Note: This is the third part of the “Worldbuilding Basics” series. Part one can be found here, and part two here.
Behind a rounded, crystal door stands a place in which you get to build an uncertain, wild, and unpredictable world. If you choose to enter, beware that you will let a monster run wild: imagination. Soft SFF can be chaotic, but it sure keeps the readers hanging at the edge of their seats.
And so, slowly, you open the door. The walls, the floor, and the furniture are just the same as you had already picked. However, at the end of the room, laying over a glass table, lay a full-body swimsuit, and a snorkeling package. Take them, and get ready to explore soft SFF, and some of the most intriguing water bodies in the world.
Soft Magic Systems — Kinder Downfalls
You choose to gear up, and as soon as you are done, the room begins to shake. The glass table shatters and the door behind you disappears. The walls merge and bend into a completely different landscape. Suddenly, you are not standing in our regular worldbuilding-house anymore.
Instead, you are standing at the top of a rock. The landscape is brown, orange, and has a couple of green patches here and there. Fog covers the rocks, the place is cold and windy. But as you take in the view, you notice it is not fog. It looks like a waterfall going upwards. Tons of water reaching towards the sky. Gravity does not apply here.
What do you feel? Probably, before going through the “why” of the place, you feel fascinated, maybe even terrified. This is the feeling that soft magic systems mimic.
Remember the magic spectrum I last talked about during the post on Sanderson’s Laws? We can locate soft magic systems from the middle of the spectrum to the “sense of wonder” point. In this type of magic, there is no need to have detailed explanations about how or why powers work. There are no settled rules to follow, and the readers are swept along with the magic rather than having a full understanding of it.
However, soft magic is also a tricky territory to navigate. Without rules, it is easy to be confused or accidentally create plot holes. Writers need to keep in mind that, despite having fewer rules than hard magic systems, they must be consistent. Writers should keep track of which character has which power, and the limitations each one entails. Limits are especially important, because they set the barriers and the standards of your magic system. They are like the safety bar keeping you from falling into the rocky downfall terrain.
Sidenotes of soft magic include that their more advanced levels are seldom used by the protagonist. Instead, they are used by mentors or antagonists. Think about Lord of the Rings. Frodo did not have magic, but Sauron and Gandalf did. Plus, this magic can also cause more problems for the protagonist, as opposed to proposing solutions. Other examples of soft magic systems are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis and Heroics for Beginners by John Moore.
Soft Science Fiction — Atlantis
The Kinder Downfalls might have been interesting, but if you are an S.F. writer, you can also explore another type of place. The earth might shake and the freshwater might spray you first, but soon you will notice you have traveled once again. The air suddenly feels denser around your skin, but somehow you keep breathing. You have your snorkeling glasses on and, when you open your eyes, the first thing you see is a shoal of bright fish swimming by. Beyond it, there is an imponent set of pearled buildings. This city has coral reefs for parks and water currents for roads.
It is a new society to discover. The strange-looking metal ships and glimmering roofs build this magnificent place, but your focus is to understand how humans — if they are so — have settled thousands of meters underwater.
Soft science fiction has its base in “social sciences”, which include psychology, politics, and history. It is a great place to explore social dilemmas. Advanced technologies are part of the book, but they are not its center. Therefore, writers part from technicalities and explore plot and character relationships in depth. In soft S.F., they have the liberty of creating theories and using unproven ideas. Examples include time travel, or creating a new society on the depth of the sea. When creating a soft S.F. piece, make emphasis on narration and atmosphere rather than on facts or current technologies.
Your character does not need to understand the science behind every aspect of the world, and neither do your readers (in fact, this can be an open window towards plot twists). But this does not mean that writers can completely ignore logic. Technologies have to make sense even if they are not the story's focus. If you feel like your WIP is falling dangerously close into irrational fiction, hint at more complex science through dialogue or quick descriptions. Take advantage of them and use them as tools for your characters to achieve their needs and wants.
Once, Verne wondered what would he find at the bottom of the sea. Once, Meyer asked herself how would a colony and a rebellion on the Moon work. Once, H.G. Wells decided he would explore what would happen to the human race if capitalism took over. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Cinder, and The Time Machine are all examples of soft science fiction.
The world goes back to normal as quickly as it had transformed, and you are back in the room with the crystal door and glass table. Now that you understand how soft SFF works, it is time for you to keep creating. In future blog posts, we will explore the halls of geography and culture.
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.