Hard & Soft Magic

Magic is one of my favourite parts of reading fantasy. Whether the story be about a powerful sorcerer trying to take over the world, a young woman slowly discovering her inner abilities, or a group of angels and demons bombarding each other with divine and hellish abilities, magic is one of the best ways to bring a story into the realm of fantasy.

So, in my research to make my own work better, I looked to some of the experts. And for those who read fantasy, I am sure I do not need to introduce or justify the credentials of Brandon Sanderson. Author of more books and short stories than I care to count, Sanderson is an expert in the field of fantasy. He has also published his own Laws of Magic and today I want to take a look at one of the concepts he proposed in his First Law: soft and hard magic.

Soft magic is what may be considered the grandparent of magic, the original system that carried the fantasy genre until a few decades ago. It is, at its core, the lawless form of magic, the form that has no kind of structure or rules.

More specifically, Sanderson considers this magic to be the one that strikes the greatest sense of wonder. Because neither the reader nor the (majority of the) characters can understand what governs it, it creates that truly incredible, magical aspect of fantasy. In fact, Sanderson writes, soft magic is more often the source of a problem and rarely the solution. The characters in the story usually cannot harness it, and messing with it only makes things worse.

Now, this may just sound like a hinderance to a story, but it isn’t. Soft magic gives the commonfolk, the characters that make up the cast of the tale, a conflict to rise against. It is what makes fantasy so fantastical. Soft magic gives us the struggle we need, while keeping us guessing what magic itself can do next.

Hard magic is the opposite. What defines a hard magic system is the ability for both the readers and at least some, if not all, of the characters to understand how the magic works, what its limitations are, and the processes by which to harness it. Unlike soft magic, which should never be used to solve problems and is usually the source of them, hard magic is a tool. In fact, Sanderson argues that magic in a hard magic system is almost like a character in itself.

But hard magic is not just a cure-all or a universal problem solver. That would be incredibly boring for both the writer and the reader. Instead, hard magic excels in delivering the spells and images that we all crave, while still developing the characters who use them. It is by choosing the appropriate spell, channeling and executing it that our heroes solve a problem. Thus magic users don’t cheat, they just use the appropriate tool.

But… hardly any story or series falls onto one extreme end of this spectrum or the other. Rather, a world may lean heavily to one side, or exist somewhere within the grey area. There might be a set of rules that we are all aware of, but still the source or the grand understanding of magic is unknown. This would mean that the world is primarily using hard magic, but still has some soft magic elements. In modern fantasy, this is usually the case.

Oppositely, you can have a primarily soft magic world with hints of hard magic. If a witch has almost unlimited power, but she can become exhausted after prolonged magic use, that would fall in the mostly soft category.

As for Archangel (because let’s be honest, most things I write will link back to that), I am writing a world that is primarily hard, but definitely has soft elements to it. The world has both Heaven- and Hell-based magic, while the abilities of individual angels - known as talents - are heavily structured. That being said, there are grand forces at play in the Shadow’s Advent series that not even the archangel Uriel has a full comprehension of. Even I, as the pen behind the series, discover more and more about the more complex aspects of magic as I write each additional word!

If you’re up to it, leave a comment below letting me know what system of magic you prefer or which one your favourite stories use. Expect a Behind the Scenes discussing talents and magic in Archangel in the coming months. For more on Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, check out his small essay here.

As always, thank you for stopping by. I’ll see you on Thursday!