With the end of Game of Thrones, fantasy has been on my mind a lot lately. Fantasy, as a genre, is an interesting beast. It revolves around the fantastic and the impossible, without the constraints of pretending at science like even the least grounded sci-fi, which means in theory that it should have limitless possibility – yet trends do exist in it.
Since my head in so far in the fantasy genre as a moment, I’m going to do a couple posts looking at those trends. Of late, a particular hot topic in fantasy circles has been magic systems – specifically hard magic system or soft magic systems. It’s an interesting topic, so I figured I’d break it down for people who aren’t familiar – and offer some advice on choosing one as an author.
A soft magic system is, in it’s purest form, the one that most people are familiar with – because it’s the magic in fairy tales and the magic in classic fantasy of the Tolkien and Lewis variety. It also happens to be the type of magic employed by G.R.R. Martin, meaning pretty much every big name in fantasy uses soft magic. (Harry Potter is a special case we’ll get to later.)
In a soft magic system, magic can do anything. It can transform pumpkins into stage coaches, it can allow for magic rings and giant flaming eyes, it can turn animals to stone and give a which the power to give birth to a monster made of smoke. Magic in these worlds is often strange and unknowable, something fantastic that borders on the mythic. It’s meant to instill a sense of wonder when used for good, and terror when used for ill.
At its best, a soft magic system can bring that sense of wonder or terror, depending on the tone of the story. It can create fantastic vistas and anything the imagine can conjure – and when done well, it will never feel like the answer being ‘a wizard did it’ is something dull or boring, but rather an answer that invokes the power and awe those who can command its power can wield.
At its worst, a soft magic system becomes a collections of deus ex machinas. Powers that are poorly explained solve plot problems for unsatisfying reasons, because – since magic can do anything – it can solve any problem. It robs a story of its tension because the audience is just waiting for magic to solve it without explanation – assuming they even stick around for it.
By contrast, Hard Magic is the power of constraints. It’s not as popular as soft magic – and there are two main reasons for this, in my estimation. One is that it is a newer trend, so it hasn’t had taken root in the popular psyche yet. Brandon Sanderson is the king of Hard Magic – or at least the best known author to write in that genre – but it’s also the type of magic frequently employed by tabletop role playing and video games. Fans of anime might be more familiar with it from Fullmetal Alchemist, with it’s laws for how alchemy works.
In a hard magic system, what magic can do is strictly codified. It has constraints and it has limits. A magic user may be able to fly, but they do so by burning through some internal power that gives the reader a sense for how long they can. They may be able to attract or repel metal, but they do so while burning their own internal stores. They could turn a bar of lead into gold, but there would have to be an equivalent exchange to make it possible.
At its best, a hard magic system gives characters powers with limits that prevent them from being godly powerful. Problems that are solved with magic are as satisfying as problems solved with science, because the magic system is as logical as the scientific method. It means the ‘tools’ at the character’s disposal are clearly understood by the reader, and allows the reader to both understand the strengths and weaknesses of those who employ it.
At its worst, a hard magic system bogs the story down as the writer spends pages and pages explaining their magic, to the point where readers get lost in the details and immersion is broken. It makes reading a novel turn into reading a instruction manual for a magic system, and then presents problems with obvious magical solutions – or never actually makes use of the strict rules they’ve created in clever ways. In these situations, it serves to make the fantastic mundane and boring.
Middle Ground magic systems don’t really have a well defined term, but there are enough books that dance in this area that it deserves discussion. I like to think of it as “Harry Magic,” because it’s the kind of magic that is best known from the two popular fantasy series that have a main character named Harry – Harry Potter and Harry Dresden.
In a middle ground magic system, what ‘spells’ are available are somewhat understood. Potter can cast Expelliarmus to disarm his foes, Wingardium Leviosa to levitate an object, Lumos to create light, Expecto Patronum to summon his ghost deer dad. Dresden can cast Fuego to light things on fire, Forzare to expel force, and has a magic duster that can protect against bullets but only works as well as Kevlar. However, new elements are added all the time, and magic can do strange or unexpected thing. Voldemort can drink unicorn blood and live on the back of someone’s head, Hermonie can discover a potion that does exactly what they need, Dresden can face gods with strange powers or suddenly encountering evil skinwalkers.
At its best, a middle ground magic system gets the strengths of both. Problems are not solved with magic the reader doesn’t understand, allowing for satisfying conflict resolution, but still remains mysterious and strange and flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of possibilities and feel fantastic and wondrous.
At its worse, the middle ground magic system feels even more like a deus ex machina than a soft magic system, especially if the audience can see ways the problem could have been solved with the parts that are well understood. It cheapens threats while still bogging down the reader with excessive detail.
Which should you use?
Honestly, there’s strengths and weaknesses to all three methods, and it really comes down to what you prefer. There’s a lot to go into that – tone, how magic is viewed in your world, themes of your story and how magic plays into them – that I wouldn’t suggest using the below as anything more as a guideline. However, if you’re undecided, a good rule of thumb is this:
If magic exist primarily to create problems or obstruct the non-magic using protagonists, go with a soft magic system. You’ll get the benefit of the sense of wonder and can save time in explaining exactly how magic works.
If magic exist primarily to create problems or obstruct the magic using protagonist, go with a middle ground magic system. The readers won’t feel cheated by problems being solved with magic, but your antagonists will remain strange and unknowable.
If magic exist primarily to solve problems or overcome obstacles, go with a hard magic system. That doesn’t mean the antagonist can’t utilize it too, but if its a solution more often than a problem, the reader will feel comfortable with the book, understand the stakes, and not cheated by magic solving problems.
Whichever you go with, though, make sure you do it well. Otherwise, the magic will break your story quicker than anything else.
Personally, I tend to stick with hard magic systems. I like writing about people with fantastic powers, so hard magic systems keeps that manageable. Gods in Small Worlds can manipulate the fundamental elements of reality depending on how they were understood when they become a god, drawing power from their nanoverse and slowly losing strength to their Hungers. It’s a bit softer than most hard magic systems because “warping reality” is really versatile, and within their nanoverses they’re literally omnipotent, but I like to think I hit a good balance. Why not check it out for yourself and let me know how I did!