A few days ago I published a blog post about the differences between hard and soft science fiction stories. I talked about that the difference is the rules that are applied to the story and that in Hard Sci-Fi, the scientific community and the public make the rules. The author does not.
The reason for that is that science exists and is a real tangible thing, and therefore, the rules are already set and in place.
In the fantasy realm, there is a big difference between hard magic and soft magic. But the difference between hard and soft magic is the same as hard and soft sci-fi. It is about the rules that govern the story.
In storytelling, rules govern every aspect of the story. You create rules on what a character will and will not do based on that character themselves. Some won’t eat meat, some won’t take a human life to save there own. Some will always that oggle something pretty if it crossed there path.
Same with the world building. If the rule states that the time it takes to get from city A to city B is three days of traveling by foot, you can’t have it take 6 hours the next chapter over unless you give a good reason for it.
In the use of magic and magic systems, magic falls into one of two categories with a hybrid of each in the middle making a possible third.
Hard Magic is where the author gives distinct rules of it’s us. How it is performed, what it does and how. Hard magic systems turn that magic into a science. Science has distinct rules that it must follow.
Those rules limit its use. They give it tangible consequences for its use. Cause it is more interesting to see what a magic can’t do, then what it can. Better to have the character overcome the magic system in some interesting way. It can also be used to solve story questions. The limiting of the magic allows for that. It allows you to write a novel where the magic is a central part of the story. The main character can be a magic user. Think Brandon Sanderson’s Mystborn series.
The problem with this system is that having a limited system and the constant of writing the character into corners. Sometimes the magic system that you created will not dig your self out of the hole that you dug. The characters are screwed, and you know it.
Soft magic, however, is not explained. There are no written rules on what can and cannot be done using magic in that story. It gives the book a sense of wonder cause you have no idea what can be done and it is cool to see what the author can come up with.
The use of the soft magic should not be used to solve a major story problem. The main character should not be a magic user and magic should not be a central part of the story. Think Lord of the Rings. Gandalf doesn’t tell the hobbits how he uses magic. He just does. He also uses it at unexplained times and then a sword at others.
There are problems with using this system. A soft magic system comes off as too god-like if used too heavy-handedly. The solutions feel forced, and the ending will come off weak. Lackluster. Better to abandon magic at that point and have the characters use a non-magic means to solve the story problem.
Brandon Sanderson’s Second Law
Those links are a direct path to Brandon Sanderson’s site which gives a better explanation of the ideas of hard and soft magic and the rules of using hard magic.
Any discussion on this blog post or the earlier one is most welcome. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
Until next time.