WRITING KNOWHOW On Hard magic Part I

Our magic series continues as KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender takes a closer look at hard magic systems, and how they are an integral part of your worldbuilding.

We’re continuing our magical journey, looking at how magic can work and taking a closer look at soft magic systems. Now, let’s look at what is generally called ‘hard’ magic systems.

‘Hard’ magic systems have more clearly defined rules, consequences and limitations that govern what characters can and cannot do with magic. Magic, and how your magic works, can set your fantasy novel apart from others. Think about the role your magic plays in the world you’ve created, how characters use it to solve problems, and the problems it can create. All of this plays a part in creating a unique magic system, and weaves into the fabric of the world, the characters and their lives.

Hard magic allows the reader to feel much more a part of the story; aligning themselves with the characters as they predict how the magic you’ve created could be used in any given circumstance.

So how do you actually design a Hard magic system?

One way to approach this comes down to a few things. Here, we'll look at:
  1. Predictability
  2. Limitations
Typically, the harder your magic system, the more specific you have to be about its rules and consequences. Your Hard magic system needs a level of ‘predictability’, outlines or guidelines that offer a sense of consistency. 

Your Hard magic can, of course, have instances of unpredictability, showing disastrous or unpredicted consequences and what happens when the magic goes horribly wrong. These unpredictable effects often come from a character's lack of knowledge, mistakes or misuse of the intended magic, not because the magic is inherently unpredictable. 

In Fullmetal Alchemist, a Japanese manga by Hiromu Arakawa, magic is called alchemy and it is governed by The Law of Equivalent Exchange and demonstrates well how predictability is dependent on rules and consequences. An attempt is made to bring someone back from the dead but instead creates a ghoulish monster and destroys a character’s entire physical body. This is not because the magic itself was unpredictable, but because the characters performing the transmutation didn't understand The Law of Equivalent Exchange, the rule that governs all alchemy. 

Think about your characters and the powers and abilities that they have. What limits are there on their powers? Can your protagonist control peoples’ minds, but only as long as they can see them? 

The most common form of limitation is some sort of defined limit of strength, training or mental acumen of the character performing the magic. If you want to make your magic system work a little differently, then think about not relying on this particular limitation. Perhaps certain powers can be cancelled out. What would your character do then? Or maybe it is affected by certain things in the environment around them, like planetary orbits, gases in the atmosphere, minerals in the ground. This way, your character has to be aware of their surroundings at all times, or things can go against them.

These are just two areas to bear in mind when thinking about creating a Hard magic system. And there are more to come! Think about your magical characters and the rules and guidelines they need to follow in order to perform spells or complete magical feats. The more you think about how they can do what they can do, the better this will come across to the reader, and your magic will be more ingrained into your world, your characters and your plot.

Main image by Greg Rakozy

Based in Bristol, Eleanor Pender 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. 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, do tell us! Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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