Magic is, well, magical. There are so many different styles of magic in different stories, that all function in their own way. The rules of magic ebb and flow, as the story and world need, but you can usually identify the magic system in one of two categories. Previously, we discussed the difference between Low and High Fantasy, but a conversation that tends to be parallel, is Hard and Soft Magic.
Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy writer known for two stories, his own Mistborn, as well as finishing the Wheel of Time story for Robert Jordan after his death. He is known for popularizing the terms Hard and Soft magic, based on his three laws of Magic.
First Law of Magic: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
Second Law of Magic: Weaknesses (also Limits or Costs) are more interesting than powers.
Third Law of Magic: Expand on what you have already, before you add something new. If you change one thing, you change the world.Brandon Sanderson
You can read essays on the First, Second, and Third Laws, as defined by Sanderson on his website. The idea basically boils down to the closer a system of magic follows these rules, the “harder” that magic is.
First we are going to take a look at Hard Magic, as it’s generally more solid and consistent. Hard magic has specific rules and is constructed, more like it was built than imagined. When someone has to memorize a specific incantation, or gather specific material components, this is hard magic.
The first great example is Harry Potter, because they literally have to go to school. Not only do you have to be genetically enabled, you then have to acquire a specific magical instrument (wand), then memorize the incantations, as well as hand/wand movements in time with the incantations for the spell to work. It takes literal years of study and practice in order to achieve different spells, and some require the base knowledge of others to succeed; even your emotional state affects the spell’s performance. It almost seems like magic was built by a person with intention. We see in the Fantastic Beasts franchise that they aren’t using spells we’ve seen in Harry Potter that could be useful, which could mean that they haven’t yet been created. This idea is solidified when we realize that Snape himself seems to have invented his own spell Sectumsempra. So then is magic something that is slowly discovered by uttering random words and wand movements until something happens, or is it a blank page that gifted magic users can create new spells themselves? Either way, this shows the hard set rules of magic.
Another great example is in Fullmetal Alchemist, where you don’t have to be genetically gifted, but you do still have to memorize different sigils, and understand the law of equivalent exchange. It’s more than just knowing that something of equal value must be given, but to truly understand the value of different items, so that you aren’t left with too much or too little. It shows that the main character, Edward Elric, does a lot of studying and understands the science behind Alchemy very well, which is why he is allowed to join the police force at such a young age.
A YouTube channel called Hello Future Me has some great videos on Hard and Soft Magic as well that are worth looking into if you want to know more.
Soft magic, on the other hand, describes systems that don’t have specific rules that are established.
Lord of the Rings is a great example of soft magic, specifically when it comes to Gandalf, and the Rings of Power. Gandalfs powers are never specifically explained, and his powers seem varied, and only sometimes useful. For instance, technically Gandalf is not a human, but a Maia of Iluvitar, which is essentially an angel of God. That’s right, Gandalf is an angel who smokes pipeweed with his Hobbit friends. However, if you remember from The Two Towers, Gandalf needs his staff to perform magic, which seems weird, because he’s an angel, you would think he can just do magic. In the “You Shall Not Pass” scene, we don’t know what magic he is doing exactly, but something is happening. Then you look at the Rings of Power, and we know that they have different powers based on how powerful the wearer is…but what does that mean? The nine for the men only seemed to render them invisible under their cloaks, the seven for the dwarves “bred more gold,” the three for the elves affected the elements, and the one ring allowed Sauron to hit a bunch of guys when he swung his mace. All very vague, and undefined.
Another way to look at Soft Magic that many people are familiar with, is The Force from Star Wars. Yes Star Wars is sci-fi, but the lack of scientific explanation means it’s basically magic. The Force “surrounds” and “penetrates” us, but only certain people can use it. When we see less-experienced Force-users, they seem to be physically exhausted afterwards, even when they are standing still and lifting an X-Wing out of a swamp. The closest canon to how The Force works is through midichlorians, which are microscopic beings in our blood, and they allow us to…do something. There’s clearly work that has to be done to get good at The Force, but it’s never made clear what the limitations are. In fact, a common problem people have with the Sequel Trilogy is how it seems like Rey has access to certain Force abilities that weren’t demonstrated yet, and with less practice. Does this mean she has more midichlorians? Who knows? It doesn’t seem like the writers do.
Hello Future Me has another video below that talks more specifically about Soft Magic Systems, as opposed to Hard.