Today marks the second step of preparation before we dive into the questions that will lead us to our really, really, really, really big picture. All magic systems fall somewhere between what are generally defined as soft or hard systems. These two terms are opposite polarities on the magic continuum. So imagine a line with soft at one end and hard at the other. The magic of your world will reside somewhere on this line.
But where? In order to answer that, we need to better understand the differences between soft and hard systems. Let’s begin with soft systems.
Soft systems bring about a sense of wonder. The reader will rarely, if ever, know what the wielder of magic is capable of doing or how the magic works. As far as the reader is concerned, anything can happen. The danger of a system like this is giving in to easy outs for your characters. Magic can solve any problem in a pinch. I tend to agree with Brandon Sanderson that the “really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic.”
On the other side of the continuum, hard systems involve the reader by explaining all the rules, costs and limitations involved in using magic. We, as readers, know how the magic works, and for that reason we know what is reasonable and what is not. We have an ever evolving and increasing understanding of the science and art of magic in the world, and of those who use it.
These two explanations are rather brief, but sufficient for us to move forward. If you would like a little more information, one resource is the link to Sanderson’s First Law above. He goes into a little greater depth, especially on hard systems of magic.
As I said before, all systems fall somewhere on this continuum. For me this is quite like our real world. Our understanding of science gives us insight into many things that were once viewed as miraculous. Where we understand the rules, we can make use of that understanding to foresee events or consequences, or to act upon events ourselves. It might be argued that this is a magic all its own. However, there are many things that we still do not understand. Things that we see yet cannot explain, cannot control, and often cannot see coming. We have both hard and soft elements surrounding in this wonderful world we live in.
Take this into your own world. Magic systems will often have both hard and soft elements. I tend to lean more heavily upon the hard aspects because I like the depth it adds to the world. The magic becomes a character in my story as surely as the world is, influencing not only the characters, but the plot itself. It even becomes a means of characterization. However, I will not run away from soft elements. One quick example from fiction might be the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. The method of controlling demons is very explicit. However the abilities of the demons themselves are left open without explanation. A few rules are established in that certain magics are directly related to varying levels of demons. In this way the system remains hard, but the limits of higher demons are never established so the possibilities are endless. In this way, the system is soft, meaning that you, as the reader, don’t know how the demon wields magic or what it is capable of doing with the magic – anything goes.
Hopefully that will give you a decent starting idea. Practically, much of hard and soft boils down to whether the reader is in on the workings of the magic or not. If they are, it’s a hard system. If they’re not, then it’s soft.
In the next installment, we’ll get the five BIG picture questions. By the very nature of the these questions we will be developing a hard system, but there is plenty of room for soft elements. Where your system falls on the continuum of magical systems will be defined by the details that come after we lay the first big, broad strokes. The strokes of origin, method, scope, cost and limitations.
See you next time!