In George R.R. Martin’s work magic systems usually applied in ways that were dark and mysterious, in Harry Potter it was almost always quaint or delightful. They each had a different aesthetic to go for. So that’s my first tweak which I’ll summarize here:

Err on the side of [thematically appropriate].

I got one more, though

So, we have our first idea at hand, don’t worry about the awesome, worry about what you’re trying to say. The second tweak is this. Don’t just apply it to magic. This 0th law should really apply to your worldbuilding. Seth and I have done a lot of discussion about FairyCake and this 0th law really jives with that idea. Consistency in your worldbuilding can be important, for sure, but your audience will allow a number of sins to go unpunished if your world feels right and sits well with the story. After all Tom Clancy is credited with saying ‘The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.’ Your story might add up but if 2020’s taught us anything it’s that realism is overrated.


We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.

About the Author
James lives somewhere in Pennsylvania with his wife and baby boy. He is an avid distance runner who really gets a kick out of talking to folks. His biggest asset might be his thorough enjoyment of people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *