We meet again on the twisty path of fantasy, as last week we’ve completed our first quest: learning about Brandon Sanderson’s 3 laws of magic. Now, we continue our journey to face a perilous beast: the complex workings of magic systems, but fear not, for I shall conjure for you a sword capable of subduing this beast. Let’s get started, shall we?
Before we begin, I must state that the following theories do not belong to me; they are the thought process of yours truly, Brandon Sanderson. In this post, I will only try to familiarise you to them without overcomplicating things, while also guiding you to recommendations based on these theoretical concepts. Alright, enough chatter.
First, I guess it’s best to start by explaining what I mean by a ‘’magic system’’. Well, it represents the relationship between the readers or the characters and the way magic works within the fictional world. How we as spectators perceive it and how well we understand its workings, but also how the characters we follow interact with it.
To quickly define this system, I shall use the following word: wonder. All soft magic systems have this aura of awe and mystery surrounding them because what makes them soft is its few rules, limitations, and repercussions. Neither the reader nor the characters fully comprehend the workings of the world they experience. Magic is an exclusivity and it moves the plot forward in a peculiar way, sometimes solving problems, but there’s also a possibility of creating more obstacles for our fictional heroes. Brandon Sanderson encourages writers to use soft magic mainly for this second trait: since the characters don’t understand the magic, then it shouldn’t work according to their will. A story will be more intricate and immersive for the audience if magic works against the main goal of the narrative, or if it’s simply there for ambiance and world-building.
The best examples for this system are the well-known fairy tales and children’s classics, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia. They offer the young reader a world with no rules and complete freedom of exploring every corner and meeting fantastical creatures like the famous Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, or Mr. Tumnus, the faun and Aslan, the lion. This doesn’t mean that soft magic is only limited to children. Tolkien argued against this myth, thus incorporating soft magic systems into his works, which are targeted towards more mature audiences as well: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Roverandom, or The Silmarillion are just a few examples of this author’s vast bibliography.
If soft magic could be rounded up as mysterious, then hard magic systems are rational(within reason, of course; we are talking about fantasy after all). Here, we are fully aware of the rules governing magic and all its possibilities within its realm. It is up to the writer to make this type of magic as structured and comprehensive as possible in order to avoid any gaps that might work against his/her system. In its finished product, hard magic allows the reader to fully comprehend what the characters can do and can’t, or how they can do it (but that’s not always the case). Brandon Sanderson gives superheroes as an example here, and I have to agree. Even if we don’t know specifically from a realistic or scientific point of view how some powers work, we do know what each superhero is capable of: we’re not surprised if we see The Flash using his super-speed to solve conflicts, but we would frown upon it if he suddenly used X-ray vision because the magic system to which he belongs clearly defined his powers.
So, rather than magic acting as an exterior force that complicates or sets a mood, here hard magic is a tool which characters must learn how to use it in most cases. Common tropes within these works are the inexperienced protagonist aided by the elusive and knowledgeable mentor which guide the hero through the workings and limitations of magic. Eragon, the first book from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle series contains such a trope. In order to cast a spell, you must decide upon the subject you’re about to use (a branch, a tree, fire, etc) and call out its name in the ancient language of the elves (fire is called Brisingr, for example), but all of them require a certain amount of energy. Our protagonist, Eragon learns these spells from his mentor, Brom, who warns him that because he is still a beginner, some spells may even kill him.
If you’re interested in experiencing some other stories with hard magic, I would highly recommend Fullmetal Alchemist, Avatar the Last Airbender, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
The Middle Ground
As with life, there is no black or white; grey will always seep between the lines. The middle ground, as it implies has characteristics from both soft and hard magic. In this case, the audience can know most of the rules and limitations, but
Again, I shall recur to Brandon Sanderson’s example, since it deals with a very popular series: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Within the wizarding world, Harry is the apprentice and Hogwarts acts as his mentor with all the teachers for each class. During each book, Harry learns new spells as he completes a year at this magic school, and his perilous adventures are mostly solved through the spells that Harry learned within that year. This sometimes means that characters forget about their skills from their previous books. To put it into simpler terms, the way I see it, in hard magic everything you learn alongside the protagonist creates a foundation of knowledge in the world and every experience further solidifies that foundation, but in the middle ground new information is layered on top of each other, so in time you forget or ignore the first rules, thus leading to uneasiness: is this new rule
Thank you for bearing with me for so long. I know this post has been a bit more complicated and you had to dedicate more of your time in order to fully absorb this information, but before we part, there’s one more thing I would like to say. The theories and systems presented previously aren’t the main rules in judging and
If you are interested in reading more about magic systems, I encourage you to read Brandon Sanderson’s actual post about his theories: https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/
Until then, remember: magic lays at your fingertips.