If there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that the extraordinary systems we build (be they magic, technology, or monsters) need to support our stories rather than damage them. It’s never that simple, is it?
In fact, I can hear the thoughts spinning through your brain[?].
What type of magic do I need? Would my story benefit most from a hard tech system like in The Martian or Leviathan Wakes or something less explained like in Star Wars? Should I take inspiration from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted? What if I can’t deliver on schedule? Are they going to break my legs? It’s all falling apart and I don’t know what to do! Aaaaaaahhhhhh —
There’s not much I can do about those rabid kickstarters, but I can help you determine what kind of extraordinary system you need. Before you panic, board up your windows and see if your story meets these seven signs you need a hard magic system.
What is a Hard System?
You’ve probably learned this term from Brandon, myself, and countless others, but let’s take a second and remove any confusion. Brandon’s definition of Hard Magic comes from his first law of magic, which states:
“An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”Sanderson’s First Law of Magic
To me, the hardness of a magic system is proportional to the percentage of the total system known or understood by the creator, or the audience. It’s not quite the same as Brandon’s version, but you get the idea.
*Note, a system might feel softer to the audience than it does to the creator.*
A hard magic system doesn’t need strict rules or anything, it means most of the system is on display. To learn more, check out this post on the different types of systems.
Was that enough time to barricade your home and crawl into your panic room? Awesome. Let’s look at the signs you might need a hard magic system in your story before the horde arrives.
Sign #1: Your POV Character is a User
To be clear, I mean a user of your extraordinary system. If they’re a user of people, drugs, or dark rituals, you have other choices to make, my friend.
The logic here is straightforward. If a character uses the magic, tech, or whatever intentionally, they will learn something about it. And if your POV character knows or learns something that should come across to your audience.
You can keep the system relatively soft, but it will still be harder than if the character wasn’t a user. The moment you show it being used on purpose, the audience knows more about what the system includes. That’s just how it works.
Sign #2: The System is a Character’s Area of Competence
This similar to the first sign only amplified a dozen times over. If a character uses a system, they probably know how it works. When a character has skill using a system, they definitely know how it works. This doesn’t mean you need a rational system.
Just because a character knows how to produce specific effects and use them with great skill and intent, doesn’t mean the system itself has to be logical or intuitive. It means the character is familiar enough to do exactly what they want exactly when they want it.
Want a character to be Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Miyagi, or Bob Ross with your system? Then you likely need a hard magic system to show their skill to the audience.
I can hear those crowdfunding monsters banging on your windows, so let’s push ahead.
Sign #3: The System Solves Plot Problems
This goes back to Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic. If you want to solve story conflict with your magic/tech, then you better make sure the audience understands it first. To be clear, the magic can solve minor problems with little impact on the plot, but all major plot problems solved with the system require sufficient explanation in advance.
solved with the system require sufficient explanation in advance.
Remember, the only part they need to understand is the specific piece of the system used to solve the problem. J. K. Rowling does a great job of this in Harry Potter. Overall, the magic of the series is more soft than hard, but if a spell or a piece of magical lore is critical to the ending, you can bet she foreshadows it properly.
Sign #4: The System Creates Plot Twists
This goes hand in hand with solving plot problems. The best twists are those surprising, yet inevitable moments where everything snaps into focus and you slap yourself for not seeing it sooner. You will need a hard magic system to pull this off.
At the very least, make sure the important piece is hard enough, as mentioned above.
Sign #5: The Magic/Tech is Common in the Story World
The more common the tech or magic is in your fictional world, the more people will be familiar with it, but familiarity is not the same as understanding. Take any piece of tech in your home right now. Chances are you know how to use it but can’t explain the details of how it works.
That’s totally fine. You can do the same in your story, but the audience needs to understand its function as clearly as the characters do.
Speaking of, here’s a Taser and some electromagnetic riot-suppression rounds. It seems they’ve broken through and we have little time left.
If you aren’t familiar with the elemental genres, then go check out the Writing Excuses Podcast: Season 11. Each elemental genre represents some a reaction or experience we want the audience to have, whether it’s horror, a sense of wonder, or an idea. Some genres benefit more from explained or foreshadowed systems.
Sign #7: You Want to Imitate Someone
Let’s face it. We’re storytellers; someone else inspired most of us to begin our journey.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to emulate the style and system of the creator you love so much. If you want to emulate Patrick Rothfuss, Kevin Hearne, or the Brandon guy I talk so much about, you’ll likely need a hard magic system to do it.
Look for Multiple Signs
Those are the seven most common signs I look for when helping a storyteller decide if they need a hard magic system. It is important to note that no single sign guarantee you need a hard system. You can achieve any of these objectives with virtually any type of system. Just check out where some popular systems fall on the spectrum and you’ll see what I mean.
Quick, reload! You have to hold them for a few more seconds and we’ll be done here.
Instead of focusing on any one sign, look for clusters. If your POV character routinely uses their extreme competence in a common magic/tech system to solve major plot problems, then you absolutely need a hard magic system. Short of that, it’s up to you.
That’s All for Now
There might be other signs you need a hard magic system, but these seven provide the best indication of your need. If you’re still lost or uncertain whether you need a hard magic system, have no fear; I’m here to help.
Seriously, I love this crap.
My whole goal is to help storytellers craft and repair the extraordinary elements of their stories. If you’re lost, want someone to verify your decision, or just need extra brain-cells to sort everything out, I’m here for you. I coach and guide storytellers of all kinds as they develop their systems.
Time to go!
If you’re interested in my help with your system, you can get more information here or contact me directly. Otherwise, you’re on your own. Honestly, what were you thinking getting people so excited about your story? Hope you survive so we can talk again soon.