Hard Magic, Soft Magic: How to Use Them in Creative Fiction

Magic—a word tossed around by authors and wordsmiths for decades. Magic is an abstract phenomenon with incredible potential, and such power usually comes with a cost. As a widespread tool in worldbuilding, when misused, it can wreck havoc on a story, figuratively and literally.

Magic in Creative Fiction

Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

—Sanderson’s Law One

As shown in Brandon Sanderson’s 2020 lecture, there exists two types of magic in fiction: hard and soft.

Hard and Soft magic

Hard magic is where the laws, definitions, and limitations of the magic are explained. The reader is aware of what the magic can do. This makes the magic more predictable and better for solving problems or establishing structure in a world without reducing tension. It forces more work onto the intelligence of a magic user.

Soft magic is when the magic has unknown costs, outcomes, or limitations. Whimsical, a soft magic can do anything the author wants. Soft magic runs the risk of reducing tension, whereas it can be a solution to almost everything unless a specified cost or risk is explained. A user of soft magic has few limits.

Then there is hybrid magic, which combines the two. While this category has the best of both worlds, it requires the most worldbuilding and planning. An author needs the whimsical nature of soft magic with a severe enough cost/limitation of hard magic. A hybrid magic needs to be interesting, supportive to the story, and comprehensive to the reader.

Examples of Hard and Soft Magic

Gandalf from LoTR is more of a soft magic user. He can accomplish almost anything he sets his mind to without much consequence. Yet he cannot be everywhere at once, nor can he defeat a whole army—let alone Sauron—by himself.

Frodo’s ring has the ability to destroy Sauron if discarded into Mt. Doom. To do this, Frodo must suffer, bearing the ring as a burden than a magical artifact. The ring has a set cost and magical ability for Frodo: turning invisible at the risk of his own sanity, or being detected by Sauron.

Do you see how the cost, the price involved, makes Frodo’s arc more interesting?

The Price of Magic

Flaws and limitations are more interesting than powers.

—Sanderson’s Law Two

A limited resource or consequence for using magic is vital for most magic systems. Adding additional penalties will increase the depth to how and why a character uses magic; it may test their integrity if the use of magic brings immoral or disastrous results.

Rand al Thor from Wheel of Time, who runs the risk of going insane every time he taps into his magic. While WoT’s Source magic is still whimsical in nature, it evokes a gamble with every use.

Next consider Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series. Raistlin’s magic is more restricted in its use, and his frail body collapses into a fit of debilitating coughs whenever he expends himself.

Consequences of magic use, particularly severe ones, aren’t always necessary, but they can help. No matter what magical system you choose, bring a detail of tension along with it if possible, even if it’s only a minor one rather than none at all. 

More is Not Always Better

Before adding something new to your magic or setting, see if you can instead expand what you have.

—Sanderson Law Three

While having a fancy magic system rich in lore is nice, sometimes the simpler the magic the better. It can be easy to lose readers or yourself in the depth of it all. Sanderson suggests expanding first on what you have, before adding in anything new. The more variables added, the more complicated things become. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What principles are essential to my magical system?
  • What can I remove/condense for simplicity?
  • What are the costs of my magic? How do they play into character motives, tension, worldbuilding, and plot?
  • Is the magic simple enough to understand? Complex enough to make it interesting?

Case Study: Ethereal Seals

Shifting

The magic in my world, Ethereal Seals, is called Shifting. While Shifting draws lifeforce from the Shifter’s spine, crystals mitigate this. Instead, crystals take the brunt of the stress. Any Elemental spirits alive within the gemstone experience incredible agony.

Imagine being trapped in a prison your whole life, strapped to a generator like a battery?

This adds a moral dilemma to using crystal technology. The protagonist, Pepper Slyhart, realizes this, and her perspective of crystals changes through the story.

Vir’gol Pacts

A Shifter can insert powerful crystals into artifacts called vir’gols . Upon interfacing, the vir’gol can draw upon the crystal like a battery and funnel the Shifter’s spells. Much like a wand.

Most vir’gols have sapience, which allows them to speak freely. They can also do telepathy with their masters. Once a crystal is removed, drained of ether, or damaged beyond repair, the vir’gol loses its awareness. It dies.

The connection between Shifter and vir’gol is called a Pact. A Shifter makes a Pact after inserting the crystal and activating the device. An oath is spoken, binding the Shifter to the weapon (and therefore the crystal) until the oath is fulfilled.

Some Shifters form a Pact subconsciously, only to later realize and strengthen it. To break a Pact isn’t easy. It causes emotional upheaval in the Shifter, besides nausea, lightheadedness, and confusion. The vir’gol is also disrupted and its crystal damaged.

Conclusion

Magic is a fascinating concept to writers and readers. As a powerful tool for worldbuilding, and when supportive of the characters and plot, magic can help a story shine.

Peace be with you, and thanks for reading.


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Aspectä rey’lief, fair reader.
—Ed R. White

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