Mastering Hard and Soft Systems of Magic
There's more than one way to build a world.People read speculative fiction for the escape. They want to experience a world different from their own. They want to have experiences unlike their own. And, more often than not, that unique and different world involves magic in one form or another.
But what kind of magic should you write? Does your world need a magic system with vague rules—a wizard is a wizard and a Jedi is a Jedi, and magic happens when they need it? Or do you create a magic system with a hard set of rules, in which a character can use this particular form of magic only if they meet very strict requirements and pay the costs?
Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series and the Stormlight Archive series, coined the terms soft and hard to describe magic systems in fiction. (Not only does the man write nonstop but he also teaches creative writing at his alma mater, Brigham Young University.)
A “soft magic” system is one in which the “rules” of using magic aren’t entirely known to the reader. There’s an air of mysticism, and it leaves a lot of room for the imagination. Examples of soft magic systems include those in the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings books, and even the Force in Star Wars. There are indeed rules, and as readers we might know some of them. But what makes it soft magic is that a ton of information about the way it works is left mostly to the reader’s imagination.
A “hard magic” system is one in which the rules are understood almost entirely by the reader. The reader knows the limitations of the system, what costs characters must pay to use magic, and most of the magic’s unique properties. If you’ve ever read anything by Sanderson or Brent Weeks, then you’ve read a hard magic system. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist are both really great examples of hard magic. You know that a firebender can’t bend water (unless they’re the Avatar, of course).
Sanderson has a maxim about this that he calls Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
If you’re using an in-depth set of rules that your readers know the ins and outs of and understand, then you also need your conflict and problem-solving to be following that mechanical set of rules. For example, in the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender (spoilers ahead for the rest of the paragraph), there’s an episode in which Toph, our blind and witty earthbender, is trapped inside of a metal box. She’s been taken prisoner, and there’s no chance of escape. Except she begins to think, realizes that metal is earth, and begins to master the art of metalbending. The scriptwriters allow the character to solve the problem by utilizing the very specific set of limitations, capabilities, and costs that the viewers already know and understand. Toph is able to bend the metal box around her and escape because the magic rule is that she can only bend earth.
And, if you’ve seen that episode, then you remember that first time you see Toph bending metal and how it blew your mind! The same applies to the episode when Katara figures out that she can bend blood as a waterbender.
Now, what if you’re writing a soft magic system instead? Here’s what Sanderson has to say about it, from his website: “The really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic.... Use the magic for visuals and for ambiance, but not for plot.”
For instance, in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (again, spoilers for the next paragraph), there’s a moment when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas come upon Gandalf in Fangorn Forest after they had seen him fall to his doom with the Balrog in Moria (nerdiest sentence I’ll ever write). They had presumed him dead, yet here he is in the flesh, suddenly leveled up. Keep in mind, this is movie Gandalf, not book or Silmarillion Gandalf. The movie watchers are only given so much information. You get a cool scene of him epically battling the Balrog, he dies, he’s granted life again, and he returns to Middle-earth to help his friends fight in the battles to come. As an audience member, you don’t question the why too much—it’s just really epic and mystical.
There’s no right or wrong answer to which type of magic system to choose. It all comes down to what’s going to be best to tell your story. If you’re looking for more enchantment and leaving a lot to the reader’s perception and imagination, soft magic is absolutely the way to go. But, if you’re looking for something that forces the reader to understand problem-solving mechanically, then you’ll want to go with hard magic. That’s not to say that you can’t have epic moments in hard magic—I mean, look at Toph!—but it is going to require you to set some rules and inform your readers of them.
If you’d like to learn more about Sanderson’s Laws of Magics, you can find videos of his course online.
Katrina Schroeder is a freelance copy, line, and development editor with a focus on science fiction and fantasy.