Note: This is part of the Worldbuilding Basics series. I recommend you check it out before reading this article.
You decide to walk towards a huge, rectangular, metallic door. Engraved on it are the words “Hard SFF”. The gears click for a second, and the door opens slowly. The room is only lit by a candle over an old wooden table. Their molten wax falls over the blank pages of a notebook, which is laying next to a fountain pen. Take them and you will explore a place of constant investigation. Perfect for the insatiably curious and for those willing to break their own rules.
Hard Magic Sytems - The Amazon Rainforest
You choose to pick up the notebook and the pen. The floor instantly begins to shake and the room bends into a swirl of grey, yellow, and brown. You hold your supplies for dear life, and when the world settles, the air is humid and you can hear the singing of birds, the rush of a river, and the distant buzz of insects.
You are suddenly surrounded by lush vegetation, trees so high they cover the sky, and bright, probably poisonous flowers. The inky, round eyes of a spider monkey regard you from its branch, and a butterfly dances around the leaves. It is a delicate but balanced ecosystem, where every organism interacts with each other. It follows hundreds of rules, but it can still surprise you.
Oxbow Lake, Yasuni | © Geoff Gallice / Flick
This is exactly what you might want to consider when writing your hard magic system. When creating the rules of your magic system, you could try starting from a general idea, and exploring the details that directly affect your character. It is important that you remind your readers of this general idea or “golden rule” several times during the book, as well as its limitations and costs. For example, Leigh Bardugo repeats the question “What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.” during the Shadow and Bone trilogy to warn both her characters and the readers of the consequences of using dark magic.
This will place your WIP on the “problem solving with magic” side of the spectrum. You can give your characters a set of tools, and create a scenario in which they rely on their wits to use them. However, explaining magic could become a double-edged sword too. Trying to explain every detail and rule can confuse your reader or, even worse, create a plot hole for you. When trying to decide how much information to give, remember the Amazon rainforest analogy. You will never be able to explore it all, but you should know enough about the rules that affect your immediate surroundings. Chances are, these rules will apply to the rest of the biome too. Focus on what your characters might face, and hint the rest (and feel free to explore this hints later on if you are making a series!).
Examples of hard magic systems: Fullmetal Alchemist, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Hard Science Fiction - International Space Station
You are barely starting to get a good sense of the place when it changes once again. You leave the birds and the river behind, and the greenery is just a swirl of color. You now find yourself on the complete opposite of the rainforest. You are sitting inside a metallic cabin surrounded by cables, computers, and other gadgets. You are inside the second brightest object in our night sky, the International Space Station.
International Space Station | © NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr
In hard science fiction, the focus of writers is technology, and the problems it presents. Therefore, it has both bases and details from real, provable science. It takes our newest technologies, such as space ships and artificial intelligence, and expands on how they could evolve. In consequence, hard science fiction writers must be willing to do lots of research.
Usually, this sub-genre gets a bad reputation for being tough to write. Sometimes, it will feel like you need an engineering degree to progress. But, guess what? One of the best hard s.f writers, Frederik Pohl, did not even finish high school. Sure, you must be committed to investigating and reading other hard s.f pieces, but remember you can merge your investigations with your own rules too. At the dawn of robotics, Asimov created the “Three Rules of Robotics” to establish a relationship between machines and humans.
If you have read my previous articles, you know that science fiction is my favorite genre to both read and write. Once it starts getting too overwhelming, I find that I am parting from my central idea. It is important to know when to refocus. If I want my plot to revolve around coding and hacking, I should limit myself to its vocabulary and concepts (as opposed to trying to investigate how spaceships work because I want a character to drive a flying car). Once you understand the main technological idea, you can play with both dialogue and description to explain it throughout your book (see the similarity with hard magic systems?). If you are in the ISS, stay inside of it and learn how it works before attempting to walk through space.
Tip: If you have a friend or family member that knows about the topic, ask them to explain it to you and pay attention to how they do so and how complex are the terms they use. Other resources are Khan Academy and Quora.
Examples of hard s.f: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, The Martian by Andy Weir, Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.
The world combines one last time, and you are back in the dimly lit room. Hopefully, your notebook is now filled with annotations and an occasional leave to press. There may be one last remaining question to solve, so here is a final note:
Does having rules mean there will be no unexpected elements? Not at all. Outer space will always have mysteries. There is always a new species to discover in the rainforest. You can always introduce something different and mysterious, or something that is failing and wreaking havoc. Once your reader understands the guidelines, you can triplicate the storytelling potential of the things that challenge them. Show how your characters react to it, use it, and investigate it.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.