Soft versus Hard Magic



One thing that sets the fantasy genre apart from the others is its use of magic. Many reviewers say that the better thought out the system of magic in the story, the better the book.

This holds true for hard magic, others say, but what about soft magic?



I have to confess I was forced to do a little research to understand that one. I knew about high and epic fantasy, and various sub genres. Hard and soft magic were new ideas to me.

Here’s what I found out.

Probably the best known example of soft magic is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He never explains exactly how Gandalf, the other wizards, or Sauron himself uses their magic. They are just able to do things ordinary mortals cannot.

Hard magic is a system of magic with very clear rules that the reader knows about. One great example is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Certain individuals, given the right talent and training, can manipulate power that is released when they swallow certain metals. Each metal has a different property. One enables the wielder of the power to pull objects to himself, another, to push them away.

So which to use?

In my own novel, I haven’t come up with a concrete set of rules. But the soft magic will work as long as I don’t use the magic to come up with a contrived ending. The magic is there to add a sense of wonder. As Sanderson himself says:

Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t.

He goes on to say that as long as the characters can’t use the magic to solve their problems (by which I mean the big story problems), soft magic works by creating a sense of uncertainty. The users of the magic aren’t always sure what’s going to happen when they try it, and it could create more problems for them.

What I have written is some kind of hybrid system. The magical amulets have certain properties, but it’s not always certain that the user will be able to tap into them. I don’t explain how they work, and the users aren’t sure themselves. I hadn’t thought of the idea of using an amulet and it causes more problems. That could add an interesting plot twist all its own.

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