In Defense of the Soft Magic System

Anne C. Miles > Uncategorized > In Defense of the Soft Magic System

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?


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2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Soft Magic System

  1. You make some really good points, and explain them so well, that I feel compelled to argue against a few of them.

    My main concern with magic systems that don’t have solid rules is that they can then become convenient problem solving tools. This is the same with technical systems too though.

    So when the droid that has only ever rolled around, and done ‘sad face’ when the little step blocks them from a goal, then escapes a lethal situation by turning jets on and flying away, I know I’ve been ripped off. I paid the author with my time, and in return, they were supposed to do the the hard problem solving that gets the hero out of trouble. But they broke the contract, by opting for a magical/technical solution that was outside of scope.

    This does not mean that the author needs to explicitly tell the reader that droids can or cannot fly, but the author needs to know this from the outset and never break the rule.

    There is another tech/magic parallel in that, the little outcome rules cannot be arbitrary. They must be based on a core truth. Whether it is thermodynamics or the tendrils of consciousness, everything needs to be built on the same foundation. Otherwise, the little rules will feel arbitrary. Readers will ask, “How could he telekinetically move that football when it was 500n away, but when his girlfriend was only 10n away it was too far to read her thoughts?” And as with before, this consistency is much more critical when used to solve a significant plot problem.

    So I’d argue that the need for rules to exist, whether stated or not, is not to appease a need for control, but to ensure a believable story. I find it interesting that you used Heinlein’s invented word ‘grok’ because he is my best example of an author who gives his MC so much power in the end that Heinlein then becomes incapable of creating narrative tension.

    And a personal tale. Despite being the boy with sixteen books on magic spells, stacked below my cloak of elves, I was also the boy that stood staring through the shop window at the Amiga500 demo of live-raytraced bouncing chrome spheres. Sometimes the power of magic thrums through my veins like it’s trying to drag me into another world. But I’m never far from John von Neumann’s sense of singularity, lurking just beyond humanity’s event horizon.

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      Of course. And I think this is really what people who love the hard magic systems are objecting to. But I also think that a conscientious writer won’t let that happen. The Deus Ex Machina can happen whether you have magic or not. You can neatly make someone’s debts go away with a volcano eruption that wipes out their loan shark, etc.

      When you’re talking about Heinlein, he did turn his character into Superman, and that’s what was wrong with Superman come to think of it. He needed Kryptonite. So you’re talking about limits and rules and all. I get that. i do.

      And so the systems where one must have a cost for using the magic and one must have rules are handy to keep that from happening. But that isn’t my point.

      My point is, we need mystery and wonder and it’s bloody difficult to conjure if you’re busy turning your magic into science. I don’t think the one idea cancels the other. I agree with you.

      The way that I’m dealing with it is much the same as the way Rothfuss did, the power seems capricious on the one hand and dangerous on the other. Also, it’s quite literally sentient.

      If you have to relate to magic much as you would to a person, then it makes things interesting. I don’t know that it reduces my risk for Deus Ex Machina as much as I need it to, as I’m not finished yet. But I’ll let you know when I’m done and you can be the judge. 😛

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