This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017. Don’t miss the other parts of this series:
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If you are going to write a good magic system, one of the first things that needs to be decided is how that magic is going to feel to the reader. This is often described as how hard or soft the magic is.
Let’s discuss the defining features of each system:
A soft magic system won’t have clearly specified rules or limitations. It won’t be clear where the energy to perform the magic comes from or how it affects the person using it. When soft magic is used it creates a sense of wonder, much like if we were to attend a modern day magic show. We allow the magician to delight and fool us into believing that the impossible is possible.
Soft magic is wonderful in books meant for younger readers because they don’t care why the magic works and they don’t tend to question things as much as older readers. They want to be enchanted by the possibility of people flying and food magically appearing. Often, soft magic will be used in coming of age fantasy stories where the main conflict revolves around the main character learning an important life lesson while being part of an interesting magical world.
There are a few drawbacks to soft magic that need to be discussed. Because the focus of the story usually isn’t the magic itself, the main character usually isn’t a magic user. This way they are allowed to experience the wonder of the magic, without worrying about the details or costs of creating it.
In soft magic stories we find that the main conflict isn’t solved by magic at all but rather by the valuable lesson that the main character learns throughout the course of the book. Often, when magic is used to solve a problem it will actually make the problem worse. Think of the Mickey Mouse clip “Magicians Apprentice,” every time Mickey tries to use magic to help him clean up, the magic has other ideas.
Historically, early fantasy, like Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, tended to have softer, more flexible magic that served to make the world and characters more interesting. The current trend is leaning toward more technical “hard” magic.
The term “hard magic” is misleading as it leads writers to believe that the magic is hard to learn. The “hard” refers to inflexibility in how the magic is allowed to be used. I prefer the term “technical magic” because it places the emphasis on the science of the magic itself.
Technical magic has defined limits. It is clear what can and cannot be done. Often there are specific rules surrounding its use outlined by the culture at large or a governing magical society. There is a clear cost in the use of this magic to the user. The energy must come from somewhere.
Because of all these details, a story featuring technical magic will spend significant time teaching the main character how it works, and as a result the reader will develop an understanding as well. Often in this kind of fantasy, the main conflict is solved in part by a unique application of the magic that the main character has been struggling to develop.
Readers read this type of fantasy because they crave to feel like they are part of the magical world. It feels more realistic and can pack a stronger emotional punch.
Interesting note, many superhero story fall into the category of technical magic. Their abilities are unique and narrowly defined. They have limits and weaknesses. Spiderman creates webs and has the agility of a spider. Superman flies, has super strength, and magic eyeballs. Doctor Who (yes, he is a superhero, think about it) can time travel and regenerate.
There are a few pitfalls in using technical magic. First of all, its harder for a writer to come up with a solid technical magic system and be able to weave it into the narrative without risking the story getting boring and slow. This is often the reason why these stories lose their sense of wonder, there is a tendency to over explain. The power of the story lies in the strength and grit of the main character. As writers we must use caution not to let the magic take over the story.
There are so many good things in both soft and hard magic systems that upon closer inspection, many popular fantasy books will fall on a spectrum that ranges between both. The Wheel of Time series is mostly technical magic. It is fairly clear what the magic can and cannot do, however there are always loose ends that imply there might be something new around the corner.
Harry Potter falls into the 50/50 range. The students have clear rules about magic and its uses. However, the rest of the magical world holds a cornucopia of unexplained and wonderful spells and abilities.
Regardless of the system a story ends up using, there are a few vital things to remember:
- “Convenient” magic puts off the reader. Discovering a new magic spell in the nick of time to beat the bad guy cheapens the victory. A good victory means that the character has to stretch his limits to find a way to solve the problem, often at great personal cost.
- Consistency is crucial. Remember Elsa on Frozen? Her magic was awesome, however there was a problem. If she could only manipulate ice, what was her dress made of? Also, most critics thought it a bit of a stretch that she could animate snow objects and bring them to life.
- Don’t forget the cost. This often overlooked detail can make or break a magic system. Having a clear cost will add depth to the conflict and answer the question, “Why can’t we use magic for this?”
Thanks for stopping by! Loving this topic? Jump on over to the next installment of Magic Systems 101 where we discuss Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.
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