So I’ve recently dealt with my magic system, working out some kinks. Brandon Sanderson has this famous set of teachings on magic systems. He refers to them as hard and soft. So basically, if you have rules and explain your magic system then it’s a hard magic system. If you don’t explain anything and stuff just happens a la Gandalf, it’s a soft magic system.
And every time I say this, someone pulls out the quote about technology sufficiently advanced being the same as magic. I’ve heard it. Yes you’re very clever.
Okay, so here’s my problem with that.
You’re removing awe and wonder from magic. You’re making the magic unmagical. We need mystery. We need wonder and awe and the feeling you get when there’s a majestic view or a fantastic delight occuring in front of you. It’s the feeling you have as a child at Christmas time. We need to be like children. We need what C.S. Lewis referred to as a “sense of autumn.”
I believe the current generation doesn’t have enough of this and it’s the reason for the rise in depression and suicide.
The science geeks tell me that science gives that to them. But I don’t think it does. I think there’s more and they haven’t ever seen it. They don’t grok what I’m saying. If the mystery isn’t there, the majesty, then you’re describing something else. You might have awe and wonder at science, but it isn’t the same. It’s still you trying to control. You can’t do that with the type of magic I’m trying to describe.
I think that’s the crux of this magic. Surrender. The out-of-control and mysterious that touches you deeply and creates almost nostalgia, but not. It’s a delicate thing.
That doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to hard magic systems. Patrick Rothfuss in the Kingkiller Chronicles uses them both with great success. But his soft system is reaching for the type of thing I’m describing. I think it works so well because it’s true. I think if we could ever truly and coherently and completely express all of the truth found in a single flame with one syllable, it would respond to us. We don’t have hearts big enough for that, but it’s wonderful that he imagined and understood this. But what Pat does, what most good fantasy authors do, is make us understand that our normal world is indeed a miracle.
It’s by that standard that I judge fantasy fiction and very few ever meet it. I don’t know that every author understands that there is no such thing as an ordinary human. I think there are a lot of Muggles.
The hard magic system must be coherent, logical. I think it is impossible in this day and age not to have something like a hard magic system in your work just to appease the engineers who for the love of all that is holy cannot let go of their need for explanation. Control freaks that they are, they still matter.
So now we get down to what I’m doing. I have magical beings, magical objects, and then magical power. Music is the primary form of accessing magic in Canard and how it differs from normal music and what we do about that is very much a huge part of the economy there.
And I was fuzzy on it. I tried outlining and it just didn’t come clear for me. I had to write the scenes to discover how it worked. That was extremely annoying and frustrating. My longsuffering editor harangues me about outlining, and she’s completely correct. But as my colleague Timothy Marsh so eloquently said, there’s a world of difference between writing brain and editing brain. I think when I go to outlining, I switch to editing brain and just get blocked.
How have you approached your magic systems?
Do you have a hard or soft magic system?
Which do you prefer to read about?