‘Soft’ Magic Systems Still Have a Place

by Ashley Capes

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The idea that magic in fiction might possess or need a ‘system’ was nonexistent to me when I first read my favourites as a boy in the early 1990s.

Magic was but a component to the awe and wonder within the stories. I didn’t need to know how magic worked, only that magic worked. I never questioned it and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to. Gandalf, for instance, simply wouldn’t have been the same figure of mystery and power if I knew the way his magic functioned.

Now as a writer I always consider any system (which I guess we could take to mean ‘rules and logical aspects’) as it appears in a work of fiction. Not only because it fascinates me and I want to constantly create better systems of magic for my own stories, but because I want to learn where the wonder comes from. And especially how that wonder sticks around in the reader, even when the magic is understood and when its rules are established.

Soft and Hard Magic Systems

It wasn’t until I came across Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, where he outlined the idea of ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ magic systems, that I made the distinction. And it’s a useful distinction for writers to be aware of, due to the way readers respond to each choice.

Sanderson explains that a Soft system of magic creates a sense of awe and deepens the fantastical setting. It also:

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.

A Hard magic system, on the other hand, establishes clear rules and logical steps, allowing the reader to participate more fully via understanding. Further:

If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.

Now, both systems, or perhaps I should say both approaches to magic, are very enjoyable to me as a reader. And what I see more and more of, as Brandon Sanderson also mentions, is an increasingly hybrid magic in fantasy novels, where there is structure but still room for discovery. Sanderson is probably my favourite in this camp of hybrids. Glenda Larke is another favourite and Blake Charlton comes to mind too. In fact, one of the early examples (but not the earliest) I can think of is David Eddings’ Will and the Word. There were a clear set of rules and a lot of the surprises came from either not knowing what Belgareth was up to, or the mistakes Garion made.

A Market Shift?

With the natural ebb and flow of fantasy styles, soft systems aren’t always going to be in vogue. With the obvious exception of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, ‘harder’ systems seem more popular in publishing within the last ten years.

And that isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing that is.

But for me, one of the endless joys of fantasy fiction is the sense of wonder, and I believe that soft(er) systems are ideally suited to maintain that awe. Now, I’m not trying to claim that hard systems cannot also achieve awe, but I simply find myself favouring more of a ‘soft’ approach in my own work – in some circumstances more so than others.

Soft Systems and Coming of Age Stories

I especially love the softer approach for use in a Coming of Age plotline.

This is because having a system where everything is not understood by the reader early on allows the author to employ a gradual and engaging ‘reveal.’ We can almost drip-feed the reader, and as long as it’s good, the magic system itself becomes its own hook.

This is especially true when the story features a young protagonist. When a young character discovers something wondrous about the world, the reader does too. They feel the character’s awe. They feel the character’s curiosity.

Discovery and Point of View

Further, if the author avoids using a magic-user as a point of view character, they then sidestep the risk of revealing too much too soon. The reader is never privy to magic-user’s inner monologue, and so there are no ‘spoilers’ as it were. When I as a reader ‘ride along’ with Bilbo Baggins, I have no idea how or sometimes why Gandalf can do anything he does. Whereas if I were given a few scenes from Gandalf’s POV, that sense of mystery and wonder could be lessened.

That’s not to say that there is no wonder (or that there is nothing to reveal) within a harder system. For instance, I loved learning about Allomancy in the Mistborn books, and my awe was not compromised. But perhaps the scope of surprise was lessened slightly. Surprising things still happened, of course, but always within the context of the established consistencies of the system.

An Obvious Risk of the Soft System

A risk of a poorly applied soft system will be familiar to those who (rightly) take issue with stories where the magic-users have an answer for everything, and pull it out of the bag at any time. If the magic is wildly convenient, or if a dues ex machina lurks around every corner, the reader is going to be put off. They won’t feel awe, they’ll feel a boredom that comes from a complete lack of tension. And that’s not what I’m looking for in a soft system either.

I want hints of the unknowable. I want awe and wonder. I want mystery. I want to discover but also be unsure of what I’m about to encounter.

I guess that means I want magic!