Types of Magic: Hard, Soft, or In-between?
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links
Welcome to Part Three on Building Magic Systems.
By now you should understand that planning is important and be accompanied by a veritable horde of ideas. Before you proceed developing your own blend of magic, there is an important question I want you to answer. What type of magic is it?
I’m not talking about the theme, effects, or even visual style you have in mind, or really anything that we have covered so far. Today I want to introduce you to the concept of Hard and Soft magic systems.
In 2007 Brandon Sanderson posted an essay about the two types of magic and how to turn them into a powerful storytelling device. For reasons explained in the essay, it was titled Sanderson’s First Law of Magic. We will talk later about Sanderson’s first law, and some of its quirks, but in there is another important part of the essay to cover first.
I want to take some time today and talk about these two types of magic. Even if you have already read Brandon’s original essay, I hope provide a solid introduction to the concept and some solid examples as well.
Let’s get started, shall we.
A Comment on Quality
I want to clarify, the terms “Hard” and “Soft” have nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with the quality of the system itself. Neither type of magic is better or worse than the other, though they both have different strengths and weaknesses.
No, this isn’t the secret behind soft-serve ice-cream. Everyone knows that’s a result of the Fridge-Faire Clan Wars.
Simply put, if the rules of magic remain nebulous and undefined, you’r likely writing a Soft Magic system. If done right, this can be a powerful and mysterious addition to the world without causing any issues or inconsistencies within the plot itself.
This idea by itself has massive implications, in fact Sanderson’s first essay actually centers on this topic. The important thing to understand is how your soft magic will shape the experience of your readers.
Such a system can be fabulous for maintaining a sense of wonder in the story. Just as terror comes from the unknown dangers and monsters, a sense of mystery surrounds a story with Soft Magic.
The Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook, available as a single chronicle or three individual books, is a perfect example of a well integrated Soft Magic system. Mystical power abounds in this story as the heroes fight against rebel mages, creatures of nightmare, and legendary foes. But through it all we never learn how the magic works.
We get to see it in action (which is awesome), and we get a feel of the power of the Company’s enemies (which is terrifying), and we even get a sense of certain mage’s limitations (which is actually quite satisfying). But not once does Glen sit down and type out where the power comes from or how these people go about shaping it into spells.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik is another excellent example of Soft Magic. In a story dripping with atmosphere and the feeling of an ancient folk tale, we get to experience various shades of magic. From the methodical, rigid application of the Dragon’s power to the wild and corrupting strength of the Wood, the varying types of magic combine into a, incredibly unique experience.
As the story develops, Naomi paints a wonderful picture of the magic in the world. She explains more than Glen does in The Black Company, but only in a tactile sense. Each wielder of arcane forces brings their own personality and style to the magic they use, leading to a diverse, and unpredictable world of magic.
Both of these stories use magic systems far softer than I am accustomed to reading, but the results blew my mind. I wouldn’t change them, even if I could. The world becomes a mysterious and frightening place where anything could go wrong. The fact that we see the characters wielding magic of incredible power but still end up outmatched, ramps up the tension and uncertainty without having to define anything.
Know that you understand “Soft Magic,” can you guess what makes “Hard Magic” hard?
While Soft Magic glosses over the details, Hard Magic dives straight into the limitations and rules the system contains. By exploring the magic’s nuances, the consumer is given a completely different experience from that of a soft system.
In his essay, Brandon covers a wide range of hard systems. Two of particular interest are Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and Spider man. These two systems provide vastly different experiences but both fall under the heading of Hard Magic because of how they are explained.
I actually struggled to find any truly Hard Magic systems to reference. Then it hit me, the hardest magics you can find hide themselves as science fiction. Hard SF in particular likes to take a specific idea and really delve into all the consequences and minutia of the topic.
That’s the core of Hard Magic.
There are lots of series that I absolutely adore that don’t fit snugly into one camp or the other. In fact, you’ve probably been wondering where your favorite story sits. Most magic systems can be tugged in either direction. Which brings up an important question.
Can Magic be both Hard and Soft?
Yes. Yes it can. Moving on…
OW! That wasn’t necessary; I was just joking.
Let’s consider any of Brandon’s many magic systems. I think we can all agree that his magic is much harder than most found in the Fantasy section of the bookstore, but at the same time, there are always unknowns floating around. Sometimes the information lurks in future chapters; other times the details never slip beyond the veil and into the story.
It’s not just him either. Take a look at The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne, or The Laundry Files by Charles Stross, or The Rune Lords by David Farland. Each and every one of these systems has some very hard and definite aspects of the magic while other portions are left unexplained and mysterious.
Here’s the thing, the delineation between hard and soft is not simply heads or tails on a coin. It is actually a broad, sliding spectrum. Every magic system is unique and will fall on a slightly different place between the two extremes.
In fact, I believe it is impossible to have a system that is whole one or the other. If you make the system to hard, you lose all elements of story and are left with little more than an encyclopedia. And only people with a select brand of crazy want to read that.
But if you make it too soft, then the you never have any idea what the magic is capable of and it becomes pointless at best and a horrible plot device at worst. Just like the encyclopedia, usually it is only the author that finds such a system compelling.
Thanks for Stopping by.
If your still confused, it just takes a little practice to figure it out. What book have you read recently and where do you think it falls on the Hard-Soft spectrum?
I love engaging with you guys whenever I can. Please leave a comment below or shoot me an email and let me know what you think. What topics would you like to see? Is something still confusing you?
If you enjoyed today’s post, sign up for the newsletter and never mist a post again.
It’s been great talking with you. Rowenson out.