What’s up storytellers?
The time has come for us to talk about the types of magic systems. In this article, we’re going to talk about the four – yes, four – universal types of magic systems. We’re also going to dig into the details so that you can tell them apart and analyze four popular systems so that we can assign them to their corresponding type of magic. Use the menu to the left to navigate through the lesson.
Before we get into the details. Let’s define a couple of things, starting with magic. To me, magic is anything in your story that enables actions beyond our current capability or understanding. It can also be strange biology, bizarre monsters, or even just advanced technology. Anything that would allow characters to do spectacular things is magic.
Taking that a step further, a magic system is any kind of framework that you put around your magic to provide structure and a basis of understanding. With those definitions in mind, I took a hard look at how everybody goes about building their magic systems. We focus on this because the type of magic system is one of the most sweeping aspects of a system itself. Understanding how this works will get you the furthest in your development, the fastest.
The Four Types of Magic Systems
Each quadrant on this chart represents a distinct type of magic system. So you can see we have hard-rational, hard-irrational, soft-irrational, and soft-rational magic systems. Those are the four types. That’s it.
That probably doesn’t make a ton of sense right now, so let’s pick it apart and look at the pieces that make this chart. We’re going to start with the one that you are probably most familiar with, and that’s the hard and soft axis.
The hard and soft axis is all about the amount of knowledge or understanding that is available or present about your magic system. All of this comes back to Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, which is
“The ability for a storyteller to solve problems with their magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
As written, the law is less about magic systems themselves, and more a law of foreshadowing. Do you want your magic to be a factor in a major plot point? You need to show in advance. The hard and soft axis itself is a little different. This axis is all about how much of your system is known or understood.
Is It Hard or Soft Magic?
I find it easiest to think of it as a percentage or ratio. If somebody – your character/your reader – knows more than 50% of the entire system, then it’s a hard magic system. If they know less than 50%, it’s a soft magic system. Of course, there’s a big gradient between 100% hard and 100% soft, but that’s what it is. That’s the definition.
Brandon Sanderson covers all of this in his original essay on his first law of magic, though it’s not necessarily pitched in those terms. And this is a great start for figuring out our types of magic, but it’s not quite enough.
In his essay, Brandon talks about Superman as a hard magic system. If you think about it, it’s true. We know everything Superman can do. We know all of his powers. We know all of his weaknesses. We know the entire system.
But at the same time, Sanderson’s Allomancy from his Mistborn trilogy is also a hard system. We know the vast majority of that system, how it works, and what people can do with it. But if you look at it, those are two drastically different systems, and I’m not just talking about the abilities or specifically how they work. The feel of them, and the way they can be used in the story are different.
So what drives that difference? That’s where the second axis comes in.
The Rational/Irrational Axis
The second axis for the types of magic is another sliding scale that measures how rational or irrational a magic system is. It connects to the rules, the limitations, the weaknesses, the patterns, and just the general ability to apply logic to the system that we’ve seen.
Let’s take another look at Superman. We know what he can do, but it doesn’t flow together.
His ability to fly does nothing to explain his X-Ray vision and his X-Ray vision does nothing to explain his frost breath. His abilities are disjointed and all over the place. While we can apply a bit of logic to how he uses those specific abilities, there’s no logic for us to follow beyond that.
We can’t determine the limits of his abilities or his weaknesses. For example, look at Kryptonite. We don’t know how close it needs to be, what kind of contact or proximity needs to happen. For all we know, having some kryptonite buried in the building’s foundation could be enough to turn it into an anti-Superman zone. We just don’t know and we have no way of knowing.
Jump over to Mistborn and things could hardly be more different. We learned most of the system very early on and once we have that information. We can follow the logic and predict things. We can anticipate countermeasures and unique uses. Even some of the unseen abilities that are part of the system and haven’t been shown yet.
The only reason we’re able to do this is because there are clear patterns, structures, and rules in place for us to follow. It’s a very logical and rational magic system.
More Than Just Rules
Your first instinct may be to run off and build in more patterns, rules, and limitations, and that’s a good start. But that alone won’t make your system rational. A system is rational because of our ability to apply the logic and extrapolate from what we’ve been shown.
Let’s look at Superman again. He has rules, but the fairly generic he can fly. He’s super strong, he’s mostly invulnerable, and kryptonite strips away his powers. That’s not a lot to go on.
Mistborn, on the other hand, is far more nuanced. Just look at their ability to push and pull on objects. It only affects metal and Newtonian physics apply. However hard they push on the object, the force is applied back to them. With just those two little clarifications, we can make a lot of assumptions and run much further with that logic chain.
Take those two axes, combine them and you’ve got this chart we were looking at in the beginning, and that’s how you get the four universal types of magic systems.
Each Quadrant Is a Type of Magic
In the top right, we have hard-rational where the majority of the system is displayed or explained and it has clear rules and patterns. More importantly for the rational aspect, the readers can use logic and extrapolation to predict parts of the system they haven’t seen yet.
Shift over to the irrational side in a hard-irrational system, the majority of the system is still displayed or explained, but the reader, either through a lack of rules or information, cannot extrapolate or predict unseen portions of the system.
In the bottom left you have soft-irrational, where the majority of the system is hidden or unclear and the reader cannot extrapolate or predict unseen portions of the magic system.
Down in the bottom right you have soft-rational systems for the majority of the system is hidden or unclear, but the reader can extrapolate and predict portions of the system they haven’t seen yet.
At this point, I have a couple of things I want to stress. One none of this is binary. These are all sliding scales. It is possible to end up with a magic system that sits right in the middle of one of these boundaries. In general, I find it more helpful to say, well, it’s harder than it is soft or more rational than irrational. That helps me walk through other parts of building the system.
Let’s talk through a couple of examples and their corresponding types of magic.
The Types of Magic in Action
We’ve already talked a lot about the magic of Mistborn, and Superman. We know that Superman is hard but irrational ‘cause there’s no connection between his powers, but at the same time we know everything there is to know.
Mistborn, on the other hand, is hard and rational. We learn most of the system early on we can use the rules to extrapolate and move beyond what we’ve already seen and predict other cool parts of the magic in the world around it. So that’s enough said about those two.
I want to take a minute and look at one of the other most popular magic systems out there. Lord of the Rings. With everything we’ve talked about, you’ve probably guessed that the magic in The Lord of the Rings is a soft-irrational system.
A big part of that just comes down to us not knowing enough details. We don’t know how Gandalf’s power works, let alone it comes from or what spells he can do. The same applies to Saruman, the giant Eagles, and Sauron. The hardest and most defined part of the entire world is The One Ring, and even there we know very little. We can’t extrapolate beyond we know it corrupts minds, but how? And to what end? That’s lost on us.
All of this makes the magic and the Lord of the Rings a poster child for soft-irrational magic systems.
Then There’s Stargate SG-1
Because they present the magic in Stargate SG-1 as technology, it is incredibly rational. There are a variety of ways to implement magic into science fiction. In the case of Stargate, once we see a piece of tech, we can run with it. We can say well if it works this way, then they can probably use it that way. We can also go out on a limb and say “well if this type of tech exists then there’s a good chance that another type of tech exists.”
So while the tech itself is rational, the system as a whole is very soft. Even with all the tech and all the races that we learn about, you get the strong feeling that humanity and all the people involved are just a tiny drop in the ocean that is the Stargate universe. And that is perfect for a soft magic system.
At this point, you may disagree with me as to my analysis of some of these systems, and that’s OK. All of this is subjective. All I can give you are the definitions of the types of magic and you have to use them however suits you best.
You ≠ Reader
It’s important to note that the way you see your magic system is not how your reader will see the magic system. The Magic will always be harder to you than it is to the reader. You’ll know more, you’ll understand the patterns and logic that you put in behind it, and that may not come across in the story.
Which brings me to one of my major points, why does all of this matter? We have talked a lot about Magic systems already. It’s a lot of information to absorb and why. WHY should we go to all this effort to understand, interpolate, and use this information?
Well, because ultimately it’s not about us. How you build it is irrelevant. What matters is the experience you provide to your reader.
And there you have it. Those are the four universal types of magic systems.
Also tell me what Magic systems have you been engaged with lately, whether it’s video games, movies, TV’s, books, comics, something you’re writing, something you’re making, or whatever. Leave a comment sharing the magic system and where you think it falls in the four types of magic systems.
And that’s all for now, so stay safe, and stay awesome. Rowenson out.