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.


Interested in joining my mailing list? Members will receive free poetry, special deals, messages to inspire and empower your life, reflective essays, and short stories not seen on my blog. You’ll also get the latest news on projects.
Aspectä rey’lief, fair reader.
—Ed R. White

Join my email list below:

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Index 2: Goddesses and ether shifting

This is a fictional essay of Goddesses/Aspects and ether/magic in Ethereal Seals. It elaborates on the Aspects or elemental goddesses that constitute reality. Each represents a particular facet of the primal Goddess, Etherea. In sum, they are the Ether or Her influence. Of the Aspects, there are seven. Five form the primordial elements: fire, water, air, earth, and spirit.  The other two, light and shadow, bring balance, order, and expression to the primordial five. Below is a detailed description of terms and the theory behind the ether.

Etherea The primal Goddess who constitutes reality. She is Source, the Cosmic Dreamer, conjuring the omniverse with her divine will. All reality spins from her cosmic clock. Ether is her energy, which turns the clock, giving rise to the Aspects, or minor goddesses and facets of herself. A mortal can channel the ether through the process of shifting. See a list of Aspects below.

Fire(Ignis) – The raging passion of the Goddess. This represents Her destructive capacity, be it to destroy or purify. The flames of Ignis are unrelenting, forever turning Etherea’s cosmic clock and inviting astronomical cycles while nulling stagnation.

Water(Aqua) – The soothing grace of the Goddess. Aqua refreshes and maintains. Its polar opposite is Ignis, acting as cosmic preserver against goading destruction. Aqua ensures cycles are adequately renewed and never lost.

Air(Ventus) – The enabling zone of the Goddess. Ventus acts as a medium for the other Aspects to function. Its role as provider allots dimensional space, encouraging the elements to flourish and invigorating them. Without Ventus, the Ether would have no place.

Earth(Terra) – The bedrock of the Goddess. Terra is the substrate that develops solid form, a symbol of growth from the abstract to the material. From Terra, the Aspects evolve and give rise to elemental shapes and entities. Unlike its counterpart, Ventus, Terra is more concrete.

Spirit(Animus) – The breath of the Goddess. Animus unites the Aspects, granting them intelligence, and leading to sentience and sapience from the Aspects’ derivatives. Animus is a return to the abstract after the concrete establishes itself, symbolizing unity among all.

Light(Lumas) – The order of the Goddess. From the chaotic void of nothingness, Lumas brings law and wisdom to the five fundamental elements. The goddess Lumas acts as the rational brain behind the Ether, weaving purpose into the Aspects.

Shadow(Umbra) – The chaos of the Goddess. Umbra grants the Aspects freedom and will to choose. This wild autonomy mixes with the order of Lumas, developing an open reality based on spiritual law.

With the law of the Goddess interwoven with the free will of reality, the Aspects mature within dimensional space, utilizing Ignis as the destructor, Aqua as the preserver, and Ventus and Terra as providers and creators. Animus unites the pieces together, giving rise to worlds, planes, and civilizations. Hence the cycles of reality turn with the passing of Etherea’s cosmic clock.


The Aspects are each divine deities in their own right, whom practitioners connect with at a mental and spiritual level. In this regard, the Aspects serve as conduits between practitioners and Source. Anyone in Ethereal Seals is a potential wielder of these abilities, as long as they clear their mind and harness their connection with Source. Individuals to accomplish this practice forms of meditation. It is easier to begin this process by focusing on a single and specific Aspect of the ether. Expert practitioners may call upon more than one Aspect at a time. Adept practitioners are shifters.

Realization occurs when one finally achieves perfect connection with a particular Aspect. Similar to a state of enlightenment, at this point, it is impossible for the practitioner to forget how to form the link, as it is stored on a subconscious level. The connection does not signify dependence of the individual on the Aspect, but rather a merging of the two as the former accesses a portion of the divine. There are many levels of spiritual awareness, most which take several lifetimes to achieve.

More straightforward shifting is nigh instantaneous, while more complex shifting require rituals or lengthy preparations while in trance states. Shifting is viable while moving, as long as the mind focuses on the task. If the state of the mind fractures without much resistance, then shifting fails. The process of shifting draws from the wielder’s spiritual and mental reserves. Overuse leads to exhaustion and death. Endurance varies on the shifter.

Essential shifting rituals:

  1. Mudra – Hand gestures that evoke the neurons within the fingers that actively connect to the Aspects and mimic sacred symbols. Mudras range from simple to complex. Complicated shifting requires a series of consecutive mudras.
  2. Mantra – Vocalizations that vibrate throughout reality, evoking liaison to the Aspects. This includes chanting to melodious singing. The foundation of Atlasian language makes heavy use of this divine law. To the ears of an Earth human, refined Atlasian accents sound melodious, flowing from one word to the other seamlessly. One might get the impression of ‘pleasantly melting’ from Atlasian syllables. While cruder languages on Atlas exist, the ancient Highborne variant often finds a place in shifting.
  3. Vir’gol – While not required, virgal are useful for the inexperienced, or for conserving energy. They include but are not limited to wands, staffs, gemstone baubles, swords, and so forth. Helps a shifter channel the ether around them. Vir’gol can vary in strength, depending on the nature of the vir’gol.
  4. Astol – A reproduction avatar of the practitioner. Severely drains the shifter, but adds an additional vector for shifting. The astol is tangible as the original and may perform shifting without its counterpart doing so. An astol cannot maintain form for long without damaging its owner’s soul, as the spirit splits between two bodies. Exceptions include those who harbor a secure connection with a particular Aspect or those who have surpassed their mortal limitations and have reached enlightenment.