There are two main types of magic systems within the fantasy genre: hard magic systems and soft magic systems. Learning the defining characteristics of these two categories of magic systems will help you to better understand this fundamental aspect of fantasy.
In this article, we will be investigating the precise similarities and differences between a hard magic system vs a soft a magic system.
The main differentiating factor between a hard magic system and a soft magic system is how strict and definitive the magical rules are within the fictional universe. Hard magic systems must conform to a concrete set of laws, whereas soft magic systems loosely follow an abstract series of guidelines.
This is the gist of what separates hard magic systems and soft magic systems. However, there are some additional comparative aspects and peculiar caveats to consider. These finer details will be discussed later on in the article.
What is a Hard Magic System?
Before we dive any further into the intricacies that separate hard and soft magic systems, it is necessary to understand what exactly these terms mean.
A definition, as well as a prominent example, of a hard magic system is provided below.
hard magic system: a set of strict established laws that regulate how magic is used and produced within the fictional universe
A model example of a hard magic system is the drafting system in the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks.
In this system, all of the magic in the fictional world is harnessed from the power of light. Furthermore, magical users, better known as drafters in Lightbringer terminology, are also limited in the colors of light they can draw power from.
Certain drafters can only draw power from green light, whereas other drafters can only draw power from blue light.
Drafters are also limited in how much magic they can produce. Every use of magic drains a bit of sanity from the drafter. The more magic a drafter produces, the closer they creep to hysteria.
The set of hard and fast rules that regulate the light drafting magic system guide how every magical element is created and utilized throughout the novel.
*If you want to read more about this cutting-edge magic system, check out my review of the Lightbringer series by Brent weeks here!
Pros and Cons
The major pros and cons a hard magic system are summarized below.
|the concrete rules of hard magic make it easier to develop the plot, world building, characters, etc.||magical possibilities are limited by the specified overarching rules|
|easier to convey the different uses of magic to the reader when explicit supernatural laws are in effect||constrains the reader by closing their mind off to seeking the bounds of the magic system on their own|
|readers believe they have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the magic system||every individual use of magic must follow an airtight line of reasoning|
What is a Soft Magic System?
Now that we know the basics of what a hard magic system, let us take a look at what a soft magic system is.
A definition, as well as a prominent example, of a soft magic system is provided below.
soft magic system: lacks a precise set of guidelines that regulate magical use and creation in the fictional world
A standard example of a soft magic system is the supernatural discipline of naming in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
The rules governing this central branch of the overarching magic system are vague at best. Very little is known about this realm of magic except for a select few individuals. Some individuals even believe naming to be mere folklore.
All that is known of naming is that each object in the universe has a true name. When this true name is spoken by a magical user, they are able to wield immeasurable power over this specific object.
Nobody knows for sure if this magic has any sort of bounds. A magical user that speaks the true name of an element of nature can virtually bend the world to their will with just one word.
These ambiguous, transcendental guidelines leave the door open for endless magical possibilities.
*If you would like to read more about the magical system of naming, check out my review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss here!
Pros and Cons
The major pros and cons a soft magic system are summarized below.
|adds an extra element of mystery and awe to the narrative||can potentially be used as a cop-out for writers to lazily resolve complicated plot developments|
|unrestricted possibilities for authors to utilize magic in whichever way they see fit||more challenging to communicate abstract magical concepts to reader|
|encourages the reader to explore the potential prospects of the magic system on their own||additional room for error on the part of the writer due to greater complexity|
What is a Hybrid Magic System?
There is a major caveat that must be taken into account prior to delving into the explicit details of a hard magic system vs a soft magic system… and that is the hybrid magic system.
hybrid magic system: the rules that oversee the use and creation of magic is a blend of concrete and abstract elements
True hard and soft magic systems are an anomaly in the fantasy genre. More often than not, the typical magic systems that are employed in fantasy novels are considered hybrid magic systems.
Soft magic systems incorporate subtle elements of hard magic systems. Likewise, hard magic systems may contain aspects that would typically fall under soft magic systems.
Consequently, it is far more beneficial to think of hard and soft magic systems on a differential spectrum as opposed to simply one or another.
Similarities Between Hard Magic System and Soft Magic System
There are a few commonalities between hard magic systems and soft magic systems. These characteristics are universal to all fantastical magic systems, regardless of how strict or definitive the magical laws are.
History of Magic System
It is standard for hard and soft magic systems to have an illustrious backstory that explains when and where magic came from.
The specific details of the magical history differs from novel to novel. Certain authors elect to preserve an aura of mystery about the origins of the magic system. Other authors prefer to reveal every minor detail that may help to uncover the roots of magic.
The historical attribute of magic systems adds a layer of depth and complexity that could not be attained otherwise. This additional detail benefits both hard and soft magic systems.
An extensive past hints that magic existed in the world long before the current time period. This emphasizes to the reader that the magical world extends beyond what they see through the eyes of the protagonists.
The magical world is not simply just what is around them, there are other magical users and supernatural capabilities that the reader may not even know about.
Either way, the extensive history of the magic system is almost always addressed regardless of whether the magic is hard or soft.
Potentially Harmful Effects of Magic
Both types of magic systems also make mention of the potentially harmful effects of magic.
Authors rarely leave this area up for interpretation because then there would be no repercussions for the use of magic. A lack of magical vulnerabilities would communicate the wrong message to readers. Readers would assume magical users to be invincible because there was no mention of any limitations that would be able to hold them back.
Magical invincibility never bodes well in fantasy because then there would be no conflict. There must be flaws and weaknesses present within the magic system to allow for some sort of struggle.
Fantasy writers make the extra effort to address this issue to avoid giving readers this false impression. They want their audience to know that the story does indeed have magical conflict.
This writing guideline applies regardless of whether the magic system is hard or soft. Magical strife is a necessary anchor for all magic systems, no matter the category.
Definitive Magical Users
Another shared attribute between hard and soft magical systems is explicitly addressing who the magical users are.
This is an important point to discuss because it establishes a precedent for how and why certain characters within the narrative wield magic. Authors must distinctly point out who the magical users are in a narrative or the reader will easily lose track of crucial plot sequences.
For instance, during action sequences when magical users are engaging in supernatural combat techniques, it is important for the reader to note who is capable of wielding magic.
If the reader is left in the dark as to which characters possess supernatural powers, it is going to be extremely challenging for the reader to follow what exactly is happening. Magical users must be explicitly identified to distinguish which characters are which.
It is also typical to address the relationship between the magical user and the magic itself in both hard and soft magic systems.
In certain fantasy novels, magical users can change the nature of the magic in the universe itself. For instance, a magical user who is skilled in the practice of dark magic may begin to change the very fabric of magic to suit more evil purposes and limit the use of magic for the greater good.
Conversely, the relationship can work the other way. Rather than magical users reforming the essence of magic in the world, the exploitation of magic could influence the individual user. For example, if a magical user overextends their magical capabilities, a direct effect may be physical fatigue or mental unconsciousness.
The bottom line is that all of these elements listed above are universal to the hard and soft structures of magic.
Differences Between Hard Magic System and Soft Magic System
There is some distinctive criteria that is utilized to categorize hard and soft magic systems. Some of these criteria are referenced more than others. Nonetheless, all of these criteria will be illustrated in the subsequent paragraphs.
Explicitness of the Stated Rules
This is the most glaring point of differentiation between hard and soft magic systems. It is what the majority of fantasy writers and readers first reference when determining how a magic system should be labeled.
In fact, the definitions of both categories of magic systems address this exact point.
Hard magic systems definitively lay out all of the governing laws of how magic is created and used. There are very few loopholes, if any, in this type of magic system.
The purpose of laying out the magic system in this way is to present the reader with all of the facts. The airtight organization of this type of magic minimizes confusion, allowing the reader to fully grasp the essence of the supernatural elements within the fictional universe.
Soft magic, on the other hand, does not state any explicit laws that govern magic because there may not be any definitive rules in place. The ideology behind soft magic is more conceptual than factual.
The purpose of this type of magic is to leave the prospect of future magical possibilities open-ended. It is more unpredictable and mystical this way. This is the whole draw of soft magic systems.
Although this mystery does have its benefits, the lack of conclusive direction has a greater potential to lead readers astray. Some of the indescribable magical powers found within the soft magic system are just that. Indescribable.
Curious readers may find these inexpressible magical powers frustrating if they are unable to wrap their heads around the concept.
Reasoning for Magical Use
In addition, these two magic systems differ in the reasoning provided for magical creation and use.
Hard magic systems must adhere to a rigid line of logic. Once the rationale for magic is established, it is firmly set in stone and ingrained within the very framework of the novel.
Magical powers cannot deviate from this rigid line of logic or it will put the integrity of the hard magic system into question. For this reason, random spontaneous supernatural capabilities cannot spring up out of nowhere without a solid rationale to back it up.
For example, say that in a hypothetical hard magic system magical users can only draw their power from nearby sources of water.
If the protagonist is faced with a life threatening situation with no water in sight, magic is not a viable option within this sort of magic system. This is because the presence of magic under these circumstances would not follow a logical line of reasoning.
Soft magic systems have no such restrictions. With the abstract and conceptual nature of this system, magic can materialize on a whim with no rationale needed. Thus, soft magic can appear at nearly any point within the plot structure.
This is both a blessing and a curse for fantasy authors. It is a blessing in that writers have essentially limitless artistic flexibility with magic in their narrative. It is a curse in that this freedom can be abused to resolve any particularly sticky situation that the characters find themselves in.
Let us say, for instance, that our favorite band of protagonists is cornered, backs against the wall, surrounded by enemies, and staring at death in the face. With the loose rules of soft magic, the author could simply grant the protagonists an overwhelming magical power to annihilate all of the enemy forces around them.
A clear explanation would not even be needed! The author could just describe how the protagonist merely unlocked something within himself. You can probably see how this abuse of soft magic would not sit well with readers.
Prospect of Future Magical Possibilities
This is another prominent discrepancy between hard magic systems and soft magic sytems.
The scope of magical possibilities is restricted for hard magic systems. The hard and fast rules in place limit what magical users can and cannot do.
Innovative magical powers cannot just be simply formulated along the way as they pop up. When a new potential magical power is being put into consideration, it must first pass a couple of tests.
For one, it must comply with the explicit rules of the hard magic system itself. This task can be tougher than it looks depending on how specific the magical guidelines are.
Second, these new magical powers must have supportive reasoning to back it up. As aforementioned, the reasoning for the supernatural in hard magic systems must be airtight. Otherwise, the rock solid foundation of the magic system may not be so stable anymore.
Third, these supernatural capabilities must add some sort of literary meaning to the narrative. It could enhance the descriptiveness of the characterization or further complicate the plot structure for instance.
For hard magic systems, all of these points must be addressed prior to inserting new magical powers into a fantasy narrative.
Soft magic systems are not as hindered by these types of stipulations. Rather than having to go through the mental checklist above, a fantasy author could include whatever types of magic they so desire.
Of course, these magical inclusions should also contribute meaning to the literary narrative, just like hard magic systems. However, there is no definitive set of rules or logical reasoning to be strictly observed with this type of magic.
Thus, the scope of magical possibilities is far greater for that of soft magic systems relative to hard magic systems.
The similarities and differences between hard magic systems and soft magic systems are summarized in the Venn diagram below.
Where Did This Categorical Terminology Come From?
The terminology of hard magic systems vs soft magic systems stemmed from renowned fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is notably famous for the Wheel of Time fantasy series, the Mistborn trilogy, and the Stormlight Archive.
Sanderson is highly esteemed for his creative knowledge on the subject of magic systems. In fact, his success in fantasy writing has many considering him to be the foremost expert in the subject.
When formulating his illustrious three laws of magic, Sanderson established the categorization of hard and soft magic systems. Many fantasy authors took note due to his writing prestige and reputation.
From there, the classification stuck. Now many fantasy writers consider the fundamental characteristics of hard and soft magic systems when devising their own magical concepts.
Which Type of Magic System is Better?
The answer to this question is entirely dependent on your preferences as a reader or writer. As you saw, there are pros and cons for both hard magic systems and soft magic systems.
If you like to read stories that strictly adhere to a sense of logic and reasoning, you are most likely drawn to hard magic systems.
On the other hand, if you are more intrigued by novels that are formulated around a sense of bewilderment and awe, soft magic systems are probably the preferred choice for you.
Both hard and soft magic systems have been proven successful in the past. Ultimately, I would not worry too much about the category of the magic system itself when concerned with content quality.
The creativity of the author and the concept of the magic system itself are much more important factors to consider in the domain of writing quality.