Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, superhero, or science fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.
As writers, our job is to create realities where these systems are understood by the reader and feel natural and integrated into the speculative world. A reader’s immersion requires that our systems are cohesive, logical, and well explained.
Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) refers to these systems, regardless of whether they are fantasy or science fiction, as “magic systems.” Both adhere to the same storytelling principles in order to bring the magic/technology to life.
He distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.
The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward softer magic though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.
Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”
So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?
- Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why?
- Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs.
- Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific.
- Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user?
- Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation?
- Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding magic just when it’s convenient (deux ex machina), especially near the end.
Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.
The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story, but add little elements of soft magic to increase the sense of wonder.
Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.