Magical Laws or Magical Freedom: the difference between hard, soft, and hybrid magical systems and the pitfalls to avoid

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The first rule of magic is…. there are no rules!

Um… (stoic eyebrow raise)

Excuse me… but the first rule of magic is… what are its limits? What is its expense? You can’t just give people limitless power, have you heard the phrase “OP”?

But… but… but…. (incoherent spluttering)

Magic is magicWe can’t go imposing limitations on it! That takes away the….. MAGIC!

So, which is it? Must magic always only have limitations and rules and some sort of “cost” for its users? Or can it be limitless and super powerful and free?

Sorry, you’re not going to get a definitive answer here. *cue evil laughter* Because honestly, I think it depends on the story you’re trying to tell and the audience you want to reach.

Let’s take a look at some of the books written in each of these camps and see what we can discover.

Those in the “soft magic” camp think it should be wild and free and limitless. They want their magic powerful and not over-described or explained. Examples include:

  • Gandalf’s power in LOTR
  • The Force in Star Wars
  • Shannaa
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles
  • Harry Potter (sure, you get a lot of description of spells and things in the classes at Hogwarts, but we are never really told how or why it works or why certain people are born with this ability and others aren’t, and there aren’t really any limits or costs to the magic – it takes the same amount of effort to disarm someone as it does to kill them as it does to petrify them as it does to turn them into a paper airplane – I could see an argument being made for this being a hybrid system, but I’m putting it here because I think it belongs here… you can put it in a different category in your own blog post if you wish) *grin*

Those in the “hard magic” camp think that magic should have clearly defined rules and restrictions and there should always be some sort of cost to using the magic. Examples include:

  • Anything written by Brandon Sanderson, ever.
  • The Dresden Files
  • Dragonlance Chronicles
  • Earthsea trilogy
  • The Darksword trilogy

But wait… there’s more! Because sometimes authors use a mixture of both hard and soft magic (or they have both… in the same book/series!)

Examples include:

  • The Kingkiller Chronicles
  • The Wheel of Time
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender

With all of this conflicting information, what’s a poor fantasy author to do?

Courage, dear heart. If you take away nothing else from this post, please walk away with the certainty that there is an audience for either type of magical system you want to include in your stories. And there’s even a growing audience for fantasy without any magic at all! (It even has a proper genre name and everything: Kingdom Adventure).

I hope the brief lists I’ve included above give you some assurance that you can write a wildly popular and entertaining story no matter what sort of magic you decide to include in your books.

What kind of story do you want to tell?

Creating a hard magic system allows you to build the world around the magic and its rules, integrating the world and the plot, intertwining culture and politics and magic in a way that gives your world a solid, realistic setting. With clear limitations and costs, it is easier to realistically allow the main characters to use magic to solve problems, and when magical solutions go awry it is a result of the character’s lack of understanding or ability, and not because the magic itself is unpredictable.

Creating a soft magic system allows you to gift your reader with a sense of wonder and awe that enhances the fantastical setting of your story. Using magic to solve problems can often go awry, because the magic itself is unpredictable or difficult to control. (a la Luke misinterpreting a Force vision that sends him off to Cloud City, making a lot of things worse). The focus of a story with soft magic is often not the magic itself, but rather by the character’s developments and the lessons they learn. The overall main conflict is not usually solved by magic itself.

Pitfalls to avoid

There are mistakes that can be made with either approach to writing magic.

With a hard magic system, the very real danger is in over-describing it. In jumping up and down throughout your story and shouting at your reader, “Look at this wondrous thing I’ve created! It has all these amazing rules! It’s logical! It makes sense! It’s scientific! It is integrated perfectly into my world and my story doesn’t work without it! Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it perfect? Don’t you just love it?” (Mistborn, I’m sad to say, did this to me, and after a while, I realized that much of the plot and character development had been sacrificed at the altar of the amazing magic system – after the first book, the rest of the trilogy bored me. The sense of awe and wonder for me was swiftly replaced by annoyance as the system took front and center stage for most of the story).

With a soft magic system, the most insidious danger is in making it the answer for everything. The problem-solving deus ex machina bunny that your characters can pull from their hats whenever they need it is not something that most readers will thank you for. If your magic is too convenient, to accessible… you can easily wander into this dangerous territory of depriving your readers of any sense of urgency over the plot or fear that their characters might not make it through the story. The Star Wars sequel trilogy is a prime example of a place where the writers began adding in all sorts of new abilities to the Force, and many fans went, “Oh… so we can do that, now? When did that become a thing?” The ease with which Rey managed to conquer what had heretofore always been considered “more advanced” abilities took away from the sense of danger. I never worried that she wouldn’t make it or that she wouldn’t accomplish the thing she was trying to accomplish, because everything came easily for her.

Another danger this type of magic system falls easy prey to is the question of WHY the magic CAN’T fix all the things. Equally difficult to understand (still using Star Wars because it’s an easy target, sorry… you know I love Star Wars) — especially when watching The Clone Wars cartoon — are the moments when the Jedi don’t use the Force in cases where it would make sense to. Why is the Jedi Master physically pulling the apprentice up off the cliff with her hands when she could lift her up and prevent her falling with the Force? This sort of thing happens over and over again, and even my kids will blurt out, “Seems like a good place where they could have used the Force, instead, don’t you think?”

What to do, what to do?

Personally, I tend to lean somewhere towards a hybrid system of magic. In the Minstrel’s Song series, magic is a genetic trait gifted by Cruithaor Elchiyl (the Creator) to certain races: myth-folk and wizards. It is neither good nor evil in and of itself, the use of the tool determines its nature.

In Turrim Archive, magic is extremely limited. Only two people have access to it, or at least, that’s what my good guy has always believed. And even their access to it came about through a somewhat cataclysmic event. However, the villain has found a way to use other humans to help him access power that was thought lost, and it’s kind of a genetic thing… it’s weird, and using it has limits and rules and a cost in effort… but it’s also kind of nebulous in terms of how it works. So… hybrid. More “hard” magic than I’ve ever written, though, so that’s been fun.

When it comes to reading, I love both types. Every book I listed above in this post, I have read (or watched, in the case of Avatar) and enjoyed. I often prefer writing magic that falls to the softer side, but I’m not adverse to writing anywhere in that continuum.

Mountain Segue

What do you think, dear Reader? Which type of magic do you most prefer to read? Do you agree with where I’ve categorized these stories? Disagree? (You are always more than welcome to disagree with me, just keep it polite and kind, please (I don’t have to tell you that, my readers are the bestest… mostly because y’all put up with me using words like “bestest” and “y’all” and using way too many parentheticals)). Do you prefer to read fantasy without magic? Have you read any fabulous non-magical fantasy books that you’d like to recommend?

How about you, dear Author? What do you prefer to write? Do you enjoy writing a hard or soft magic system? A hybrid? Fantasy without magic?

Tomorrow, Deep Magic e-zine will be here guest posting on some of the fantastical creatures they’d like to see more of, as well as some unique ways they’d like to see authors handle them (which could be some good insider info to have if you’re interested in submitting a short story for them), so make sure to come back tomorrow to read about that!

~ jenelle

12 Comments

Energyflux2012

It can be tricky business to get a perfect magic system—and I don’t think any magic system is. I, too, prefer a balance of soft and hard magic in a story to add an element of wonder while keeping it comprehensible and simple for the reader.

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jenelle

I think if we try too hard for “perfect” we’re always going to miss the mark. It’s magic. Some suspension of disbelief is required! :)

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Florid Sword

Ahhhh I love this so much! I definitely need to devote more time to actual forms of magic in my WIP. I’ve got hard magic in my first series, but it’s of the variety where I, erm, know all the rules but forget to share them with the reader xD Oops? And then the current WIP is softer, but that’s because I’M figuring out the rules as I go xD So that’s fun.

Excellent post! And Turrim Archive’s magic sounds SO COOOOL

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jenelle

That’s fun! Heheh, well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing not to share the rules with the reader. So long as you know them and are consistent, the reader will pick up on the implied hints you dropped.

I love finding things out as I write! That’s my favorite!

Thank you!!!

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Chris Morcom

I think that it’s perfectly fine to not share the rules of magic with your reader. If the rules exist, your reader will probably be able to figure a lot of them out on their own. When there’s an order and a structure that exists, people tend to notice.

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Sarah Pennington

I love reading all kinds of magic systems, honestly. I like the hard magic (I didn’t mind the focus on allomancy and feruchemy in Mistborn because I found it so interesting and felt that it really did play into the story), but soft magic leaves you a lot of room to dream and imagine. As far as writing, I frequently try to write hard magic, but it tends to end up being either soft magic or a hybrid.

With regards to the comments about soft magic’s ability to fix everything (or not), one way I like to approach it in my writing is that, yes, characters could use it to solve a lot of problems, but they’ll only be successful if they’re clever. That tends to work better if you have magic users on both sides. So, yes, technically a fireball WOULD solve a ton of problems, but guess what? Your enemies are protected against fire, so now you have to do something they don’t expect. (Oddly enough, “something they don’t expect” in my stories tends to be shoving people into portals. I may need to work on that.) That also answers the “Why didn’t they do that” to some degree because people do not tend to think clearly in stressful situations. xD

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jenelle

I like adding in the clever clause. And yes, having magic users on both sides definitely helps with a lot of the pitfalls you might otherwise encounter. In Turrim Archive, I have 2 “wizards” with an extremely high degree of power and pretty much evenly matched. One of the wizards has been trying to hide the fact that he’s broken out of prison (because a face-off with the other wizard would not serve his purposes well), so he’s been working WAY more subtly than he otherwise would be able to. It’s entertaining to write. :)

Hehe, shoving people into portals sounds like a good way to solve the whole, “Bad guy in front of me” issue in a stressful situation!

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Chris Morcom

My general take on magic is this.

Hard or Soft, however your system is constructed…the one thing it should always have is Consistency. And by that, I don’t mean that everything always has to work exactly the same way every time…I simply mean that magic should follow the same sort of consistent behavior that any other skill a character has does.

If you have shown that magic can do a thing…then it should reliably be able to do that thing unless there’s a new (non-contrived) reason it can’t. If there is something magic can’t do, then you’d better have a good explanation for why it can do that now…even if it’s something as simple as “This is a place of power” or somesuch.

Just to pick on Star Wars a bit…If Kylo Ren can ‘Force Freeze’ projectiles and enemies in place–why doesn’t he do it all the time? How much easier would his fights be if he could just go “Aaaand you can’t move now.” While I have not seen the last movie, if memory serves he never once uses his Freeze ability for a purpose that is actually plot critical. He catches a laser bolt in the air instead of slapping it aside with his lightsaber. He freezes Rey in place to capture her–when a simple Force Pull to yoink her blaster out of her hands would have sufficed (or a stun shot from one of the stormtroopers following him). He uses it to flex…and that’s basically it.

Beyond even magic, this is a common writing pitfall I see. An author gives a character an ability because “It’d be cool,” but then doesn’t consider how that ability should impact the rest of the story. And, in fairness, to pick on Harry Potter a bit. Harry has a disturbing tendency to forget he has an invisibility cloak and the number of problems Hermione could solve with a Time Turner are enormous.

So, in short, Deus Ex Machina is a mess, no matter if its magic or not…and think about what impact your character’s abilities should have on the plot before you give them those abilities…

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Esther Lowery

I also love all magic systems, honestly, although I think I veer more towards soft over hard, but I can enjoy a hard magic system so long as it doesn’t get bogged down in all of the details. In my fantasies, I’ve found that I like using a soft magic system where the magic itself is sentient, or almost sentient. So usage of it depends on asking nicely or not offending it and sometimes it likes to mess with people and it loves picking loopholes in people’s requests. So, basically genies except it’s just magic the entity. So if I need the magic to not do a thing, it can literally be explained by magic just didn’t feel like helping out that day. It can obviously differ depending on the story or what the plot requires, but that basic concept is often there.

Honestly, the sequel trilogy is just sad, in so many ways. It had so much potential, but it just didn’t fulfil it. I distinctively remember being really annoyed by the Princess Leia in space fiasco.

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Christine

*applauds you on another absolutely FABULOUS post* I’m with you, I’m pretty happy with any kind of magic. It’s more about the story for me, not the magic system. I do kind of get annoyed when things get inconsistent or magic is the answer to EVERYTHING. But otherwise, hard, soft, somewhere in between, it’s all good!

I DEFINITELY agree, though, that the magic shouldn’t take things over. Stories are about people. That’s pretty much the bottom line. Really if ANYTHING takes away from that, it’s going to suffer. I adored The Night Circus, BUT soooo often the prose and pretty use of magic took over e v e r y t h i n g and it kinda forgot to give the characters, you know, personalities. Sometimes it felt more like the book was just there to show off the author’s gorgeous writing skills than actually give us a story. So yes, there IS actually a thing as too much epicness. The magic is supposed to AID the story, not BE the story. But if it can do that well, than I am totally great with however it goes about it. ‘Cause, let’s face, fantasy magic is really awesome! :D

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