Recently I watched a video by Daniel Greene called “Dear Authors: Writing Magic Systems,” in which he discussed hard magic versus soft magic, and why one isn’t necessarily better than the other. If you aren’t familiar with his videos, I would check them out as Daniel posts fantasy-related content, like me, but better.
If you are unfamiliar with the distinctions between hard and soft magic, fortunately, it’s pretty easy to at least define the two. Magic systems can be put on a gradient, where systems with strict, well-defined rules are put on the one end and systems with little to no explanation at all are put on the other.
The more rules you give a magic system, the easier for it is for the readers to comprehend. The rules serve as a way to ground your reader, because they know exactly what the magic system can and cannot do. In addition, harder magic systems can add to the realism of the world, if only because, like describing clothing or architecture or culture, describing how magic looks and feels and behaves simply makes the setting more concrete.
On the other hand, the idea of magic can be alluring because it is a force that we cannot understand. One of the elements that is so magnetizing about fantasy is the fact that it is not the real world, that it is impossible. Ineffable. The most beautiful soft magic systems are the ones that sweep you off your feet like a leaf on the wind.
That said, to paraphrase Daniel from his video, the author gets to decide how they want to display their magic system in their novels but there is such a thing as oversharing. Various factors should go into deciding how many rules one’s magic system should have: knowledge of the narrator and specifics of the plot are going to play as much of a role as one’s own personal preferences.
The Hobbit is a good example of a soft magic system based off of how much the narrator knows. There is certainly magic within Middle Earth. The elves have their own magic. But we as a reader have no idea how the magic works, or what exactly it’s capable of until we’re shown directly because of some events in the story. Gandalf has a habit of showing up and using his knowledge and magic to help Bilbo and the dwarves get to their final destination. In a sense, Gandalf teeters on that edge of plot convenience, one of the major pitfalls of soft magic systems. If a reader doesn’t know what it’s capable of and what it isn’t, then they’ll have no choice to believe it when magic does something incredulous that saves the protagonists at the last minute. Yet Tolkien doesn’t just bring in Gandalf to bring the adventurers out of every bad situation. Bilbo’s own cleverness gets him away from Gollum, and gets the party away from spiders and the woodland elves, all without Gandalf and his magic.
On the other hand, if your protagonist uses (and is well-versed in) magic, then whatever rules dictate the magic will need to be apparent. It’s simply a matter of knowledge and perspective. Wheel of Time is a good example, made more so by the fact that plenty of different people end up having a point of view scene. It does give the impression that the One Power is harder magic system; just because someone who doesn’t wield the power is sharing a PoV scene doesn’t mean we as a reader forget what the One Power is capable of. But Robert Jordan is a master when it comes to reminding the readers of misinformation and lack of knowledge as a whole. For example, thanks to the various Aes Sedai perspectives throughout the book (whether they’re learning, like Nynaeve, Egwene, and Elayne, or experienced channelers like Cadsuane or Moiraine), we know the various elements that go into the One Power and that different elements woven together in different weaves create different outcomes. Yet for non-channelers, the only thing they see is the outcome itself, lending a sort of mystery to the Aes Sedai and the One Power.
However, as I said, perspective isn’t the only thing that should dictate the amount of rules that your magic system should have. Usually, there are two different routes one can take when creating a new fantasy concept. The conflict in the story can either be unrelated to the magic system, where magic itself just happens to exist in this new world and may play a role in it, though usually a small one, or the story can make the magic system itself a sort of key point of conflict, perhaps based off of the dangers of that particular system, or conflict over a finite amount of magic, what-have-you.
If magic isn’t going to play a large part in the main conflict of the story, then the story itself does not require knowing what magic is and is not capable of. Again, The Hobbit is a good example of this. While magic permeates Middle Earth, the systems themselves play very little role in the quest that Bilbo and the others embark on. A more contemporary, YA example would be, I would say, Six of Crows. I won’t spoil anything that isn’t already in the book blurb, because it’s a fantastic duology and I would 100% recommend it. However, it is safe to say that although Leigh Bardugo has a pretty good understanding of her magic system because of her previous Shadow and Bone trilogy, and although one of the PoV characters can use magic, the plot itself is about this heist, and about the dynamics between the main cast of characters.
If, however, magic is to play a large part in the story, having a harder magic system will prevent power creep. In fantasy novels, power creep is when a protagonist gets into more and more difficult situations, and despite having barely escape the previous, finds a new well of power that allows them to overpower the newest big bad. Generally, this can just be attributed to a lack of understanding of magic’s capabilities. Without rules, the magic just becomes plot armor. With rules, it forces the protagonist to think of new and clever ways to use whatever is at their disposal. Maybe they can use magic in a different, not necessarily more powerful, way. Or maybe they find a way to win that doesn’t require magic at all.
A good example of how power creep can really hurt a book is the A Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. I personally would not recommend this series, so there are going to be some spoilers. I’ll also say I only read this series once, and as it was published, so if there are gaps in my memory, sorry, but the overall point still stands. Celaena Sardothien as a character has little to no magic in the first two (three?) books, which means that those books have a very different feel from the rest. When magic is brought back to Erilea and it’s revealed that Celaena is actually Aelin Galathynius, a Fae of unknown power. With each new installment to the series, she dives further and further into her “well” of magic abilities, and can never find its depth. At a certain point, it didn’t seem worth the bother to fear for her character, because although there are some things she could not escape from (admittedly, like the iron box), when it came to facing overwhelming numbers, I knew for a fact that in the moment of truth she would go as far down into her well of magic as she could, would still not reach the bottom, but would still smite all of her enemies before anyone important could bite the bullet.
On the other hand, Avatar the Last Airbender does the very opposite. I know, it’s a TV series, not a book, but the way it handles bending and the Big Bad of the series makes it a worthwhile study. A Throne of Glass is, in a way, almost a hard magic system, because besides its lack of description when it came to the full extent of Aelin’s magic (and yes, I know it explains why she’s so powerful, but that’s still no excuse), it does have a pretty good grasp on what an average magic-user is capable of. But AtLA has an incredibly good grasp on it. The writers had a thorough understanding of what each type of bending was, what it looked like, what it could do. They understood what the Avatar could do, capable of bending all four elements. And they gave us a Big Bad who is mysterious, evil, and powerful in his own right.
AtLA works because it knew from the get-go where it was heading. Ozai was introduced early on, but he wasn’t the one Aang would end up fighting in the finale of season 1, or even season 2. The series gave us other baddies, powerful in their own right, and gave us a protagonist who is still young and learning. The power levels equaled out, and if the Avatar State gave Aang a way to win, well, he didn’t have full control over when he could enter the Avatar State, and it was not without its drawbacks. Then, in the final conflict, between Aang and Ozai, Aang is a fully-fledged Avatar able to bend all four elements, fighting against a fire-bending master at a time when his bending is improved a hundred-fold. Aang very nearly loses because he’s denied the Avatar State. But even when he unlocks it again, he doesn’t defeat Ozai fully while in the Avatar State. He steps out of it, and takes Ozai’s bending away. I think that’s the key. When Ozai is well and truly defeated, it is not with the knowledge, skills, and weight of the previous avatars backing Aang. It is Aang, on his own, making a decision that went against every other Avatar’s advice.
I digress. My point is, if you’re going to have a magic-user as your protagonist, or if you’re going to have magic at the focal point of the conflict of your story, it’s important to understand fully what your magic system is capable of. Your readers don’t necessarily have to know every single rule, especially not from the get-go, but having a firm grasp on what the magic can do will prevent power creep. You can always introduce rules as needed, but remember, your readers don’t have to know everything that you as the author knows. Your characters don’t have to know everything you as the author knows. Beyond that, it boils down to preference: yours, and your readers.
For me, personally, as a reader, I like knowing that there are rules to a magic system, but as long as it is set up well enough that narrow escapes via magic do not necessarily feel like convenience or plot armor, I don’t need the entire rule-book of the system. I mean, I love magic, and I love it all the more if it feels real. But I, personally, don’t want every single magic system I read to be fully outlined and explained. Knowing the full extent of its capabilities and pitfalls can, on occasion, take away from the beautiful mysticism that drew me to magic in the first place. But again, this, at least, is just my preference.