Hard and soft magic systems
The idea of hard magic and soft magic was popularized by Brandon Sanderson for world building and creating magic systems in fictional writing. The terminology of hard and soft originate from hard and soft sciences, hard science fiction, hard fantasy and soft science fiction and both terms are approximate ways of characterising two ends of a spectrum. Hard magic systems follow specific rules, the magic is controlled and explained to the reader cohesively and scientifically, and can be used for building interesting worlds that revolve around the magic system. Soft magic systems do not have clearly defined rules or limitations and are used to create a sense of wonder to the reader.
Brandon Sanderson created Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, which are guidelines rather than actual laws and can be used to create interesting magic systems and world building for fantasy writing.
A soft magic system is vague and undefined, with any existing rules or limitations of said magic system never being explained. It creates a sense of awe and deepens the fantastical setting. The focus of these types of stories is not usually on the magic itself and the main character usually isn't a magic user. The main conflict is not solved by magic; instead, it's solved by valuable lessons the main character learns throughout the course of the story. Often when magic is used to solve a problem, it will actually make the problem worse. In these types of stories, the reader is never certain of the dangers and wonders that the characters will encounter and the characters themselves never truly know what can and can't happen.
Stories with soft magic systems include:
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- A Song of Ice and Fire
- The Wizard of Oz
- The First Law
In general, most traditional fairy tales (i.e. the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel etc) contain elements of soft magic.
A hard magic system has specific rules surrounding its use and can be used for creating interesting world building by affecting the culture, government or society at large within the fictional world. Clear costs and limitations are outlined for when magic is used and throughout the story, the reader eventually understands what they are and how they work. This allows the magic to feel much more realistic; in some stories the magic may even be considered a type of science within the world and on some occasions may not even be called magic, such as bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender and alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. This allows the characters to use magic to solve problems in logical and believable ways. Hard magic needs predictability and consistency; when magic goes wrong, it's from the characters' lack of knowledge, misuse, or mistake when using magic, not because the magic is inherently unpredictable. Hard magic is a useful writing tool and careful application can enhance the character, world building and story plot.
Hard magic does not have to follow the laws of science and there does not have to be an explanation as to why people are able to use magic in the first place. Hard magic is categorised by the reader's understanding of what the magic can do.
Stories with hard magic systems include:
- Superhero fiction—how the super powers work and their limitations are always explained, even if the reason why is unexplained or impossible
- Fullmetal Alchemist/Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
- The Dresden Files
- Hunter x Hunter
Hybrid magic systems
Most magic systems in popular fantasy books fall somewhere between the spectrum of hard and soft magic.
Stories with hybrid magic systems include:
- Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts (falls about halfway): students learn rules around magic; however, there are many spells, abilities and aspects in the rest of the magical world that are left unexplained. Spells rarely draw from the strength of the caster so it focuses more on limitations rather than costs of using magic.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra (falls about halfway)—steampunk world: the bending is a type of magic and there are very little costs to the use of it other than exhaustion due to the physical exercise of the martial arts aspect.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (falls about halfway)—the limitations of magic are always explained even if the reason why is unexplained or impossible. Princess Twilight Sparkle frequently attempts to explain magic through the scientific method. There are very few costs to the use of it other than exhaustion due to the physical exertion.
- The Wheel of Time series: mostly technical magic and it is fairly clear to the reader what the magic is able to do; however, there are many loose ends that imply something unknown or new around the corner.
Sanderson's Laws of Magic
Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic are guidelines that can be used to help create world building and magic systems for fantasy stories using hard or soft magic systems.
- An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Weaknesses (also Limits and Costs) are more interesting than powers
- Expand on what you have already, before you add something new. If you change one thing, you change the world.
- Sanderson, Brandon (February 20, 2007). "Sanderson's First Law". Archived from the original on October 17, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Sanderson, Brandon (January 16, 2012). "Sanderson's Second Law". Archived from the original on August 16, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Sanderson, Brandon (September 25, 2013). "Sanderson's Third Law of Magic". Archived from the original on August 31, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Hello Future Me (February 7, 2018). "On Writing: hard magic systems in fantasy [ Avatar l Fullmetal Alchemist l Mistborn ]". Retrieved November 29, 2018.
- Capes, Ashley. "'Soft' Magic Systems Still Have a Place – Mythic Scribes". mythicscribes.com. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018.
- Milner, Jodi L. (September 13, 2017). "Magic Systems 101: Pt. 2 Hard Magic vs Soft Magic". My Literary Quest. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018.