Adding magic to an existing fictional world can be exciting, but where to start? KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender dives into magic systems to lay this out

Magic, or magical forces, can be brilliant fun for the reader, and great fun for the writer. Though as with most things in writing, there are various approaches to take and a few things to bear in mind. In this new series on magic, I want to take a closer look at how magic and magic systems are discussed and how this can impact stories in a multitude of ways. 

Generally speaking, magic systems fall within two categories, soft and hard

‘Soft’ magic systems have a vague or undefined set of rules to when it is used, such as with Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. ‘Hard’ magic systems have more clearly defined rules, consequences and limitations that govern what characters can and cannot do with magic. For example, a character can use telekinesis but only on objects that they can realistically lift themselves and within a certain distance. 

‘Soft’ magic is about how the magic can be worked into a good narrative, while ‘hard’ magic systems are largely about how the writer designs it to work. Let’s take a closer look at each of these. 

‘Soft’ magic systems
As mentioned, a good example of a ‘soft’ magic system is The Lord of the Rings. From the very beginning, Gandalf is introduced as a wizard, but the reader learns very little about how he is able to do magic. 

The thing is, Gandalf’s abilities are not about how and why he can do magic, it is more about what his magic enables him to do to help others, and connect with the characters. From the very beginning, his relationships with Bilbo, Frodo and other hobbits endear him to the reader, even before the Fellowship of the Ring is formed. 

‘Hard’ magic systems
If you want there to be clear rules for your magic, then you are thinking about a ‘hard’ magic system. These essentially create rules your characters have to obey. For a reader, it becomes about understanding these rules and then seeing them impact the plot. 

In Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, magic is called alchemy and it is governed by The Law of Equivalent Exchange.
“It is impossible to create something out of nothing. If one wishes to obtain something, something of equal value must be given.”
Alchemy never breaks this first rule, and the viewer knows from very early on what the characters can and cannot do when practicing alchemy. This is an unwavering rule that runs throughout, having significant impact on the plot and decisions made possible by the characters.

Now have a think about the magic you are creating in your writing. See if you think it falls closer to a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ magic system. It helps to place both systems at opposite ends of a sliding scale, and imagine where yours would fall.

Of course, this is one way of looking at magic and magic systems, but is by no means the only way. If you know of others, do share them with KnowHow. 

* Header Image by Matt Briney


Do you have any suggestions for KnowHow? If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, tell us. Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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