Benders, Blenders And Dementors: How To Make A Magic System
August 30, 2019
If a dragon suddenly appears and casts a spell to save the crew of a starship that is engaged in an intergalactic war, it will almost certainly feel like deus ex machina to the reader. For a literary magic system to be satisfying to readers, there needs to be a logical limit and certain rules that govern what the magic is capable of doing.
However, whether or not the reader knows these rules is purely at the author’s discretion and depends almost entirely on the kind of story they are writing. Thus, magic systems exist on a spectrum ranging from hard magic to soft magic.
Spoilers lie ahead. Venture forth at your own risk.
The Rules Of Magic
In the kind of fantasy that uses a hard magic system, readers are explicitly explained the rules of its magic. In the Fullmetal Alchemist series, for example, readers are made aware of the Law of Equivalent Exchange, “Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.” As a result, any magic used in the universe must adhere to this law. If you want to create an iron vase that weighs a kilogram, you need one kilogram of iron before the magic can have any effect.
Similarly, element bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender is another excellent example of a hard magic system. In this world, a few people have an innate ability to bend one of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air, based on their inner strength.
Conversely, a soft magic system is one where the rules of magic aren’t made explicit to the readers. Examples of this type of magic system include some of the most iconic fantasy worlds, such as The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles Of Narnia, Harry Potter and A Song Of Ice And Fire. Soft magic is the oldest kind of magic, going back to mythological epics like The Mahabharat and The Odyssey.
Magic systems that tend towards the harder side of the spectrum seem to be the most popular ones in the market today. You can find this kind of a magic system in notable works like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, and more recently, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Stormlight Archives series and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles.
The Sheer Audacity Of A Hard Magic System
“An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
Hard magic systems take an almost scientific approach to magic. They have codified rules that the reader and characters are all aware of, akin to Newton’s Laws of Motion. And the magic in such worlds does not violate these laws.
As a result, hard magic systems are often written from the perspective of a magic wielder and use a protagonist-mentor trope. The mentor can explain the rules of magic to the protagonist and, conveniently, also the audience. Having such well-defined rules of magic allows the protagonist to be creative and intelligent when using, or bending, the rules.
My earliest memory of being amazed by the audacity and cleverness of a protagonist was in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. In these books, Gramarye, a type of magic, arises from the manipulation of energy. This energy can be collected and stored in jewels. People with magical abilities can cast spells to protect themselves from mental, physical and magical attacks of all kinds. Both assaults and protections deplete the stores of the energy of the fighters, before consuming their internal energy, which can result in their death.
For a series with such a system of magic built into it, a pure battle of strength would have been a disaster for the protagonist, Eragon, and had he won, it would have been an unsatisfying victory for the audience. Instead, Eragon, knowing that he can’t beat the antagonist, Galbatorix, in any conventional way, casts empathy spells to assault Galbatorix. Forced to feel the emotions of all his victims, Galbatorix is completely crippled.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson, takes the idea of cleverly bending the rules of magic for an impactful climax a step further. In the first book, The Final Empire, the Dark Lord’s power and immortality itself comes from a clever manipulation of that universe’s rules of magic. Thus, when the protagonist, Vin, deduces his source of power and steals it away from him, the Dark Lord begins to age rapidly and dies.
Often, magic systems based on rules can use plot twists where the cleverness hinges on magical legalese. This is most commonly seen when fantasy novels involve a prophecy which tries to point the reader one way, but in reality the wording creates a clever subterfuge. An example of this trope done really well traces back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. The prophecy regarding the Lord of the Nazgul says, “…not by the hand of man will he fall.” So, when he dies, it is at the hands of Lady Éowyn, a shieldmaiden of Rohan, with the help of Merry, a hobbit.
However, as is the case with a lot of Tolkien-esque tropes, magical legalese has been used so often that it does not really surprise me as a reader any more. And even when it does, the reveal tends to have almost no impact.
The Pure Wonder of A Soft Magic System
“I try to keep the magic magical — something mysterious and dark and dangerous, and something never completely understood. I don’t want to go down the route of having magic schools and classes where, if you say six words, something will reliably happen… Magic is playing with forces you don’t completely understand. It should have a sense of peril about it.”
Soft Magic systems feel lawless, wondrous, whimsical and are always surprising. At the same time, a soft magic system is very difficult to properly foreshadow. Thus, it can very quickly feel like deus ex machina when magic is used to get the protagonists out of trouble.
The magic granted by R’hllor, the Lord of Light, in George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire, is an excellent example of this. While Beric Dondarrion can be resurrected, it is evident to the reader that this may not always be the case, since the magic itself is unpredictable. Thus, each of his deaths maintain a level of tension. Martin further established the unpredictability of the Red God’s magic by bringing Catelyn Stark back to life as Lady Stoneheart. However, unlike Dondarrion, her personality has completely changed. As a result, Martin can use the “back from the dead” trope without it ever feeling convenient. And finally, when Thoros of Myr is killed, it becomes apparent that Dondarrion now has only one life left.
If the reader knows that every time magic is used there is a high probability of it backfiring or having unintended consequences, it racks up the intrigue and tension in the plot.
Having a high cost of using magic is another excellent way to amp up the conflict and tension in the story. N K Jemisin uses this technique in The Broken Kingdoms, where a character can attain inhuman superpowers, but for that, they must eat the heart of a godling. Having eaten the heart of a godling, a character may be able to use insanely powerful magic to aid themselves even if neither they nor the reader understand how it works. Since they first have to go through the effort of finding, trapping and killing a godling, the end result doesn’t feel unearned to the reader.
Blending Hard And Soft Magic Systems
Of course, authors being clever ‘uns, have found ways to make the best of both these worlds.
In The Lord Of The Rings, for example, the ring itself is a hard magic system. Put it on and you turn invisible, but the eye of Sauron can track your location and the wearer develops a debilitating obsession with it. During the climax of the series, Frodo succumbs to his desire for the ring and almost doesn’t destroy it, but he is foiled by Sméagol, who is also obsessed with the ring and accidentally throws himself into the fire while holding it. This ending manages to be both surprising and well-earned.
At the same time, not all magic in Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings is hard magic. The rules for Gandalf’s magic, for example, are never known to the reader. However, they do exist. The Silmarillion suggests that the role of the Maiar of Valinor, of whom Gandalf is one, is only to assist and advise the realm of man. So, when he intervenes to fight the Balrog, an unintended consequence of it is his death. By using a combination of magic systems, the books stop magic from feeling mundane.
Often a hard magic system can lose its sense of wonder and magicalness. Patrick Rothfuss, in The Kingkiller Chronicles, uses this to his advantage. Most magic systems in this series like Sympathy, Sygaldry, and Alchemy are studied at a university level in an almost academic way and used with mathematical precision. However, he also adds a magic system called Naming which is wild and unknown. Neither the reader nor Kvothe, the protagonist, who is studying Naming, quite understand how it works, keeping the magic feeling wondrous.
Finally, one of the more unique combinations of soft and hard magic is the work of JK Rowling. In the Harry Potter universe, the overarching theme of magic is mostly soft and wondrous. Readers aren’t given rules for the magic that explain the moving portraits, the Knight Bus or the animated chocolate frogs. This keeps a high level of whimsy throughout the wizarding world.
However, for specific spells, magical items and creatures that are relevant to the plot, the readers get detailed rules about what magic can do. Both Harry and the reader is aware of what Accio, the Summoning Charm, can do, so when he uses it to win the first task of the Tri-wizarding tournament, it doesn’t feel convenient.
The Want Of A Magical Middle Ground
As a young reader, I moved quickly away from soft magic to hard magic systems. Now, however, I find myself feeling nostalgic for good soft magic systems as the fantasy genre seems to have overcorrected the balance.
Most epic fantasy novels I read now no longer capture my sense of wonder, because of an overemphasis on rules and hard magic. Think of a vacation with a guided tour and a strict itinerary, rather than one where you can wander about freely. As a result, you manage to visit all the monuments without really experiencing the place. Perhaps, it is time to break the rules by not enforcing them too strictly.
Stay fantastical, fantasy.