Types of Magic Part 1:
Hard Magic, Soft Magic, and In-Between
Post Originally Published on Dec-11-2016
Everything we’re talking about today comes down to one simple question: What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
What kind?… You know what, nevermind. I’ll just file that away with the rest of my dead jokes and move on to the topic at hand.
If you’ve been following me for a while, or if you’re a fan of a certain unnamed author (Sanderson… It’s Brandon Sanderson), you’ve surely heard the term “soft magic” or “hard magic” before. These terms come from Brandon and his 1st Law of Magic. Well… they don’t come directly from the first law, but he talks about them at great length in his essay.
Even after reading it multiple times, something about the essay bothered me. Brandon did a great job of breaking down the two types of magic but it didn’t seem to work for everything.
Something was missing.
The answer eluded me for years until I stumbled onto a particular Mythcreants post. Now, after much thought and consulting The Prophecy of Doom, I finally have some answers for you.
There are, in fact, two additional types of magic that Sanderson didn’t talk about. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at the fundamentals.
Hard and Soft Magic
I, like so many others, was first introduced to the concept while reading Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic. There is a lot of invaluable information and concepts in that essay and we don’t have time to cover all of it here, so if you haven’t already, go read it now. I’m in no rush. According to The Prophecy of Doom, you have at least 47 minutes before any of this becomes relevant.
… … …
Finished? Good. Otherwise, this might make a lot less sense. If that’s the case, don’t worry about it. You don’t need to understand the prophecy to be a part of it.
In his essay, Brandon proposes that hard magic exists when the author explicitly describes the rules of the system. On the other end, it is a soft magic system when the author doesn’t explain the rules or the magic doesn’t follow strict rules to begin with.
There are a couple of issues with that definition.
First, whenever I hear the term “rules”, that implies that the creator applied some kind of logic or structure to the system, which isn’t necessarily true. While Brandon is likely using the term “rules” in a more holistic sense, I still feel it could use further refinement.
Second, this definition only considers the reader’s perspective. The author may share everything they know with the reader, or the author may know twenty times more about the magic than they have time to explain. This makes it even more difficult for the author to understand if their magic is hard or soft.
But if rules don’t distinguish hard magic and soft magic, then what separates them?
It’s All About What You Explain or Understand.
If the author knows every little nuance of how the magic works, where it comes from, and what its limits are, then they understand a great deal of the system. To the author, this is a hard magic system.
What if the author doesn’t put all of that knowledge into the book for her readers to find? She might explain only a small fraction of the magic system over the course of a story. From the reader’s perspective, this is now a soft magic system.
With this definition, ruleless magic can still be defined and we can explore the magic from multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, there is often a difference between the magic crafted by the author and the magic experienced by the reader. Because of this, any system can actually be rated twice, each time with different results. If this is confusing, don’t worry; I plan to talk about in a future post.
It’s kind of like how I know everything about The Prophecy of Doom, and you’re stuck in the dark. Cool, right?
With my definition in mind, it is easiest to equate the hardness or softness of a system to the total percentage of what is explored or understood. If you understand and explain 100% of your system, then you have a perfect hard magic system. If you understand and explain 0% of your system, only showing marvelous effects to add to the story, then you have a perfect soft magic system.
Neither of these is practical or even entirely possible, which brings me to the next major point about hard and soft magic.
It’s a Sliding Scale Between Hard and Soft
That’s right, no system is completely hard or completely soft. Every magic system I’ve ever read falls somewhere in the middle.
Think about what I said before. A 100% hard system means you know and share every single detail of the magic in your story. Even if you have a simple system, that is likely to be too much information for one book.
On the other hand, if you understand and explain 0% of your magic, then you don’t have a system at all. At best you have a scattering of random effects that might hurt your story more than help it.
None of this is groundbreaking, especially if you’ve read Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic. But if you take the time to estimate percent you understand and explain, you will quickly see where your magic lies on the spectrum.
Back to the 1st Law of Magic
You thought I forgot, didn’t you? I bet, you thought I might go a whole post without quoting the first law… well, sorry to disappoint.
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Brandon covers the principles thoroughly in his essay. There is, however, a bit more to it than you might first think.
I’ve talked about this before, but Sanderson’s 1st Law deals almost exclusively with what I call “plot problems”. Keeping it simple, a plot problem is any problem or obstacle experienced in the book that possesses narrative weight.
Calm down, calm down. I hear you shouting, “What the heck is ‘narrative weight’ supposed to mean?”
The more time and words spent on a problem (where it came from, why it’s a problem, how to solve it, etc) the bigger a plot problem it becomes. If a lot of time has been spent on a specific problem, solving it with unexplained magic is unsatisfying. As Glenn Cook showed in The Black Company, you can use unexplained magic to resolve mundane problems that had little narrative weight.
With that in mind, Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic becomes a law of foreshadowing more than a law of magic. But even with my alternative definition, something still felt off.
The Hard/Soft Magic Scale Doesn’t Explain Everything
Please don’t misread. I love Sanderson’s 1st Law and it was foundational in my own journey to building better magic systems. Unfortunately, while it works on a lot of levels for a lot of systems, it doesn’t cover all of them.
Both of them are hard systems. Spiderman has a limited number of abilities, and we know what all of them are. Brandon went to great pains defining the Allomantic and Feruchemical abilities of all his characters. Both Waxillium and Peter Parker solve their plot problems with deft and creative application of their magic.
And yet, the two systems feel so different, and I’m not talking about the difference in settings and abilities.
Spiderman’s powers feel somewhat logical but almost random in nature; this unpredictability only increases once we look at his villains. In contrast, the powers used by Waxillium feel far more structured and almost scientific.
What gives? How can they be so similar in hardness but still feel so different?
This brings us back to where I left you hanging in the intro and the two additional types of magic.
Rational Magic and Nebulous Magic
I can’t take full credit for this idea. The concept of a second sliding scale came to me after reading the Mythcreants post on How to Create a Rational Magic System, which coincidentally, is a terrific post for anyone looking to build a structured magic system.
In the post they mention that “rational magic” is not the same as “hard magic.” That by itself was enough to get me thinking, but when they mentioned using extrapolation to add depth and variety to the magic, everything started falling into place. In the end, I think they did a terrific job introducing the two new types of magic without fully defining them.
From their perspective, a rational magic system is determined by the existence of consistent metaphysical laws. That covers the concept well, but it carries some of its own implications with it. It might just be semantics, but I found I had to expand the definition to truly understand its meaning.
It’s All About the Ease of Extrapolation
This is easiest to explain from the perspective of the reader. If, by examining and extrapolating from what they have, a reader can uncover hidden parts long before they happen, it is a more rational system. On the other side, if there is no way to predict what will come and the reader must wait for the appropriate pieces to be given to them, then it’s a more nebulous magic system.
Hey, that’s pretty good. Maybe I should call that “Rowenson’s 1st Law of Magic”… The Prophecy of Doom says “No.”… I guess it’s not quite ready yet. *Sigh*
It gets more confusing on the author side because you don’t necessarily know how rational or nebulous a system will be until the system is complete. But once it’s done, an author can apply logical patterns to their magic or simply memorize or record its disparate elements.
Some systems lend themselves better to extrapolation than others. For authors that want to work around a thematic framework, like in Avatar the last Airbender, or build off scientific principles, like in Allomancy, rational magic is the way to go.
Other magic systems will be far more diverse, random, and whimsical like in X-Men or Harry Potter. Such systems are more nebulous in nature and rely upon the author sharing information with the reader rather than allowing the reader to figure things out on their own.
It might not seem like much, but this extra axis provides a critical detail I needed to better understand my magic systems. More importantly, it tells me more about how I can use my magic systems.
The Rational/Nebulous Nature of a System Changes Your Interactions with Sanderson’s 1st Law
Let’s cover the first law one more time.
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
What this ultimately comes down to is foreshadowing the proper parts of your system throughout the book to prepare the reader for the magical solution to a plot problem. Where exactly a magic system sits on the spectrum between a fully rational system and a fully nebulous system tells you a lot about how to go about foreshadowing.
Let’s say you’ve got a whopper of a plot problem and you need to foreshadow Piece C before using it in the narrative. Well, if you’re using a rational system, you the author can rely on your readers, smart and attentive people that they are, to put the pieces together on their own. If you show them Piece A and Piece B, all you really need is to provide enough explanation so they understand that A + B = C, which solves the problem.
When using a nebulous magic system, you need to show the reader all the pieces involved even if you don’t show them how they work together. They need to see Piece A and Piece B, and you must show or foreshadow Piece C in advance. Then, when you’re about to solve the problem, the character and reader can come to the understand that A + B = C. Before that moment, they may know all three things are possible, but don’t see how they combine, or maybe they haven’t seen them all in the same spot.
Regardless, the way you foreshadow your solutions changes when you have a rational or a nebulous system. More than that, the type of system influences the types of solutions you might provide.
Rational systems are fantastic for clever characters, unique or unconventional uses of magic, and the general exploitation of knowledge and skill. These solutions all play on the fact that, because the system is rational, the character and reader can use logic to find a solution.
Nebulous systems, when used correctly, make for heart-wrenching, powerful character moments and realizations. You know what I’m talking about. The character has just lost everything, the battle is over, you’re crying your eyes out and squeezing your stuffed duck, when suddenly something changes. They have that sacred moment of determination or character development and pull through to win the day.
Is this starting to make more sense? It will soon because in Types of Magic Pt 2 we’re about to look at some popular magic systems and explore where they fit on each spectrum. I wanted to give you all the examples right now, but I’ve kept you here long enough. That prophecy isn’t going to fulfill itself, you know.
That’s all for now
Go forth! Share your new knowledge with the world… or at least share this post. Every new reader brings me one step closer to my goals of becoming a full-time writer and taking over the world. And I think everyone can get behind at least one of those ideas.
Thanks again for stopping by, and I’ll see you again soon with part two.