Death Note and Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

A few years back, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archive) wrote a series of essays describing laws of magic systems. In the second of these essays, Sanderson posits that limitations are of greater importance than powers when it comes to effective magic systems.

Limitations are more important than powers

This notion is in agreement with a basic storytelling principle that I think many of us (readers and writers alike) instinctively understand about storytelling: what a character can’t do is often more interesting than what they can do.  Limitations and weaknesses are what drive struggle, vulnerability, conflict, and tension, many of the wonderful elements we love to see present in a story.

As a bit of an aside, I believe that this is why there is some disdain for for “wish fulfillment” and “Mary Sue” type characters, as these are narratives that are often inspired (and defined) by what the characters can do, often to the complete exclusion of any limitation or weakness.

It’s common to define and recognize magic systems based on powers.  A prominent example of this can be seen in the anime/manga series Death Note (spoilers follow).  The main magic present in Death Note is a notebook that has the ability to kill people, and protagonist Light also has the ability to specify the victims’ time and cause of death.  These are interesting story hooks.  But I would contend that Death Note is not a story about the powers of the Death Note as much as it is a story about the Death Note’s limitations.

What are the limitations of the Death Note? For one thing, Light needs to physically write the name of his victim in the book in order to cause death. He can’t just will people to die, or cause people to die by performing some trivial action like snapping his fingers. The Death Note, by its nature, leaves behind a paper trail, and thus represents a liability for anyone under scrutiny of investigation. Thus, when his home comes under surveillance, Light is forced to come up with creative ways to continue to write names in the Death Note while avoiding detection. In a sense, Light’s continued use of the Death Note is requisite, in the sense that if people stop dying when he is under scrutiny, then it becomes apparent to the investigation team that Light is somehow linked to the murders. This limitation of the Death Note represents a manner in which Light may be caught. It’s a source of tension.

The other major limitation of the Death Note is that Light needs a name and face in order to kill. This is ultimately what drives the conflict between protagonist Light and antagonist L, as Light cannot use the Death Note to eliminate L without knowing his name. This limitation of the Death Note also forces Light to creatively to circumvent this limitation, as becomes the case with the Raye Penber arc.

Death Note also provides a good example of a magic that is tied to a powerful cost. Light has access to another magic power apart from the Death Note itself: the “shinigami eyes,” which allow the user to see someone’s name by looking at them. However, this power comes at the cost of half of his own remaining lifespan. Light decides not to trade half his remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes, which reinforces what we are taught about Light during the series: first, by declining the offer, he is demonstrating a certain level of pride, or confidence in his own ability. The ability to see someone’s name simply by looking at them is a potent power that would greatly advance Light in the pursuit of his immediate goals, but he’s confident that he is skilled enough to defeat his foes without resorting to this costly power.

Second, Light’s decision to decline the shinigami eyes reinforces the idea that Light’s mission to eliminate criminals isn’t ultimately driven by altruism, but by megalomania.  Light doesn’t consider it enough to simply create a “better” world that is free of criminals; he also wishes to preside over this new world as emperor.  Making the trade for the shinigami eyes would allow Light to more quickly overcome the immediate obstacles in his path, so Light is forced to make a decision: does he take the eyes and achieve his vision of a “perfect world” that much sooner?  Or does he decline the eyes and give himself more time to sit on the proverbial throne?  He opts for the latter, and that is a powerful statement about his character and true motivations.

Later in the story, we see other characters who also receive the offer to trade half their remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes.  And each of those characters, in turn, reveals an element of their character and motivations based on the decision that they make.

The conflict between Light and L is one of the most interesting parts of Death Note, and if Light had the ability to see others’ names, that conflict would end quite swiftly.  However, because the power is tied to a significant cost, it can be included in the story without undermining that central conflict.

Limitations are what drive the conflict of Death Note: Light must continue to write names in the Death Note without alerting the investigation team that is monitoring him, and Light must also ascertain L’s true name. Without these two limitations in Light’s magic power, we don’t have much of a story. With them, we have a manga that has become one of the most successful manga of all time, running for 108 serialized chapters, selling over 26.5 million copies, and receiving numerous accolades.

A story with fantasy elements doesn’t necessarily require detailed rules defining the limitations of the powers that exist within its universe.  But if you want to tell a story that is about conflicts based around magic powers, a good first step would be to consider what the limitations of those magic powers are.

Avoiding verbosity

Technical flaws are often the items that receive the most complaints when a work is checked for quality, because they are the easiest to objectively identify.  Certain kinds of technical flaws are readily apparent: incorrect spelling, bad grammar, poor use of punctuation.  However, we can also holistically look at a brief passage of writing and identify it as “poorly written.”  This is because there are certain usages of language which, while not technically wrong, are still sub-optimal.

One of the most common textbook examples of writing that is technically correct but less than ideal is use of passive voice instead of active voice.  An example of passive voice would be:

The door was opened by the man.

The same idea can be expressed in active voice as follows:

The man opened the door.

There is a preference for active voice in this case because it expresses the same idea with greater brevity and clarity.

Paradoxically, it seems that some writers deliberately avoid brevity, perhaps under some mistaken notion that writing out more words makes them a better writer.  Thus comes the flurry of needless adjectives and adverbs to describe things which need no additional characterization.  Your vocabulary should be a toolbox that you use to shorten sentences, not lengthen them.  For example, take this sentence:

He slowly and lazily walked his way over to the building, looking at the front gate with an expression of boredom and disinterest.

We can express it more succinctly as:

He sauntered to the building, casting a listless gaze at the front gate.

Lower word count, same message.

Adverbs are common culprits in “needless word syndrome,” as they often modify words that need no modification or can easily be replaced with words that provide the same meaning.  For example, in this expression:

She quickly ran outside.

The word “quickly” is meaningless, as speediness is already implied by the word “ran.”  If the word “ran” is not sufficient to describe the extent of her speed, another descriptive word can be substituted, such as “dashed” or “bolted.”  Saying that someone “dashed” outside is much more exciting and engaging than saying that they “quickly ran” outside.

Length versus density

Verbosity and length are not the same thing.  Verbosity refers to writing which is needlessly lengthy.  A better way to describe verbosity would be a deficiency in density of writing, rather than an excess of length.  Good writing is dense, expressing as many ideas in as short a span as possible.  There are two ways to achieve brevity: you can express the same idea in fewer words, as described above, or you can express more in the same length.

Mutli-functional writing

Storytelling can be divided into three main elements: characters, setting, and plot.  Your writing should advance the reader’s understanding of these elements, and you can make your writing denser by developing multiple elements at once.  For example, consider the following passage:

Megan hated working in the park during the summer.  She hated the sweltering, oppressive humidity.  She hated the flies, drawn by the smell of summer barbecues and potato salad and human sweat.  But most of all, she hated the masses of snotty-nosed children who paraded the park, filled with mirth and energy and a desire for the frozen dairy treats she peddled.

Each sentence of this passage is multifunctional in that it develops both the setting and character.  By the end of the passage, we should have a good idea of what the park is like during the summer, and also an awareness of how our character Megan feels about working there.

One way that some passages lose reader interest is by focusing on a single element to the exclusion of others.  For example, here is a passage that describes setting but advances neither plot or character:

I leaned back against the soft snow bank, letting the dry powder reshape itself around my weight. My skin had cooled to match the air around me, and the tiny pieces of ice felt like velvet under my skin.

The sky above me was clear, brilliant with stars, glowing blue in some places, yellow in others. The stars created majestic, swirling shapes against the black universe-an awesome sight. Exquisitely beautiful.

The above is an excellent example of too many words to convey too little meaning.  (You can thank Stephanie Meyer (and her editor) for providing it.)

In your writing, look for ways that you can use certain passages to develop multiple story elements.  (One way to do this is by leveraging viewpoint.) By developing multiple story elements in tandem, you can achieve more in your writing without needlessly extending the length.

The benefits of first-person narration

An overwhelming majority of visual novels are first-person narratives.  Fewer than 1% of visual novels on VNDB are third-person narratives, and their influence is incredibly minimal.  Some visual novels do occasionally shift narration to give the reader information about story elements outside the protagonist’s viewpoint, but the main storytelling approach chosen by most visual novels is for the reader to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist.

Part of this is by necessity and the nature of interactive storytelling.  In many cases, the protagonist functions as the reader’s sole means of interacting with the story.  Overwhelmingly, the reader’s influence over the story’s direction is limited to controlling the actions of a single character.  Giving the reader multiple points of influence over the story is tricky business, and can lead to situations where the player interacts with himself more than the world of the storyteller.

Setting aside concerns of interactivity, the “protagonist as proxy for reader” would appear to have advantages from a narrative standpoint as well. By treating the reader as story participant, rather than an observer, a piece of fiction can become more visceral and immersive, or so the argument goes.

The modern approach to building the protagonist’s character likely has its roots in eroge, where the main selling point is the love interest(s), not the main character.  Traditionally, the goal of these works is to create a protagonist that is nothing but a proxy for the reader, achieved my minimizing characterization of the protagonist.  Often, this protagonist is faceless, both in the literal artistic sense and in the figurative story-focused sense.

It’s pretty hard for a story to be interesting and compelling when your “main character” is the most boring character in the story.

The main character, arguably, should be one of the most interesting characters in the book because we have the unique ability to see inside of his head.  We’re exposed not only to his external behaviors and attributes, but also have the ability to read his inner monologues and see what he thinks.  More importantly, the main character, as the reader’s “eyes” for the story, can provide us insight into his own character in less explicit ways as we are exposed to the manner in which he presents the world and events of the story.  Most of us have had the opportunity to observe real-world examples of this: the man who constantly complains about his wife is in many ways telling us just as much about himself as he is about his spouse.  When the character tells us about the world and narrates the events of the story, he also shows what kind of character he is as we are exposed to his presentation.

The first person perspective, seen in this light, actually has two advantages: it can present more information, and it can present it in fewer words.  Narrating the story from the main character’s perspective makes it possible to develop character and plot simultaneously.  Having a protagonist without character squanders that opportunity.

Saya no Uta (warning: wiki page contains spoilers) is an interesting case study because it breaks many of the unwritten rules governing visual novel protagonists, perspective, and storytelling.  Addressing a point made earlier, Saya no Uta narrates from multiple perspectives.  It has a “main character” or protagonist in Fuminori, but in its later acts certain portions of the story are told using third-person narration, mostly limited to Kouji’s perspective.  One interesting part of this approach is that the reader actually controls actions from two different parties.  The visual novel is written such that the reader’s ability to influence the direction of the story does not undermine the conflicts inherent in the story, large by limiting the degree to which the reader interacts with the story (there are only two decision points from start to finish).

Saya no Uta also has a very abnormal protagonist.  Fuminori’s warped senses are interesting because of the perspective that they give us.  We are presented to the world not as it is, but as Fuminori sees it.  Important to note is that Fuminori is not the reader.  He is not a stand-in or proxy for the reader; he is his own character with his own separate motivations that the reader must identify ways to sympathize with.  However, the fact that the reader is not an active participant within the Saya no Uta does not prevent it from being incredibly immersive.  On the contrary, Saya no Uta is highly visceral, almost to the point of excess.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Saya no Uta is that despite how uncanny Fuminori is (both in what he is and the actions he takes), he still remains emotionally engaging.  Even in his most horrifying moments, Fuminori feels more human and real as a character than the majority of visual novel protagonists.

I am not advocating that all visual novels become Saya no Uta.  Saya no Uta is a story that is centered on perspective, and the main character’s aberrant nature is so pivotal to the plot that the story wouldn’t exist without it, making it relatively unique.  However, it does teach a valuable lesson on how narrative viewpoints can be used to construct an effective story.

It is still possible to achieve popularity and commercial success with a bland protagonist, as many bishounen-style visual novels continue to prove.  Fortunately, despite the cliche of the boring, faceless visual novel protagonist, there are many visual novels that have demonstrated the triumphs of creating a unique and compelling protagonist (many Type-Moon works tend to fall into this).  Those seeking to evolve the medium and disrupt the market would do well to remember the valuable tool that an effective protagonist can represent.