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?


22 comments:

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I never really thought about the difference. As a reader, I like to know the "rules" of the magic so I'm not rolling my eyes at the end, but I'm also open to leaving some things, like the origin of the magic, mysterious. :)

Jay Noel said...

Madeline: I'm open to both. I know the trend has been in the Hard Magic style world lately, but I do still love the mysterious. As long as magic isn't too convenient.

Pat Dilloway said...

It's good to have some rules. The Force isn't necessarily magic but it's annoying in books (or The Last Jedi for instance) where all the sudden a Jedi or Sith can use it in a way that's never been seen before.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Going by your definitions, I guess I prefer soft magic, but as long as the writing is good and the author makes the parameters of the magic clear, I'd probably enjoy either kind.

H.R. Sinclair, Southpaw said...

I like and have used both. I think that as the author, if you know the limitations and rules, it's okay not to define them for the reader. They'll be able to follow the undefined rules.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like rules although I will enjoy both. I am a D&D geek but it doesn't have to be so detailed.
Since Aslan was God there were rules - a whole Bible full of them!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I like soft magic. I don't need to know the rules.

I agree with Alex. Aslan followed the greatest rules of all.

Pat Hatt said...

Soft magic is sometimes easier on the head, unless you use it for like 50 deus ex machinas, then it gets eye roll worthy haha Balance indeed I think though.

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Cherie Reich said...

I like both, though I've only written soft magic for the most part. One day I'll write some hard magic, though.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I don't like to follow rules, but I like others to follow rules. :) SO I'll have to save my vote for after I think on this--which I prefer.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I prefer hard magic and Sanderson is one of my favorite authors. I also like when use of magic has a price for the user so that it can't be used without limit.

Patricia Lynne said...

I honestly didn't know there was a thing as hard and soft magic.

Mr. Shife said...

I didn't know about hard or soft magic until I read your post so now I can drop some knowledge on my son and look like a cool dad. I think I would lean towards soft magic if I had to choose.

satveer singh said...

Enjoyed reading it.

Christine Rains said...

I had no idea there was two different kinds. I always believed magic needed to come with rules in a story, and so it must be hard magic I prefer.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I didn't realize your book was out, but I know now, so I bought my copy. I'll have to start reading it as soon as I finish the one I am on.

I never thought much about a magical preference. I suppose I'm going to have to go with hard magic because those wrap-up-solutions that are too convenient annoy me.

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