Being a Better Writer: Working with Soft Magic

Welcome back, writers! It’s time for another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer!

Well, and some news. I’ve got the serious news, and I’ve got the chill news. We’ll go with the serious news first: I will be in Alaska starting April 20th and off the grid.

Those of you that are long-time readers of this site know what that means. I’m headed up to Alaska for a fishing trip. Two, in this case. I’ll be back hopefully in six weeks, since the plan this time is to take five weeks.

Now, if you’re wondering “What about Being a Better Writer?” never fear, I’ll be spending a good chunk of this week getting all those posts up and scheduled properly. So there won’t be a drought while I’m gone, just as before. That said, if you’re using a site that relies on cross-posts to deliver Being a Better Writer content, you may not be seeing some of those non-automated cross-posts appearing. So just be aware that the best way to get your BaBW fix is to hit up the site itself.

Okay, that’s the serious news. What’s the chill news? I’ve seen The Super Mario Bros. movie, and it’s a lot of fun.

It’s also not a complicated movie, and I think this is where some of the critical miss is coming from. A lot of critics seem unable or unwilling to experience a movie that’s primary aim is just fun. And that’s Super Mario Bros. Given the games, I think that’s entirely accurate: A Mario movie shouldn’t be trying to be some massive allusion for oil, corporations, or “the meaning of life.” And that’s okay. Some movies are just fun, and that’s what Super Mario Bros. is trying to do.

I personally saw it as succeeding in that regard, and I’ll even give it credit that it did go a little further than it had to. It didn’t have to give all its characters little touches of personality with personal goals to achieve, but it did, and the movie was better for it. It definitely didn’t need to give Princess Peach the care and attention it did—I say this to mean that Illumination could have easily made her a standard Disney Princess fare and no one would have batted an eye—but they went ahead and did that anyway, delivering what was honestly one of the better “strong female protagonists” I’ve seen in a recent animated feature. Certainly better than any recent Disney movie has managed in that regard. She’s a princess who actually cares about her subjects and manages a kingdom! Acting like a ruler, while still showing that sometimes the weight of her crown is heavy, etc.

Basically, I had a lot of fun because I expected to have fun. There were a lot of good laughs, plenty of visual movement and humor to watch, tons of callbacks that—to me, at least—didn’t feel egregious, and while it’s definitely a movie where the characters are driven by simple goals and are largely moving along to keep the plot going to the next big set-piece … that doesn’t mean at all that it isn’t fun.

So yeah, ignore the critics who don’t seem to remember what “fun” is (to them, probably something that comes served on a wooden plank with a small lecture about your eco-sustainability during political elections or similar such nonsense). Just go expecting bright, colorful worlds, classic Mario tunes, and a confrontation with Bowser.

Oh, and Chris Pratt’s voice acting work is fine. Totally fine.

Will there be a longer “review” of it later? Probably. My thoughts are still settling, but overall the experience was a highly positive one. It’s straightforward, uncomplicated, fun. If you like the sound of that, I’d encourage checking it out.

All right, let’s set aside the news and talk about today’s Being a Better Writer post, shall we? A few of you might have looked at that topic and wondered exactly where this was going to go, especially if you’ve been on the Discord recently, but a certain bit of reader response to a book there actually came after this topic going on the list. It was just pure coincidence that said book happened to … Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Today we’re talking about “soft magic.” Or, alternatively, we’re discussing what a “soft magic system” is, since some will be thinking “I know of Hard Magic, but not soft” and others are probably still going “Wait, isn’t it just magic?”

So, hit the jump, and let’s start there first. Let’s talk about what Soft Magic is and what makes it different from Hard Magic. Once we’ve got that baseline established, then we can talk about the use of Soft Magic in your stories. Hit the jump!

Right, so let’s start with that burning question still active in some minds: what is a Soft Magic system?

The easiest explanation is that it’s the opposite of a Hard Magic system. Now, if you don’t know what that is at all, it’s probably a good place to start here. And then maybe hit this post as a follow-up. Fifteen years ago the shoe would have been on the other foot with people asking what Hard Magic was, but these days it’s definitely the more popular form of magic in most Fantasy, so we’ll start from that perspective as a way to lay the groundwork and build from there.

Hard Magic is when a story gives its magic system a clearly defined set of rules. Plural. Before, in prior posts on the subject, I’ve said that it may be best to think of it as a sort of new branch of science, with its own rules and functions.

Now, please note when I say “rules” I am not referring to Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, which are discussed in one of the posts linked above. Those rules are guidelines for building a hard or soft magic system and using them properly within your narrative. No, when I say “rules” for a Hard Magic system, this may be something like “These are the eight forms of known magic, all spells fit into one of these schools when cast, and you have to be careful because each ‘school’ has two types of magic energy it does not agree with, preventing you from casting any of those kinds of magic until the lingering traces of the form you cast have left the system.” Or it could be something like “spellcasting is a sloppy business, and every spell you cast will leave lingering traces in your system that can build up and cause issues if you cast too much too quickly, and become permanent if you don’t take a break.

The more rules like this your magic system has, and the better they fit together, the more “hard” your magic system becomes. Alternatively, the fewer rules that are known about your magic system, and the less what is known fits together, the more “soft” a magic system becomes.

Now, a few among you may have realized that this sounds a lot like a sliding scale, and you’re correct. A measure of magic hardness or softness is very much a sliding scale between two extremes, each end a completely workable magic system. On the hard end you have something like Mistborn‘s allomancy, or Shadow of an Empire‘s gifts, where the various methods and means behind the magic are understood, as are the relationships with one another, thus allowing the various forms of magic to interact with one another in ways that the characters/audience understand and can extrapolate from. These rules don’t just exist for a single character, but shape the world in which they are set. Characters in-universe know that two plus three where magic is concerned will equal five because the rules have been figured out.

By contrast, soft magic means that those rules—if they even exist in the author’s notes somewhere—are not very well understood, if even known in part at all. This is the setting of many fairy tales, or wonderful fantasy stories like Dealing with Dragons. Magic is there, and it’s definitely magic, but as to why you can’t cast a spell wearing a wool sweater without suffering blowback, no one knows. You just can’t cast magic while wearing wool, or having one foot off of the ground, or after having eaten onions in the last fortnight.

You see where I’m going with this, I hope. Hard magic is magic understood. At least, to a certain degree. Soft magic, on the other hand, is magic that is not understood. It might be rooted in a few rules of folklore, or it may be a complete mystery to most people in your story.

Now, I can see a few of you spotting a deliberate loophole in things here, so I’ll answer that now: Yes, it would be possible to have a story/setting in which one character saw the magic as soft, while another point-of-view character saw it as hard. That’s entirely doable. Just have one character who just knows the folklore, and another who is an accomplished magic-user and knows the ins and outs.

You could mix it up further too, and have a character who sees all magic as the softest form possible, with little-to-no knowledge of what magic is or how it works meeting a character who has spent their life trying to figure it out and hasn’t cracked the code yet, but like any good scientist or alchemist has figured out a few hard rules that they now experiment around.

Okay, we’re getting a little off topic, so reigning things in, a Soft Magic system is merely one where the magic is not well understood. Often it will be guided by folklore or culture, with the idea that “we know this works, but we don’t know why.”

Sort of like how ancient cultures would have rules for doing things where they didn’t understand why they worked, they just knew that they did. Like milkmaids and farmhands getting cow pox to avoid catching smallpox: They didn’t know why it worked, but they knew that it did. It wasn’t until a curious scientist noted that the milkmaids and farmhands on this farm weren’t getting smallpox and began wondering “Wait, could it be that easy?” that mankind started on the journey to eradicating that awful disease.

But that’s really all a soft magic system is: A system of magic few, perhaps no one, understands, but some may utilize through folklore or a very limited understanding of it.

A great example of a soft magic system in action is in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There’s clearly some common threads binding all the various forms of magic on display together, but the only characters who really understand them are the wizards, and a few of the elves. The protagonist group? It’s just magic. Gandalf did some magic. The rings are magic. We get a little bit of explanation here and there that something might work because of ____’s power, but that’s about it. The magic largely is as the magic is: There without an understanding of how or why, but it’s having its impact on the world. And that’s just how it works.

So if that’s what a soft magic system is, just one that people don’t understand (maybe not even the author), then how can we use this in our stories.

Before I answer this question, I need to make an aside briefly to tackle a common complaint about magic systems. Some have said that understanding magic—in any way—cheapens a story and takes away the wonder. I disagree thoroughly, and in fact hold that such a view is harmful to fiction (and Fantasy) in general. Declaring that all magic should just be mysterious and unknown pigeonholes a story. It forces only one kind of approach to magic, and it’s an extremely soft one.

We don’t want that. In truth, realizing that magic hardness is a scale opens up our stories to all sorts of avenues that would be otherwise cut off to us. For example, if we held to the rule that magic must forever be as soft as possible, we could never tell a story about someone trying to understand and discover more about such magic growing to become a wizard/magician, discovering the rules of the arcane one step at a time. We’d lose any of the ways such discoveries could shape a fantastical culture or society, or be a journey of growth and discovery for the characters.

We’d limit our storytelling. Don’t. Do. That. Magic can be as hard or soft as you wish, even inside a story.

So how can we use soft magic in our story? Well, as with Hard Magic, we need to think about what it is bringing to our story. What purpose will it serve? A magic system of any kind will impact our setting, our culture, and our day-to-day life for our characters. With that in mind, what will a Soft Magic system allow us to do?

A system of Soft Magic is still a system. Cultural rules will have sprung up. Sayings will have been built around it. There will be those who understand a little more, and those who only go off of what they were told as children and have learned to repeat as “folk knowledge.”

Perhaps you’re mixing them. Or you have a character that is trying to discover something new about said magic system, trying to understand why they can’t cast magic while wearing wool.

Or it could even be background. Perhaps the main character just lives in a world where wool interferes with magic, and we see the way this has shape society by making wool a disgraced form of cloth. Or something.

There are a lot of ways you can use soft magic in a story. Be creative. Be clever. Remember, soft magic may have a system of rules, but they’re not well understood. They may even be misunderstood, combined or merged with the wrong ideas or myth or legend. Whatever form this takes, it will have an effect on the culture, traditions, and society your characters live in.

Again, you may not need to know the rules yourself for a very soft system and world. But you should recognize that such softness will be reflected in the world at large. Keep that in mind as you work on it.

Now, one last thing. Above I noted that you could mix things up and have characters with different levels of understanding. I also mentioned a bit on Discord that actually came after I’d put this post on the list. That bit was a book I read that … Well, it made an error in things.

See, you can have a society where magic is soft to some but hard to others. However, you can’t fake it. If you’re going to make a hard magic system, or have rules behind your soft magic system that others will understand, especially if they’re going to be important to the story, you need to have those rules.

If you don’t, you’ll end up with a story where characters pretend that a magic system is hard and acting by rules, but none of those rules will ever show up or even begin to appear. I recently read a story that did this. Well, technically what it did was do a hard magic system badly, where it gave the idea lip service, with a nice chart at the start of the story explaining what did what … but there was no logic behind it. The magic granted by this hard magic system just felt like generic fantasy magic, and though one of the protagonists was supposed to be an expert in the systems behind it … They never actually explained or even acted like they existed. It made for a frustrating read, because the system was clearly supposed to be hard and the narrative acted like it was following a bunch of rules that the characters new … but it wouldn’t actually give us any of those rules and honestly a bit of it felt just like the powers were running by the conceit of “what would be narratively coolest right now?”

Which left an entire third of the story, revolving around the character who was supposed to be an expert in such things, feeling kind of flat, because they weren’t ever able to show why they were an expert. Other characters could tell them, but it was never something we the audience were allowed to see, even from their own perspective.

It really did feel like the author wanted a hard magic story and had some concepts, but hadn’t been willing to go through the steps of working out why anything did anything, but then for other reasons of plot, needed a protagonist to be an expert in a magic system with no foundational mechanics. I read the entire six-hundred or so pages and I still cannot tell you how any of the magic in that setting worked despite the charts and cool names.

Don’t fake a system, in other words. If it’s going to be soft, be soft. If it’s going to be hard, be hard. Don’t pass one off as the other or try and use it narratively in a place it does not fit.

Recap time! Soft Magic is just a magic system that isn’t well understood, and may seem disconnected or be rooted deeply in folklore and saying simply because no one has ever delved into it. This can have far-reaching effects on your culture and characters, so be aware of what you plan to use. However, don’t forget that everything magic related is on a scale of hardness, from soft to understood, and even in a setting you may see this mixed and matched, or even changed slightly based on perspective viewpoint.

Know what each one will do for your story. You may not have to come up with any rules yourself, if everyone will be seeing it as soft, or you may want to lay some groundwork that’s partially understood by those who study the fantastic.

Even soft magic has some rules to it, though usually vague and not well understood. Have fun with those!

Oh, and one last thing to consider. The more you explore magic, the more it slides up that scale from soft to hard, even in small increments. A magic that is very soft being introduced in a first book may be fairly well understood by book six. Don’t fight that. You can slow it, or make it more difficult, but if you remove it entirely, you have characters or culture that won’t learn or grow, which is unrealistic. If you’re going to regress an understanding, find reasons, like peer pressure or social collapse. Whatever makes sense for your magic.

Anyway, hard or soft, keep that in mind.

Good luck. Now get writing.

You can leave questions and comments below! And again, Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things is kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew! A big thank you to BugsydorMaryFrenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Lightwind, Boomer, Piiec, Wisehart, and Taylor for supporting Unusual Things!

If you’d like to support as well, then please check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, please purchase a book? You can even do both!

Also, feel free to check out our Discord community over at The Makalay Camp! This link is updated each week with the newest post to fight bot spam, so check the most recent post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s