Our magic series continues as 
KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender takes a closer look at soft magic systems, and how these can intertwine with your worldbuilding and characters. 

Soft magic systems often have a more undefined, or mysterious set of rules and limitations to how they can be used. 

The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-known examples of this, with Middle-Earth full of magical things, places, and people from Rivendell to Saruman. Over the course of the books, the reader is not really told how the magic works, learning its limits, rules or what it requires. 

From very early on, the reader knows Gandalf is a wizard, but whenever he is asked about any specific limitations or costs of his powers, Gandalf gets a little vague. 

It is good to remember that soft magic is a brilliant worldbuilding devise that can be worked into a good narrative. 

One way to approach this comes down to the following: 
  1. Tension, 
  2. Point-of-view, and 
  3. Unpredictability. 

How well the writer can resolve tension and solve problems is essential to a good story. This is where a soft magic system can make things more difficult, because tension is incredibly difficult to build if the reader has no idea of the capabilities of the characters. But that's the thing about soft magic - the reader may not understand much about the limits or costs of it in the story. The reader needs to know when the hero is faced with a real challenge, when the stakes are really high. 

A common way to write this with soft magic is creating a world where virtually anything is possible within the soft magic system, but individual characters might only have specific powers. Harry Potter is a good example here. Harry himself has limited powers, he can't just make up a spell on the spot to do whatever he needs. His capabilities are limited to the spells he has learned and been trained to use since he learned he was a wizard. 

Think about how soft magic fits in with your characters who tell your story. The main point of view affects how the story is told and has a clear impact on the reader. The potential impact here is whether to tell the story from the viewpoint of a magical or a non-magical character, and consider how this may change how you write. 

More of a pattern than a rule, stories with softer magic tend to not be written from the perspective of magic users. This can prove useful for worldbuilding. For instance, if the main character is learning about magic at the same time as the reader, this forms a stronger bond between the two, and can help the reader see magic as a mystical and unknown force in the world. 

Imagine if the main character was a power magical creature from the start. For instance, it would prove difficult for Tolkien to create any mysterious tension around magic and magical forces if the story was told by Gandalf, who would know a lot more about what to expect. Would this then make Gandalf an unreliable narrator? How would this affect and change the story? 

Applying similar thinking to another well-known book, what would Narnia be like for the reader if the story was told by Aslan? 

With its sense of mystery, soft magic is allowed to be unpredictable. If the characters themselves are unsure of the limits or capabilities of their magic, as well as the reader, this can add something really interesting to a story. This helps retain a feeling of mysticism without needing to explain how everything works. 

The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is a great example of unpredictable magic. In the series, magic has something of a personality. It isn't easy to control and can simply decide to do things on its own. If you are looking to set your soft magic system apart, consider how its unpredictability could play into the story, perhaps giving it some form of independence or sentience that would make it a tool to be used, as well as something to cause apprehension and hesitation. 

This way of approaching magic within worldbuilding is just one way to integrate magic into a story to work with and for your characters. 

Think about recent books you’ve read and consider any magical elements. Would you say the world has a soft magic system? Reading and exploring ideas in your intended genre can help build up your knowledge and help you work out what you prefer as a reader, and what different elements you might prefer as a writer.

Main image by Bee Felten-Leidel

Based in Bristol, Eleanor divides her time between lecturing in digital communications and talking about literary and arts projects. She lived in Edinburgh for six years where she worked for Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and discovered her passion for young readers, going on to chair at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Eleanor has had short stories published in Inaccurate Realities and anthology We Need To Talk published by Jurassic London. She is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel.

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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