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Soft vs. hard magic systems (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
I prefer magic to be on the harder side of the spectrum. I think soft magic is okay when used to create a tone or layer to a world, but when it's used as a plot device to get the author out of a corner they've written themselves into, it can ruin a story for me. With hard magic, there are rules and limitations that are understood by the reader, which means that the magic can be entwined with or the focus of the plot without it cheapening the story. Also, I like that a magic system can move closer to the hard magic side of the spectrum over the course of a book or several books in a series.


Staff member
Magic is absolutely no different than any other character ability. Before a character uses any extreme skill to solve a problem (crisis), you need to have shown some capability with that skill. And it's better if the story requires clever use of the skill rather than an overwhelming effect.

I tend to have magic users show a particular facility (normally through study) with a certain form of magic, but also be able to do little utility things that don't look big. I might surprise a reader with something a new character can do, but it's never a deus ex machina ... or it needs something else to help it along that I've already shown the reader earlier, but they probably don't expect it to be used in the later context. In other words, I pretty well show all the parts, and it's possible the reader MIGHT figure out what I'm going to do, but I'm fitting together puzzle pieces they've been shown. Then I end up with a picture they probably didn't expect.

Make the character work to get it, and make the character work to use it. You're always better off to scare the hell out of the reader than to try to impress the reader. I've got a character who might be the top swordsman in the world. I let him win a fight against another skilled swordsman easily, then later he gets crippled and can barely stand, with no cure in sight. Fantastic characters must fail at some point.

In my last novel I saved the MC from certain death. I had to, because it's in first person and the whole book doesn't make sense if he dies in the middle. I think the method I used is probably a surprise to the reader, and it used magic, but I showed both elements of the solution to the reader well before that scene. If a reader DOES happen to figure out what might happen ahead of time, then they can smugly conclude they're as smart as I am. ;-) They probably won't, though. I'm keeping them so busy with the details of the hero's predicament that I doubt they're looking elsewhere for his escape.

I just looked up a blog on the subject, since I could guess what was meant with Hard vs Soft systems, but I'd never read a definition. A blog I read listed pluses and minuses for each type. One of the minuses for a "soft system" was "can potentially be used as a cop-out for writers to lazily resolve complicated plot developments".

Nope. That's not a drawback of a "soft magic system", it's simply the sign of an inexperienced, poor, or lazy plotter. I include lazy, because I've known some once-good writers who later got lazy and produced some real eye-rollers.


This seems like an interesting question and I want to add my own two cents into the mix, I generally prefer 'hard-ish' magic systems with set rules that characters can take advantage of. If the rules and potential applications are clear enough it can even get the reader thinking of potential ways the character can use that system to get out of a sticky situation. Most of the stories I've read seem to fall into a middle-ground between soft and hard magic, explaining just enough to set ground rules and limitations but not nailing down so many rules that they become a wall that trap the writer.

In the universes I've developed myself, the different forms magic and magic-like-forces take are bound by different sorts of limitations. While not 'hard' in the sense that characters can only use predetermined 'spells', they present challenges in the use of that magic to acquire power. I think of these system as being more 'naturalized'; they flow through the character, often times directly enhancing natural attributes in specific ways, but there is virtually always a greater potential use of that power that is slowly realized in different ways as the story advances along with the characters understanding of the attributes of the system.

It's just a personal preference but I like building in a 'progression' system alongside the creation of magic systems, I don't like magic being a static force in characters lives. Instead the characters of the larger setting are always struggling to make new breakthroughs and find new ways of making use of these systems, allowing them to make greater use of the limitless potential of such systems.