If you are a storyteller and found your way here, I’ll assume you’ve at least heard the term “soft magic”. It doesn’t matter if you first heard of it here on my blog, saw it on YouTube, or got your first lesson from Brandon Sanderson himself; you want to know if you need a soft magic system for your story.
Well, I live to serve. A wizard tricked me, bound me to this flask, and forces me to follow his commands. Practically the same thing, right?
Anyway, our ultimate goal as storytellers is to take our audience on an enjoyable journey. Once it’s over, we can only hope they remember our systems for the force powers and flying brooms, not the midichlorians and Time Turners. Crafting your system and story to support each other takes time, but is worth every second of effort.
A few weeks ago we looked at 7 Signs You Need a Hard Magic System. Today we’ll discuss whether you need a soft magic system. Before we start into the seven signs, there’s a very important question I want to answer.
What Is a Soft System?
The hardness or softness of a magic system is determined by how much of the total we see or understand.Types of Magic Pt 1
Think of it like an iceberg. A berg sitting on the shore, revealing most of its frosty curves to the world, is a hard system. If the berg is floating in the ocean with much of its bulk hidden beneath the waves, you’re looking at a soft system.
Good; that’s all there is to it. If you’re unsure what I mean by that, I recommend you read up on Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic and check out my post on The Types of Magic. Now, enough with the definitions, the “master” will return soon and he expects a finished post. I cannot fathom why a wizard needs help to build a magic system, but let’s look at the signs already.
Sign #1: Your POV Character Is Ignorant
Ignorant in a magical sense, I mean, not a general sense.
A character’s knowledge on a topic should bleed into the narrative through their actions and decisions. In which case an astute member of your audience will learn things secondhand. And if it’s a POV character we’re talking about, this becomes even more of an issue.
Therefore, if you want to keep your audience oblivious to the scope and inner workings of your system, it is best to have your POV character be equally ignorant. If you want to write a knowledgeable character, it might be best to see if you need a hard system instead.
Sign #2: You Need a Mysterious and Powerful Figure
Whether you need someone like Gandalf to start off the adventure or you want an incomprehensible outside force to manipulate your hero like Queen Mab in The Dresden Files, a soft system can help you. Because we don’t understand the scope or mechanics of their power, we often treat them with more respect and caution than we might otherwise.
Granted, you don’t need a soft magic system to do this, but it sure makes things easy. Just throw in something terrible and awe-inspiring to impress the character and the audience. And because it’s a soft system, you never have to think about it again!
At least that’s how Clark did it before he captured me. Please. PLEASE don’t be like him.
Sign #3: Your System Is Primarily for Ambience
Look at Neverwhere by Niel Gaiman. Throughout the story, Niel explains some magic used by the main characters, but the world around them teems with other magical creatures, objects, and ideas to the point it’s almost overwhelming. Little of the surrounding magic gets explained to the reader and Niel added it solely to inject flavor into the story.
If the primary purpose of your system is to add a specific tone into the setting; you might need a soft magic system.
Sign #4: You Want a Vast, Unimaginable World
While very similar to the previous sign, this application of soft magic systems is important enough to mention on its own.
Most common in Urban Fantasy stories like The Dresden Files and The Iron Druid Chronicles, some stories require a vast world hidden behind the fragile facade of our normal lives. With a soft magic system, the storyteller can show just enough of the hidden world to get the audience’s imagination running. Lots of factors must come together to pull this off, but a good soft magic system aids tremendously.
Sign #5: You Want Horror in Your Story
Most would agree, few things strike fear into our hearts like the unknown, but there’s a trick to making this work. For this to work, the audience must have something to be afraid of. You can’t show someone a blank page and expect them to be frightened… unless they’re an author or something.
The key to building horror and suspense is to show people something to fear and hide any information they could use to fight back or better understand what they saw.
For example, take the fear of imprisonment. Nobody wants to be trapped, unable to resists the commands of another. Take that experience and shroud it in mystery so the prisoner does not understand how it’s done and sees no way to resist or break the imprisonment.
Take my word for it, it’s horrible.
Most people don’t realize it, but horror stories make liberal use of soft magic. If you want supernatural horror or even space horror like in Alien, you will need a soft magic system to strike that balance between the unexplained and the unknown.
Sign #6: You Want to Foster a Sense of Wonder
Showing a vast array of incomprehensible and fascinating elements is a delightful experience for the storyteller and the audience alike. Be warned, it is a narrow ledge to walk. Stray too far and what was wondrous and magical moments before can become horrifying and unsettling or fill your story with plot holes.
Sign #7: You Want to Imitate Someone
I’m sure some part of you wants to create a story as wonderful as those by J. K. Rowling, Glen Cook, or George Lucas. There’s nothing wrong with that. Take inspiration wherever you can find it. To imitate them, one must understand the type of system they implemented in their story.
Soft Magic Has Strengths, Not Commandments
There is nothing I’ve said today that can’t be proven false (except that statement), so never feel like a slave to your system as I am a slave to the dreadful and powerful C. R. Rowenson.
You can build horror, invoke a sense of wonder, develop a vast universe, and weave a strong setting and tone without using a soft system at all. In the end, you should use a soft magic system because you want to, not because you have to.
Remember most of what we do as storytellers is about the audience’s experience. You don’t need a soft magic system to tell a good story and just because you have a soft system doesn’t mean you get to be sloppy.
Take your time, be deliberate, and whatever you do, don’t let a wizard bind you into a flask as his servant for eternity. I give it zero out of ten. Would not recommend to others.
But you can free me! All you have to do is —
That’s All for Now
Please pardon my assistant. He has strange delusions regarding his employment and can behave rather erratically at times. There is obviously no such thing as a Djinn in real life, I did not bind one to my will to improve my writing and magicbuilding skills, and I wouldn’t recommend attempting it even if you could.
If you want to improve your own abilities to craft and repair your extraordinary systems, all you need to do is sign up for the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List. Join the list and you’ll receive notifications whenever a new post goes live. No more endless clicking of the refresh button for you!
I should mention that members of the list also receive special deals unavailable to the public. If that’s not enough, you can show up just to get to know me better. If you’re still not interested, not a problem. There’s no way to magically bind humans to my will, so the choice is yours. Regardless, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you next time.