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Hard and soft magic systems

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The idea of hard magic and soft magic was popularized by Brandon Sanderson for world building and creating magic systems in fictional settings.[1][2][3] The terminology of hard and soft originate from hard and soft sciences, hard science fiction, hard fantasy and soft science fiction and both terms are approximate ways of characterizing two ends of a spectrum.[4][5] Hard magic systems follow specific rules, the magic is controlled and explained to the reader in the narrative detailing the mechanics behind the way the magic 'works', and can be used for building interesting worlds that revolve around the magic system.[6][7] Soft magic systems may not have clearly defined rules or limitations, or provide limited exposition regarding their workings, and are used to create a sense of wonder to the reader.[1][8][9]

Soft magic[edit]

A soft magic system is vague and undefined, with any existing rules or limitations of said magic system never being explained.[10] It creates a sense of awe and deepens the fantastical setting.[11] The focus of these types of stories is not usually on the magic itself and the main character usually isn't a magic user.[4] The main conflict is not solved by magic; instead, it's solved by valuable lessons the main character learns throughout the course of the story. Often when magic is used to solve a problem, it will actually make the problem worse. In these types of stories, the reader is never certain of the dangers and wonders that the characters will encounter and the characters themselves never truly know what can and can't happen.[12]


Stories with soft magic systems include:

  • The Lord of the Rings[13]
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The First Law
  • Star Wars
  • Harry Potter[14]
  • A Song of Ice and Fire [15]

In general, most traditional fairy tales (i.e. the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel etc.) contain elements of soft magic.

Hard magic[edit]

A hard magic system has specific rules surrounding its use and can be used for creating interesting world building by affecting the culture, government or society at large within the fictional world. Clear costs and limitations are outlined for when magic is used and throughout the story, the reader eventually understands what they are and how they work.[12] This allows the magic to feel much more realistic; in some stories the magic may even be considered a type of science within the world and on some occasions may not even be called magic, such as bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. This allows the characters to use magic to solve problems in logical and believable ways. Hard magic needs predictability and consistency; when magic goes wrong, it's from the characters' lack of knowledge, misuse, or mistake when using magic, not because the magic is inherently unpredictable.[10] Hard magic is a useful writing tool and careful application can enhance the character, world building and story plot.[11]

Hard magic does not have to follow the laws of science and there does not have to be an explanation as to why people are able to use magic in the first place. Hard magic is categorised by the reader's understanding of what the magic can do.[4]


Stories with hard magic systems include:

  • Mistborn
  • The Dresden Files
  • Fullmetal Alchemist [16]
  • Hunter x Hunter
  • Kingkiller Chronicles
  • Dragonlance Chronicles
  • My Hero Academia [16]

Hybrid magic systems[edit]

Most magic systems in popular fantasy books fall somewhere between the spectrum of hard and soft magic.[4][12]


Stories with hybrid magic systems include:

  • Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts: Students learn rules around magic; however, there are many spells, abilities and aspects in the rest of the magical world that are left unexplained. Spells rarely draw from the strength of the caster so it focuses more on limitations rather than costs of using magic.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra: The bending is a type of hard magic with specific rules and limitations. The world however has other less well defined types of magic, falling in the soft category, in particular the special powers of Avatars and energy bending
  • The Wheel of Time series: Mostly technical magic and it is fairly clear to the reader what the magic is able to do; however, there are many loose ends that imply something unknown or new around the corner.
  • The Witcher series: Magic is explained to require power drawn from nature, and often requires a certain incantation or magical items in order for a spell to be used. However, the energy and ingredients required for magic are often inconsistent, and some magic that is shown to require a lot of energy and exertion in one scene may be effortless in another. Some usage of magic seems intentionally inconsistent to further the sense of wonder in the Continent's magic system.

Sanderson's laws of magic[edit]

Sanderson's three laws of magic are creative writing guidelines that can be used to create magic systems for fantasy stories.

  1. An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.[4]
  2. Weaknesses, limits and costs are more important than powers.[17]
  3. The author should expand on what is already a part of the magic system before something entirely new is added, as this may otherwise entirely change how the magic systems fits into the fictional world.[18]

See also[edit]

  • Magic (game terminology)
  • Magic system


  1. 1.0 1.1 Johnson, Levi (3 February 2020). "How to Choose Between a Hard or Soft Magic System". Campfire Technology. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  2. Alexander, Alison (7 March 2019). "How to Build Your Novel's Magic System". Mythos Ink. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  3. Howard, Jeff (22 April 2014). Game Magic: A Designer's Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice. CRC Press. pp. 262–264. ISBN 9781466567870. Retrieved 10 June 2020. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Sanderson, Brandon (February 20, 2007). "Sanderson's First Law". Archived from the original on October 17, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  5. Rowenson, Clark R. (11 December 2016). "Types of Magic Part 1: Hard Magic, Soft Magic, and In-Between". crrowenson.com. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  6. Strand, Emily (October 2019). "Dobby the Robot: the Science Fiction in Harry Potter". Mythlore. 38 (1). ISSN 0146-9339. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  7. Nair, Aditya (7 November 2019). "How To Build Magic Systems Using Sanderson's Laws Of Magic". The Curious Reader. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  8. Raizman, Alex. "Hard Vs Soft Magic – Strengths, Weaknesses, and Which to Use". alexraizman.com. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  9. Olson, Matthew A. (7 June 2020). "Hard vs Soft Magic: A Fantasy Spectrum". chaoticanwriter.com. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hello Future Me (February 7, 2018). "On Writing: hard magic systems in fantasy [ Avatar l Fullmetal Alchemist l Mistborn ]". Retrieved November 29, 2018.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Capes, Ashley. "'Soft' Magic Systems Still Have a Place – Mythic Scribes". mythicscribes.com. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Milner, Jodi L. (September 13, 2017). "Magic Systems 101: Pt. 2 Hard Magic vs Soft Magic". My Literary Quest. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  13. Sims, Jordan (2019-11-10). "On Writing: Soft Magic". Medium. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  14. Tierney, Patrick (2019-12-11). "A Harry Potter RPG Will Never Happen Because The Magic System Sucks". TheGamer. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  15. Sims, Jordan (2019-11-10). "On Writing: Soft Magic". Medium. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Gramuglia, Anthony (2020-05-22). "The Secret to Shonen Isn't Action - It's RULES". CBR. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  17. Sanderson, Brandon (January 16, 2012). "Sanderson's Second Law". Archived from the original on August 16, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  18. Sanderson, Brandon (September 25, 2013). "Sanderson's Third Law of Magic". Archived from the original on August 31, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)

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