‘Soft’ Magic Systems Still Have a Place

This article is by Ashley Capes.

soft magicThe idea that magic in fiction might possess or need a ‘system’ was nonexistent to me when I first read my favourites as a boy in the early 1990s.

Magic was but a component to the awe and wonder within the stories. I didn’t need to know how magic worked, only that magic worked. I never questioned it and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to. Gandalf, for instance, simply wouldn’t have been the same figure of mystery and power if I knew the way his magic functioned.

Now as a writer I always consider any system (which I guess we could take to mean ‘rules and logical aspects’) as it appears in a work of fiction. Not only because it fascinates me and I want to constantly create better systems of magic for my own stories, but because I want to learn where the wonder comes from. And especially how that wonder sticks around in the reader, even when the magic is understood and when it’s rules are established.

Soft and Hard Magic Systems

It wasn’t until I came across Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, where he outlined the idea of ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ magic systems, that I made the distinction. And it’s a useful distinction for writers to be aware of, due to the way readers respond to each choice.

Sanderson explains that a Soft system of magic creates a sense of awe and deepens the fantastical setting. It also:

Gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t.

A Hard magic system, on the other hand, establishes clear rules and logical steps, allowing the reader to participate more fully via understanding. Further:

If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.

Now, both systems, or perhaps I should say both approaches to magic, are very enjoyable to me as a reader. And what I see more and more of, as Brandon Sanderson also mentions, is a more hybrid magic in fantasy novels, where there is structure but still room for discovery. Sanderson is probably my favourite in this camp. Glenda Larke is another favourite and Blake Charlton comes to mind too. In fact, one of the early examples (but not the earliest) I can think of is David Eddings’ Will and the Word. There were a clear set of rules and a lot of the surprises came from either not knowing what Belgareth was up to, or the mistakes Garion made.

A Market Shift?

With the natural ebb and flow of fantasy styles, soft systems aren’t always going to be in vogue. With the obvious exception of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, ‘harder’ systems seem more popular in publishing within the last ten years. (I may be wrong here, would love to hear what readers think in the comments).

And that isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing that is.

But for me, one of the endless joys of fantasy fiction is the sense of wonder, and I believe that soft(er) systems are ideally suited to maintain that awe. Now, I’m not trying to claim that hard systems cannot also achieve awe, but I simply find myself favouring more of a ‘soft’ approach in my own work – in some circumstances more so than others.

Soft Systems and Coming of Age Stories

I especially love the softer approach for use in a Coming of Age plotline.

This is because having a system where everything is not understood by the reader early on allows the author to employ a gradual and engaging ‘reveal.’ We can almost drip-feed the reader, and as long as it’s good, the magic system itself becomes its own hook.

This is especially true when the story features a young protagonist. When a young character discovers something wondrous about the world, the reader does too. They feel the character’s awe. They feel the character’s curiosity.

Discovery and Point of View

Further, if the author avoids using a magic-user as a point of view character, they then sidestep the risk of revealing too much too soon. The reader is never privy to magic-user’s inner monologue, and so there are no ‘spoilers’ as it were. When I as a reader ‘ride along’ with Bilbo Baggins, I have no idea how or sometimes why Gandalf can do anything he does. Whereas if I were given a few scenes from Gandalf’s POV, that sense of mystery and wonder would be lessened.

That’s not to say that there is no wonder (or that there is nothing to reveal) within a harder system. For instance, I loved learning about Allomancy in the Mistborn books, and my awe was not compromised. But perhaps the scope of surprise was lessened slightly. Surprising things still happened, of course, but always within the context of the established consistencies of the system.

An Obvious Risk of the Soft System

A risk of a poorly applied soft system will be familiar to those who (rightly) take issue with stories where the magic-users have an answer for everything, and pull it out of the bag at any time. If the magic is wildly convenient, or if a dues ex machina lurks around every corner, the reader is going to be put off. And that’s not what I’m looking for in a soft system either.

I want hints of the unknowable. I want awe and wonder. I want mystery. I want to discover but also be unsure of what I’m about to encounter.

I guess that means I want magic!

So, what are your favourite hard, soft or hybrid magic systems? What balance do you prefer in your fiction?

I would love to hear what you think!

About the Author:

Ashley Capes is an Australian novelist, poet and Studio Ghibli fan. His first novel, City of Masks, was released in 2014. You can see what he’s up to at his blog, cityofmasks.com, or by following on twitter @Ash_Capes.

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Chrome Oxide
4 years ago

I’ve come up with two very different magic systems for two different novels I’m working on. In both cases, the main character didn’t know magic existed until he accidentally started using it. But neither character knows how magic works and only learns by trying different things.

C.R. Rowenson
5 years ago

Wow. Lots of great discussion going on here. There have been a lot of different opinions voiced and there’s a certain philosophy that’s important to hold onto in situations like this

If it doesn’t work for you, then don’t use it. Find what makes writing better and more enjoyable for you.

I personally really like the concept of magic systems, but I don’t believe it should be viewed as one extreme or another. Sanderson talks about using it as a sliding scale and it seems to me that is the best way to build the type of system that you need for your story.

If anyone is interested, there are a couple of books with phenomenal “Soft” Magic systems. The two that come to mine are “The Chronicles of the Black Company” by Glen Cook (actually a trilogy) and “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik. I usually read hard systems, but both of these were an absolutely blast to read. If you enjoy softer type magic, you should go check them out.

7 years ago

Personally, I don’t really enjoy the concept of 100% hard or soft system. I firmly believe that the hard system is more towards the concept of limits while the soft version is more about creating boundless possibilities. Take for example David Eddings’ Will and the Word. Is it a hard or soft system? I’d say both since:
1. There is a systematic way of doing things complete with certain rules of restriction.
2. Apart from the said restrictions, anything is doable.

When we talk about hybrid, I think it’s up to the individual to decide the definition. Eddings’ Will and the Word is counted as one, but there’s more than one way of doing it. Ultimately, magic should be something both rightfully feared and held in awe because of the irony behind the humane reaction towards the unknown. It’s like a young boy/girl embarking on a journey, forced or otherwise. You’ll never know what lies ahead, whether you like that feeling or not.

Personally speaking, fantasy is fast becoming a hybrid genre due to the endless possibilities. If we’re talking about other genres like romance, erotica, supernatural, or sci-fi, it’s far easier for readers to typecast them for what they are. For fantasy, we’re now seeing contemporary variations like urban, grimdark, and even sci-fi/tech hybrid like Final Fantasy VII and The Last Story. Likewise, magic must also take this road of evolution forward. One thing I enjoy doing about the magic system in my story thus far is playing around with the contemporary expectations while trying my best to expand the possible limits.

At the end of the day, we must understand why cynics tend to say fantasy is fast turning into a cliche market. That one thing defining the genre has already taken it five steps backwards, and it’s called magic.

P.S: If someone has yet to do it, I like to see an article on magic abuse so that we can truly stare at the whole deus ex machina monster for what it really is. Any takers? 😉

Reply to  Minghui
7 years ago

Great question, Minghui – I’d love to see an article exploring pitfalls too 🙂

And in terms of this question

“At the end of the day, we must understand why cynics tend to say fantasy is fast turning into a cliche market.”

I wonder if it’s partly a question of what is popular? By which I mean, if something’s popular it runs the risk of cannibalizing itself and creating more cliche?

(although, ‘duplicating’ is probably a better word for it than ‘cannibalizing’)

Reply to  ashleycapes
7 years ago

Every genre runs the risk of getting cannibalized, optimists call this competitiveness. iirc I do not abhor the idea of creating competition so long we have decent to superior authors vying for the pie. When I invoke the cliche logic, it’s more of magic being a convenient excuse to pull things out of the rear. TV tropes actually have a good article explaining the Chekhov’s Gun mechanism and it is truly the anti-thesis of deus ex machina.

Julian Saheed
7 years ago

I agree with you and believe a soft system is particularly effective in a Coming of Age story. In particular one with the mentor figure. David Eddings is one that comes to mind. I felt I learnt about the magic alongside the main character in the Belgariad.

You feel a sense of adventure when you get small pieces of how the magic works as the character finds them out.

Reply to  Julian Saheed
7 years ago

I agree! I always think of Eddings with the coming of age/mentor approach, there’s something very satisfying to learning about a system naturally, huh?

Jim Wilbourne
7 years ago

The story I’m currently writting is dealing with a “chewy” magic system. There are rules and consequences, but if the user knows everything about everything they could be an unstoppable force. Because this could become very boring,
I counter balanced it with the need to know ALOT to make whatever you do work. This means the magic user can’t possibly accomplish everything without the help of other nonmagic users and actually create the spells you need ahead of the situation.
It’s my attempt to take Sanderson’s laws and Tolkien’s wonder and mix them.

Reply to  Jim Wilbourne
7 years ago

That sounds fascinating, Jim – I’d love to hear about some of the consequences to the non-magic users in your story, for instance – the dynamic between magic & non-magic users sounds fraught with potential exploitation? (which sounds like it’d be perfect for tension & storytelling)

KC Trae Becker
7 years ago

I’ve found this whole discussion enlightening. Thanks Ashley for giving a link to Sanderson’s first Law of Magic. He has a well thought out approach. Though, I prefer softer magic than Sanderson’s Mistborn. I would like to write the low magic type of fantasy, but my first story takes place half in faery. I’m using the low magic approach in the “real world”. For faery I plan to hammer out the rules (a big task since I’m building on the assumption that most of our legends and myths are at least partially true), then hide the rules like Easter eggs in the story to be discovered mysteriously. Wish me luck!

Reply to  KC Trae Becker
7 years ago

My pleasure, KC – I still read over Sanderson’s articles every now and then, very useful 🙂

Good luck – I love the ‘Easter Egg’ approach too!

P. H.
7 years ago

Systems implies a set of plot contrivances. Staying vague about the system leaves a writer options within the plot. Revealing what can’t be done is as surprising as what can be done and can easily be used to twist the plot.

Reply to  P. H.
7 years ago

I’m definitely with you re: the limitations of magic – and revealing those limitations – at the worst possible moment for the heroes – is great fun 😉

Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

I’m uncomfortable with the term “magic system”. It seems like most of the time it results in what feels to me like an arbitrary rule set imposed from outside of the story world. And like the author is too busy inventing cool tricks and difficulties for his characters that he completely forgets to make the magic feel like a natural part of the world.

To me, I don’t have a strong preference between stories where the magic is mysterious and wondrous and stories that dig into the philosophy of the magic to show the reader how it works. I can enjoy both and I think the presence of each kind deepens my appreciation for the other. But I cannot abide either if it feels arbitrary or unnatural.

And I think that can happen just as easily with either kind. With the “soft” magic it can, as you said, take the form of deus ex machina or magic that is just too convenient. With the “hard” magic it can get to the point where the magic is indistinguishable from technology or where the story is overshadowed by the magic system.

As a matter of interest, many people don’t realize that in Tolkien’s Middle-earth he understood how the power of Sauron and the Elves worked. He understood why they had their powers. It was all a natural part of Middle-earth and some of his essays go into detail about it. It’s just that he didn’t put those details into his stories because they weren’t what the story was about.

I think it’s a good idea for all fantasy writers, no matter what kind of story they want to write, to understand how their make believe worlds function and what powers drive them. Understand your magic and make it natural to your world. And then decide how much of that you want your readers to understand.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

I especially agree with you here, Sarah

“With the “hard” magic it can get to the point where the magic is indistinguishable from technology or where the story is overshadowed by the magic system.”

That’s why I need that edge of wonder to keep things a little mysterious 😀

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago(@antonio)
7 years ago

I’ve always preferred soft magic systems, as they leave the sense of mystery and wonder intact. Some hard systems do this as well, but more often than not they take the “magic” out of the magic.

Reply to  Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Me too, Antonio – sometimes the wonder is so fragile! Although, I wonder if that’s feeling also has something to do with me letting the stress of the world intrude on my reading?

Aderyn Wood
7 years ago

I enjoy both types of magic systems too, and I completely agree that systems in which magic users can ‘do anything’ are a risk – they actually make me lose interest in the story. I also like to see the magic user have some kind of physical or mental consequence or strain from using magic. It should take effort, otherwise these people would be using it all the time. When I read stories in which the practitioners use it without any effort at all, it feels as though the magic isn’t special.

Thanks for an interesting article, Ashley!

Reply to  Aderyn Wood
7 years ago

Thanks! Exactly – I think says it all about any system:

“It should take effort, otherwise these people would be using it all the time”

It’s a bit like the action film where the guns never run out of bullets, huh?

7 years ago

In LOTR, when I thought Gandalf had died, I wanted to stop reading, but kept on because I needed to find out what they would do next. Then when Gandalf returned things had happened so it was more about the adventure and how to survive after the fractured fellowship. Limits were placed on magic from the beginning when Gandalf refused to touch the ring. If his magic was omnipotent there would be no adventure. In Song of Fire and Ice we see hints of soft magic and fantasy elements that are not stressed. Leading one to think that magic does exist but hidden for many reasons. I believe a mix of hard and soft magic, or somewhere in the middle may become the norm in the future as we move into gray fantasy. Where heroes are not always heroic, and open magic weilders are a threat

Reply to  Alonzo
7 years ago

Me too! I remember being shattered and clinging to some hope 🙂

Exactly, if Gandalf was all-power he’d hardly need the Hobbits, huh?

I think you’re right about the Grimdark sub-genre (if it exists?) in terms of the ‘softer’ approach but the hybrids seem to have a bigger presence.

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