Hard vs. Soft Magic: Which is Best for Your Fantasy Novel?
If you’re a fantasy nerd like me (and you’re reading an article titled “Hard vs. Soft Magic” so I assume you are), you can get pretty obsessed with magic and the rules that define them in fantasy worlds.
I mean, the fantasy genre is defined by magic, save for a few subgenres that are well outside the norm. So understanding what makes a good magic system and how you can integrate one into your own writing is important.
Part of that understanding is knowing the difference between hard and soft magic, two terms that are becoming increasingly popular in the literary world. To gain that understanding, we’re going to discuss:
- What hard and soft magic is
- The key differences between the two
- When you want to use hard or soft magic
- Some tips for integrating them into your magic system.
Get your wand ready, make sure your component pouch is full, and let’s cast some spells.
What is Hard Magic?
Up first, let’s tackle the easiest type of magic to understand: hard magic.
Hard magic gets its name from the rules, limitations, and mechanisms that are often explicitly defined and always adhered to. The workings of this kind of magic are often detailed and explained to the audience, making its effects and constraints predictable.
There is an easy-to-draw line between cause and effect with hard magic. You wave your wand in a specific way, say the right magic words, and the same thing happens every time.
Most readers are familiar with hard magic, even if they don’t know the term, and you’ve doubtless seen many examples of this kind of magic system before.
Characteristics of Hard Magic
Beyond just having consistent rules to adhere to, hard magic has a handful of other characteristics, too.
Predictable - Hard magic systems allow for logical problem-solving using the magic, and readers can anticipate outcomes based on their understanding of the established rules. That doesn’t mean spoilers, but it does mean increased engagement.
Constraints - Most importantly, hard magic places limitations on who can use magic, how often they can use it, and under which conditions they can operate. This is important to stop magic from becoming a cure-all.
Explained mechanisms - We’ve already established that we’re nerds here, right? And us nerds enjoy understanding the how behind spells and rituals. Hard magic gives us that understanding.
Examples of Hard Magic in Literature
While there are countless examples of hard magic in fantasy, two of the most popular and well-known come from Mistborn and Harry Potter.
The Mistborn Saga by Brandon Sanderson
The Mistborn Saga introduces multiple interrelated magical systems, but the most prominent is Allomancy.
Individuals, called Allomancers, have the ability to "burn" specific metals ingested to grant them various powers. Each metal provides a unique ability, and the magic's strength and duration depend on the metal's purity and quantity consumed. For instance:
- Burning pewter grants enhanced physical strength and endurance.
- Burning steel allows the Allomancer to "push" on nearby metal objects.
There are Mistings who can only burn one type of metal, while Mistborn can burn all metals. The rules are consistently applied, making the system quite structured.
Other systems like Feruchemy and Hemalurgy are also explored in the series, but Allomancy is the primary one.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The magic system in the Harry Potter universe is diverse and broad, but there are many elements of hard magic present.
- Spell casting: Magic in the Harry Potter series often requires a specific wand movement and incantation. Spells produce consistent effects:
- "Alohomora" unlocks doors.
- "Expelliarmus" disarms opponents by forcing whatever they're holding to fly out of their hand.
- “Avada Kedavra” kills someone unless their mom loves them.
- Potion making: Potions require specific ingredients and precise preparation methods to achieve the desired effects. For instance, the Polyjuice Potion, which allows someone to assume the appearance of another person, has a specific recipe and preparation process.
- Magical creatures and artifacts: Many magical creatures and artifacts have rules governing their use. The Time-Turner, for example, has strict rules governing its function, and the properties of a Phoenix are consistent throughout the series.
While the Harry Potter series has many hard magic elements, it also contains softer elements where the magic is more ambiguous or unexplained.
So let’s discuss that kind of magic.
What is Soft Magic?
Welcome to the more enigmatic, mystic realm of soft magic.
Soft magic is the opposite of stringent magic laws: instead, it is governed by the fluid, ambiguous nature of its rules—if they even exist. Instead of explicit definitions, it thrives on a sense of wonder and the unknown.
Its workings remain shrouded in mystery, leaving a lot to the imagination, which means outcomes can often be unpredictable.
In soft magic systems, you might whisper an ancient chant, harness untapped energies, or beseech otherworldly entities, but the results may vary, and the forces behind them remain elusive.
Most fantasy enthusiasts have encountered soft magic or at least hints of it. The allure of such systems lies in their ability to evoke awe, fascination, and a deeper intrigue.
Characteristics of Soft Magic
Venturing beyond the mere absence of concrete rules, soft magic embraces several distinctive traits.
Unpredictable - Unlike its hard counterpart, soft magic does not guarantee the same outcome every time. This unpredictability can add layers of suspense and unpredicted twists to stress your reader out.
Few limitations - While some constraints might exist, soft magic is generally more unrestricted, allowing for a broader spectrum of mystical occurrences. Not only does this leave room for some awe-inspiring spells and rituals, but it means you can experiment with new ideas going forward.
Ambiguity in mechanisms - Embrace your inner dreamer because soft magic caters to those who love to wonder, speculate, and interpret. Rather than offering a schematic of how things work, soft magic often provides just a hint, letting reader and writer imaginations run wild. It's less about the technicalities and more about the allure of the inexplicable.
Examples of Soft Magic in Literature
Soft magic is usually grand in scale, because it doesn’t have those pesky limitations to reign it in. This form of spellcraft is included in famous epic fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The magic within Middle-earth is ancient, profound, and often ineffable. While some people can learn magical abilities, most of it is innate to people and items. Here are two examples:
- Gandalf - As one of the Istari (or wizards), Gandalf possesses magical abilities, but they're not strictly codified. He can conjure light, influence fire, and fend off the Balrog, but the specific limitations and mechanics of his powers are left largely unexplained.
- The One Ring - The ring can make its wearer invisible, influence minds, and has a will of its own. However, its power varies depending on the user, and much of its essence remains shrouded in mystery.
The beauty of Tolkien's magic is in its ambiguity, giving readers just enough to inspire wonder without becoming a puzzle to be solved.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Martin's epic series is rich with instances of soft magic, weaving it seamlessly into the political and moral complexities of the narrative.
- Red Priestess's magic - Melisandre, a priestess of R'hllor, practices blood magic and shadowbinding, performing feats like birthing shadow assassins. While certain rituals, like using king's blood, are hinted at as power sources, the exact rules and scope of her abilities are nebulous.
- Warging and greenseeing - Certain individuals in the North can inhabit the bodies of animals (warging) or have prophetic dreams (greenseeing). Bran Stark, for example, can tap into the memories of the ancient weirwood trees. But we don’t know how they can do this.
Both these series, despite having soft magic systems, have deeply immersive worlds that captivate readers, proving that understanding every magical detail isn't always necessary for a compelling story.
What’s Better: Hard or Soft Magic?
You have to know I’m not going to give you a clear answer to that, right?
Hard and soft magic each bring something unique to their magic systems.
When you apply rules and limitations to your magic, you bring clarity and logic to your story, which helps your reader better grasp your world and makes magic fit better in conflicts and fight scenes.
On the other hand, soft magic systems add mystery and grandeur to your world. Magic isn’t a tool; it’s something much bigger, older, and stranger than that.
Hard magic emphasizes the importance of understanding and following established rules, while soft magic thrives on ambiguity.
If you’re still unsure about which is best for you, here are some pros and cons.
Hard Magic Pros and Cons
Predictability - Because rules are established, readers can anticipate possible outcomes and understand the logic of your world, even if that logic is magical. It's satisfying for readers when they can understand and even predict the magic's effects.
Engagement - The clear rules allow readers to deeply engage with your story. They can theorize, predict, and understand the limits and possibilities the magic presents.
Conflict and tension - Defined limitations can be used as plot devices. Characters might face challenges based on the restrictions of the magic, leading to creative problem-solving.
Consistency - A well-defined magic system can lend a sense of internal coherence to the story, helping maintain suspension of disbelief. Sure, they’re whipping fireballs back and forth, but you understand how they’re doing it.
Complexity - Hard magic systems can become too intricate, potentially bogging down the narrative with explanations and mechanics.
Limitation - Being bound by set rules might limit the ways in which magic can be used in the plot, turning it into just another lifeless tool.
Over-reliance - If not handled well, hard magic can become a crutch in the story, where every problem is solved through its application.
Soft Magic Pros and Cons
Sense of wonder - The undefined nature of soft magic can evoke an unparalleled sense of awe.
Flexibility - You have more leeway to introduce new magical elements or outcomes as the story progresses.
Dramatic license - Soft magic allows for unexpected and dramatic twists that can help or hinder at just the right moment.
Lack of clarity - Readers might get confused if your soft magic system seems too arbitrary or inconsistent.
Deus ex machina - Without clear rules, magic can sometimes be used as a convenient plot device, resolving conflicts too easily and reducing stakes and tension.
Reduced engagement - Some readers enjoy understanding the mechanics of a world, and a soft magic system might not satisfy that desire.
When Should You Use Hard or Soft Magic?
The kind of magic you’ll use depends on your story and the world you’ve built.
Hard magic is better suited for worlds where magic is a tool or weapon. If it becomes a part of life (whether an everyday convenience or a devastating military tactic), it’s best to put rules and, most importantly, limits around it.
Soft magic is usually kept for tales where magic is woven into the backdrop of the story. Some people might not even know it’s there. Most common folk won’t even see it in their lifetime. It is subtle until it is dazzling.
You can also blend the two of them together to create a hybrid magic system. Establish rules for your characters to abide by, but have a ticking clock of a looming ritual that no one but the villain understands.
Or send your mage spec ops team into a warehouse that is actually a gateway to the fae realm, where magic is infused with the world itself.
As long as you’re intentional with the kind of magic system you write, there isn’t really a wrong answer.
Tips for Creating Magic Systems
We have a full recipe for crafting your magic system over here, but I wanted to leave you with some quick tips to get your imagination conjuring those neat ideas.
- Define your magic's source - Determine where the magic originates. Is it drawn from natural elements, divine beings, or perhaps an inner energy? Knowing the source helps set boundaries.
- Know your rules and limits - Even if you’re writing soft magic, you need to know the rules. You might never share your secrets, but your story needs you to know the internal logic behind what you’re writing.
- Consider cultural and societal impact - Think about how magic influences daily life, politics, and beliefs. A society with teleportation magic, for instance, would view distances differently.
- Balance power with cost - If magic is powerful, introduce corresponding costs or sacrifices. This can prevent characters from becoming overpowered and maintain some tension.
- Evolve with the story - As your narrative progresses, allow your magic system to grow and reveal deeper complexities, but ensure it remains consistent with established rules or lore.
Bonus tip: Use Dabble to help craft and organize your magic system.
Not only do we have a bunch of articles at DabbleU to help you make your very own magic system, but Dabble lets you store all your worldbuilding notes—from the type of magic you use to your geography, religions, and more—all one click away from your manuscript.
When consistency is the name of the magic-writing game, that’s invaluable to us authors.
But don’t just take my word for it! Try all the premium tools Dabble has to offer for free, no credit card required, for fourteen days by clicking here.
Now go make some magic.
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