I get a headache when I think about my world’s magic system too hard, which is why… I just try not to think about it at all. Cue hundreds of inconsistencies and instances where I have no clue what the heck is going on.
At least for me, magic systems are hard. I hate working within the rules of hard magic systems, and I never know when I’m taking things too far with soft magic.
Some research led me to a few in-betweens, systems that blended hard and soft magic, and I am so excited to touch upon those, but first, we need to define hard and soft magic. I’ll also be going over the rules of magic systems and the rational-irrational axis using Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.
Lord of the Rings is the age-old example of the soft magic system, with the magic never being fully explained or even understood by the reader. Soft magic does not put the magic on the backburner at all, but it does put the magic system in the background. The magic creates an environment or a theme.
A rule of thumb is to not allow soft magic to solve problems in your story, but it most certainly can create them. Bilbo and Frodo are non-magic users, but they are surrounded by elves and wizards who are.
As author Brandon Sanderson states in his First Law of Magic, “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Hard magic, such as in Harry Potter, lends itself to problem-solving because the characters often train or have to journey to get the magic. The story is about getting the right magic at the right time despite often other magical forces.
In worlds where the magic is loose and unrestrained, the reader may be left wondering, why couldn’t the character just have done [insert some easier way to solve the crisis.]
In works such as LoTR and Spirited Away, having the reader not understand the magic system is an advantage in that they may sympathize better with a non-magical character. Especially when you have a character who is new to the system and are working on a shorter standalone, it becomes important to consider your main focus.
This is where the in-between systems come in! As you can see with the caveats in each of the examples I have presented, most magic systems tend to be on a spectrum of hard and soft. For my system, my character knew the rules, which following the example of Avatar, I kept very few and sparingly mentioned.
Hard magic has a clear set of rules. An example is Avatar, which involves the manipulation of the four elements. This hard magic system is the part of the journey, is the very thing Aang has to master. By being a hard magic system, with clearly defined rules, it also serves the purpose of lasting a three-book journey without confusing the viewer.
Eventually, when other properties are bent, such as lava and blood, they are explained and reasoned. There are no benders popping out of thin air–each rule-following bender is the same: born with the ability and trained in a specific type of movement based on the martial arts.
Avatar, in fact, is so clear with its magic that graphics such as this have been made explaining how each new bending skill is derived.
I find it important to note that, in Avatar, the scope of the bending depends on skill level and confidence, which is a little on the softer side of this system. The spirit world in Avatar also tends to govern on the softer side but does not break its own vaguely defined rules.
Sanderson’s Second Rule of Magic states that, “Limitations are more interesting than powers.” This lends itself to why hard magic works–because hard magic limits what a character can do and helps make an adventure interesting. Part of why Harry Potter was able to keep the suspense forever-high, was because they limited their characters’ magic. Having a Chosen One, or a most powerful, or at the very least, someone with a denied power set in hard magic works because of the defined rules.
When things go wrong, when magic has a cost, that’s when it works. Magic should never be a plot device, it should be a struggle for characters in hard magic systems.
While I found Avatar to be the most universal example (since it has a gigantic fanbase), The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Johnathan Stroud has a magic system where magic is law, and every rule is so set in stone. In fact, the biggest challenge its magicians face is their very wording when summoning because the creatures they summon will look for any and all loopholes in their wishes. This system is really worth looking into if you want the magic to be both a tool and an obstacle for a character or if you want to create a more controlled world with magic in it.
Furthermore, for those that wish to look into hard magic, Fullmetal Alchemist and Mistborn are great works to take a look at.
Sanderson’s Third Law is that you should, “expand what you already have before you add something new.” This goes for both hard and soft magic, where you don’t want things just coming out of nowhere. Avatar had hybridized animals and spirits, and it didn’t attempt to go further. Instead, they expanded upon those and created their universe. Writers are so full of ideas, but it is important to consider the limits of your WIP and world.
Rational and Irrational Magic Systems
Rational and irrational magic systems are a newer concept in comparison to hard and soft magic. They lie on an axis as such:
Here there are hard-rational, hard-irrational, soft-irrational, and soft-rational magic systems.
The rational and irrational axes explain the patterns and logic of the system. C. R. Rowenson uses Superman as an example, noting that his: “ability to fly does nothing to explain his X-Ray vision and his X-Ray vision does nothing to explain his frost breath.” These follow no clear, clear logic, and she states also, “We can’t determine the limits of his abilities or his weaknesses.”
This makes it a hard system, yes, because Superman’s abilities are clearly defined, but it also makes it irrational, where we are kept in the dark about many specifics. The biggest indicator of rational/irational is how much the reader knows about the magic system and what guesses they can make. Soft-rational systems work around their softer components by being predictable. The reader may not understand everything in the system, but everything that exists within the system follows its patterns. Hard-irrational, on the other hand, has rules but not patterns.
I found that I liked soft magic systems better and that my WIP lent itself to creating beautiful magic words with small miracles, but that there was no way for me to advance the plot without making it make sense. I ended up somewhere in the soft rational quadrant, where I allowed for casual random magic, but left the magic that impacted the characters up to very specific rules.
Knowing how you are classifying your magic system allows you to look into systems classified similarly with a critical lens, and while few systems exist on any one side of the binaries, knowing what you are writing makes planning ten times easier.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.