Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing 101: Soft Magic

In search of information on different styles of magic systems I found a disproportionate amount of emphasis placed on hard magic. So I wanted to focus this post on the lesser discussed style of magic systems: Soft Magic.

“Too long; died reading.”

Hard Magic = Rules are explained + Magic solves the story’s conflict(s).
Soft Magic = Rules are unexplained + Magic is, or causes, the story’s conflict(s).

The above formulas’ are broken down to each style’s most basic form and is more like a guideline. There’s certainly a lot of leeway with both and a middle ground where you can blend the two together. But we’re talking extremes today to help you understand what either is, if you don’t already know.

I borrowed the terms “Soft Magic” and “Hard Magic” from Brandon Sanderson's First Law. Brandon Sanderson’s essay delves into the different styles very insightfully. I highly recommend the read if you’re using magic at all in your story. Also, in this post I’m using the concept of “magic” in its broadest sense, including any time it doesn’t involve wizards, or the like, casting spells.

Hard Magic

With hard magic, the rules of that magic system are laid out for the reader so that when the characters solve a conflict using magic, the reader isn’t left scratching their head in confusion or thinking that magic can just do anything. They’ll have already known what magic can or can’t do by the time the use of magic is what defeats the big bad boss in the climax, avoiding a dues ex machina.

Lauren posted some awesome questions on our blog that you should consider when building or maintaining any magic system. Many of the questions would lead one down a nice path toward a solid hard magic system. Bless her cotton socks.
Click to enlarge.

There’s a danger in explaining a concept that no one needed or wanted an explanation for.

In the original Star Wars trilogy, The Force was a mystical power (soft magic). In the prequels, George Lucas introduced the concept of midichlorians—a microscopic life form living inside the Jedi (hard magic). This enraged many fans that preferred the former explanation of the Force.

Soft Magic

The more I studied the different styles of magic systems in my favorite stories I discovered that my preference might skew a little more towards soft magic.

These stories are usually more interested in the characters than the mechanics of its magic system. That's not to say that hard magic isn't interested in its characters. The two styles just do the same thing differently.

Sometimes, readers just don't require an explanation as to how or why the magic system works. It just does what it does and that's perfectly acceptable. All the Disney movies that I can recall off the top of my head are soft magic. Most children’s fantasy books are soft magic. Still, just because you write for adults doesn’t mean you can’t use soft magic in your story.

Examples of soft magic:

  • Cinderella: It's never explained how the pumpkin turns into a carriage or why it changes back at midnight. It just does. We don’t need no stinkin’ explanation.
  • The Wizard of Oz: How exactly do ruby slippers send, not only Dorothy back home, but her little dog too? It just does. We don’t need no stinkin’ explanation.

  • Groundhog Day: It's never explained why Phil Connors (Bill Murray's character) was repeating the same day over and over or how (Spoiler alert!) he manages to escape the loop and finally enter the next day. It just happens.
“Seeing my shadow gave me magic driving powers. That’s all the stinkin’ explanation you’ll get.”

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Willy Wonka made gum that never loses its flavor, ice cream that doesn't melt, and Everlasting Gobstoppers that never get smaller no matter how much you suck on them. It’s all fantastic enough that we readers don't care for an explanation of how that can be. Had Mr. Wonka sat down with Charlie and friends and told us how it all works, that would probably ruin the sense of wonder which hooked us in the first place.
“Everyone gets an Everlasting Gobstopper!”

“…after my presentation on the concept of mass-energy equivalence. Please, turn off all cell phones.”

The common theme in the above soft magic stories is that the magic itself causes more problems for the characters than it solves.

Cinderella had a fantastic night dancing with the Prince, but Fairy Godmother’s magic couldn’t last forever. That very night, she was forced to return to her harsh living situation. Dorothy is lost in the Land of Oz with all these strange people and is just trying to get back home. Reliving the same day over and over isn’t fun for Phil Connors who never wanted to be in that town on any day of the week. The Chocolate Factory tortures many of the characters with all the things they thought were cool.

Even when the magic isn't creating problems, it’s simply ancillary to the plot. Its visual spectacle, cool images to keep us hooked.

But wait! Slow down. Just because you might choose soft magic for your story doesn't mean that you’re free to use magic in any kind of way. You still must maintain internal consistency. What you do with the rules you create will determine: the style of magic system you present to the reader, the nature of the story’s conflict and how it is solved in the end.

How to use Soft Magic

Show the magic working in your story the way it’s supposed to, and by virtue of seeing it in action, the reader will simply know that it works and will need no further explanation. Don’t make it into a mystery that the characters must figure out unless you don't mind if the reader also makes it into a mystery that they will try to figure out. Give the magic less importance to the overall plot/conflict. When the conflict isn’t solved with the use of magic, the nuts and bolts of your magic system are unimportant.

Cinderella won the Prince’s heart because of who she was as a person. The magic only provided her access to attend the ball, not necessarily to even meet the Prince. With the help of friends, Dorothy defeated the Wicked Witch with water, not magic, and by accident. Phil Connors escaped the Groundhog Day loop by surviving his character arc. Charlie won the Chocolate Factory because, as the last kid standing, he proved himself to be the best candidate to keep Mr. Wonka’s most precious sweet-making secrets. None of these climactic resolutions involved magic. If anything, they put an end to all the magic.

One issue you could potentially run into with building any rule system is creating a mystery where there is none. You’re not prepared to solve it because to you there isn’t even a mystery that needs solving. You’ve built this fantastic world, you’ve fallen in love with it, and you want to show it off, so you include everything you know about it in your story. Forget the potential for info dumps here, but the more you place focus on a specific concept in your story the reader will also focus on it, and wonder about it, and ask questions about it. It’s natural. You can use that to your advantage, but if you aren’t careful it can hurt the story you wish to tell.

The TV show LOST played around with blending “magic” that was hard (Dharma Initiative) and soft (Jacob/Man in Black). Among the many freaky things going down on that island, there was a mysterious smoke monster that could shapeshift into people who had died on the island. There was such an emphasis and build up to the question, “What is the monster?” that viewers naturally wanted to find out what it was exactly. The monster's nature was often inferred but never outright explained all the way through the end of the series.

This, amongst other mysteries that went unexplained, polarized viewers between those who demanded more answers to the island’s mysteries and those who had gotten all the answers they needed. Both viewers were right. None of them were wrong. The viewers who needed more answers were just watching the wrong show. And those that got all the answers they needed were watching the perfect show for them. But what sparked the outrage in viewers was how the writers blended hard and soft magic. By including both, viewers who liked getting answers felt cheated when the writers naturally glossed over concepts that were merely part of the soft magic portion of the show.

Hard or soft magic; neither is inherently better than the other. As the storyteller you must decide which audience you’re writing for. The easiest way to find out which one is to determine whatever it is you like to write, what do you find most interesting, what do you like to read, what kind of feel are you going for in your story. You won’t be able to please everyone. You shouldn’t even try. But whether you’re shooting an arrow at a bull’s-eye, a bullet at a target, or a basketball in a hoop, aim for something. Sometimes you’ll miss, but if you don’t aim you’re more likely to miss.

I hope this helps guide you. Thanks for reading


Pam Harris said...

Wow, I'm on magic overload! :) This is truly a great post, Michael. Definitely worth printing out and referring to while writing.

Lori M. Lee said...

Super interesting post. Def bookmarking this. Thanks for the informative read!

Amparo Ortiz said...

This post ROCKS. Will be bookmarking this one, too.

Like you, I prefer soft magic, even though I read books with hard magic as well. I guess I'm a sucker for premise, after all :)

Sophia Richardson said...

This is a really informative post as a reader and writer, but the thing I keep coming back to is Willy Wonka withholding Everlasting Gobstoppers to explain the science behind his inventions. Awesome.
- Sophia.

lmoh said...

Awesome post! I'm really inspired to try writing a soft magic story now. Thanks Michael!

blueeyedadri said...

I find most of the posts here I'm keeping in a file, thanks guys and GREAT POST Michael!

Marquita Hockaday said...

Nice info here--it can be very useful if I ever delve into the realm of magic. Like Pam said, def. a good post to print out and refer to later.

Michelle Julian said...

This post was very well written (as are all your posts). I was in the "completely disappointed crowd" of Lost viewers, which thanks to your clarification, means I was watching the wrong show. Your examples helped me understand the "soft/hard" concept. I would be interested in hearing some "hard" examples.

Jess said...

Great post! Thank you!

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