Being a baby writer is a tough gig. I’m not one, to be clear, but I remember being one. I remember struggling to answer a multitude of questions, all of which begin with “is it okay if…” In most cases, the answer was “yes.” In a few, the answers were “maybe, but you should check with an expert.” Only in rare cases was the answer a firm “no” (and I never asked a question that deserved a no, so good for me).
The reddit user forum, /r/fantasywriters is a great place to learn. I leaned on it heavily when I jumped back into writing in 2015 and 2016. I’ve gradually grown away from it as my confidence has grown, but I still follow it and occasionally participate, if nothing more than to hopefully help motivate new writers to keep trying. For the most part, I think the advice there is solid. Most writers with some years under their belt seem to understand that no advice is set in concrete, and that their methods are not necessarily the same ones that will work for others.
A common question revolves around magic and how to describe it. There are usually a couple of posts a week where someone wants to describe their “magic system” and ask if it sounds okay to others. Which, sure, they generally sound fine. How you present it in a story matters more than the bullet point list of mechanics you’ve provided. A lot of responses also point back to Brandon Sanderson, who has written some well-received advice on the Laws of Magic.
You can read those at your leisure. Some of you probably have. That’s a fine jumping off point for magic and how to handle writing it. I’d like to define them in a slightly different way though, one that still gibes with what Sanderson is providing. Call it a different way of thinking about the same thing. And it’s a single rule. One rule to bind them all.
The Trollbreath Law of Magical Systems: The difference between soft magic and hard magic is the perspective of the narrator.
Think of it like a car. You may drive one. You may know how to start it, steer it, perhaps even fill the fluid levels or change a flat tire. You probably do not know how to tune the engine, what the correct ignition timing is, how to drop a transmission and rebuild it. Those tasks you leave up to an expert, a mechanic. We could not write a story about getting a tune up with you as the narrator that accurately describes the intricacies of the car’s internal combustion engine and how it functions.
For Tolkien, the narrator was a hobbit. Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. Neither are magic users, though both experience a great deal of magic in their adventures. Gandalf lights their way with his staff, creates fire, speaks to moths, sends explosive blasts against his enemy. They fight undead, wield magical swords, witness trolls turned to stone. But neither Bilbo nor Frodo have any understanding of how this magic works. There is no need to spend a single moment of time getting into the intricacies of these powers. It is enough to know Gandalf is a wizard, and wizards can perform magical feats. Magic exists.
But – and this is most important – Gandalf does not solve all their problems. On this, I agree with Sanderson 100%. If you are writing from the perspective of Bilbo, the story must hinge on Bilbo’s actions, not Gandalf’s. Gandalf may provide support with his many undefined magical abilities, but the ultimate solution to Bilbo’s situation must come from the action of Bilbo himself. And it does in almost every instance. Where it does not, it’s never critical to the story.
Conversely, if you are writing from the perspective of the person who DOES the magic, you might want to think more carefully about your magic system. This doesn’t mean you have to spend endless hours detailing out every last spell, potion ingredient, effect. But having a solid idea about where magic comes from, how it’s called upon, what it can achieve, and – most importantly – what it cannot, will really help you. You can still leave the full details hidden to the reader to preserve a sense of wonder and mystery. But this is going to be a far more “hard magic” system than the former.
To look at the car again. You are the mechanic. You may refer to a technical manual for details on a specific model (let’s call this your spell book) that help you correctly identify problems, repair issues. But most tasks are easy and obvious to you, things the average driver simply doesn’t know how to do. Changing the spark plugs. Repairing a head gasket. If we write the story of the tune up from your perspective, we are going to learn a ton about how the engine functions.
Sanderson shows the value of hard magic well in Mistborn, the first of the series of the same name. The magic hinges on the ingestion of various metals which provide brief bursts of power the magic user can call upon, each with unique effects. The powers are clear, well defined, and he even provides a training montage to help us learn them. I recommend the first book if you’re interested in the most obvious and clear example of a hard magical system. It’s a fun read, too.
However, the series also reveals one of the problems of hard magic systems. If you’re going to write more than one book (which is never a given at the time you produce the first one), a system of hard magic might present limits you hadn’t intended and you now need to overcome. The writer is then tempted to expand the system, which is like retconning. You have to go back and change what we already understood, which convolutes the engine driving your magic. Now there’s not four metals, but five, six, and there’s some additional things that can happen, and it starts to become very complicated and very messy. For me at least.
Which may be one reason why I prefer soft systems. I prefer to write from the perspective of those with little magical power, but who may be steeped in magical systems. Troll, in my story Fox and Troll Steal Math, is a good example of that. Troll himself has very little magic, but has spent his life surrounded by it and is attuned to it to some degree. He can recognize it, even when it’s not obvious. But he could no more create a living steam automaton using the powers of steamomancy than he could wriggle through a very small hole like his companion Fox can.
It’s all a matter of perspective. What point of view you are providing the reader will determine how you present your magic. Whether it’s confined by rigid laws, or absolutely and criminally unexplained. Let’s face it, I’m a firm believer in “explain as little as you have to” to the reader. Readers are smart and usually figure it out. And, sometimes, it’s good to leave them with questions that draw them back to your work again and again, hoping to find answers. Just don’t treat them like babies.