Monday, April 2, 2018

Hard or Soft Magic?

With the release of my latest book, Gateway Mothman, I decided to ride this creative wave I've been fortunate enough to have found since late last year. I miss writing about mystical adventures and swashbuckling heroes.

But I wanted to do something a little different.

My roots are deep into science fiction and fantasy. It's what I choose to read for pleasure. I decided to plunge back into fantasy writing and world building. In doing so, I found myself wondering: What kind of magic system do I want to have?

My Mechanica Wars steampunk series had a little m
agic (especially in the beginning), but there was definitely more of the fantastical towards the end. But my magic was somewhat limited, and not really considered "high magic." In this series, my magic consisted of mostly enhancing a person's abilities.

With my new project, did I want a hard or soft magic system? I need to define each first:

1) Hard Magic: Where the author describes in great detail the nature, rules, and limitations of magic. For those who played D&D or any other RPG, I get the feeling that these folks are drawn to hard magic systems. Many poplar fantasies have a hard magic system (i.e. Sanderson, Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, Full Metal Alchemist). As a fan, you know exactly how the magic words, what the limitations are, and what the costs are for using said magic.

I'm a wizard!
2) Soft Magic: This is where the author doesn't give you any set rules or limitations of the magic system. Soft magic systems have vague or unclear rules and limitations. The best example of this is J.R.R. Tolkien. There's magic throughout the books and movies, but we really don't know exactly how it works or what are its limits. The Chronicles of Narnia is another good example. We know that Aslan is all powerful, but we don't really know its limits or costs (which might be none since he's actually Jesus).

Whenever I think about magic, I always think about Brandon Sanderson's Three Laws of Magic, particularly the First Law, which states: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

I think Soft Magic is inherently more dangerous in producing a deus ex machina type of issue in a story. With Hard Magic, because everything is so well-defined, there's less of a chance of getting your characters out of a tough situation out of nowhere. Because Soft Magic has so many unknowns, it's easy to use the vague magic to solve problems and conflicts for your characters.

That being said, I think there are some strategies to help avoid Soft Magic becoming a crutch. Consistency goes a long way, and maybe the unpredictability of the magic for the characters can provide extra tension. Or maybe the magic does help the characters get out of a jam, but it comes at a tremendous and unforeseen cost.

How about you? Which do you prefer? Hard or Soft Magic?