Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On Magic

    I was having trouble thinking up something to talk about for this blog but I still felt like writing.  I wanted to type and I wanted to create.  There really wasn't anything coming to my head though so I decided to go back to some old topics I've considered writing on.  Now, I'm no expert by any stretch of the word on writing.  Despite that, I'd like to talk about magic systems in writing.  Most specifically "soft" and "hard" magic systems.  A lot of this information and these opinions are from a small work Brandon Sanderson did called "Sanderson's First Law" and I may touch on some topics he wrote in his second law as well.  Here's a link if you'd rather read about the laws:

    So magic is incredibly interesting.  In many novels it is the driving force behind all the politics, adventure, mysteries, etc.  Magic often helps if not outright carries the plot.  This isn't a bad thing necessarily!  In the Harry Potter Books, magic is so central to everything in the wizarding world and all the story can be linked to magical events or magic itself.  Harry Potter is also fantastic so this clearly isn't bad.  Magic is a wondrous force of some kind that helps define the fantasy genre though isn't required for it.

    Let's look at what I mentioned briefly: soft and hard magic.  Nothing about magic is defined in reality and fantasy can throw out the rules it wants to anyway so long as there's a good enough explanation.  However, some magic has very little explanation and this is called soft magic.  A lot of Sanderson's first law deals with how much characters can rely on the magic for your plot to be successful.  The less well explained the magic is the less it can be relied on or it will feel too much like deus ex machina.  That doesn't mean soft magic systems have no place in books mind you!  Just that the heroes can't solve all their problems with it.  For example, in Lord of the Rings there isn't much explanation of what Wizards are or how they do their magic nor the elvish magic.  Despite this there is well used magic throughout that doesn't hurt the story.

    An example of hard magic that comes to mind is in one of Sanderson's books, Mistborn.  Other than that I'm having trouble thinking of any good examples...  In Mistborn, the magic system is called Allomancy and the rules are defined very sharply.  They are also pretty simple for the most part and it's in tandem with everything else that makes it exciting.  There are also a few unexplained (to start) exceptions to the rules that keep a good amount of mystery.

    Most magic systems are much more in between than these examples and lean one way or another.  Harry Potter has a pretty soft magic system.  Some things are explained but for the most part you can do whatever you'd like with magic. However, the characters cannot due to skill or experience so they still have to rely on using other things to solve their problems quite often.  An example of a mostly hard magic system is the alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist.  You could actually make an argument that this system of magic is entirely a hard system but it's tough to draw any lines with these.  In Fullmetal Alchemist you are able to transmute a set of materials to their equivalent in a different form.  If you want to make wood you need the proper elements to do so: to my knowledge that's entirely hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen.  So if you take something with carbon such as coal (which also has hydrogen and oxygen by the way) with the right amount of water you could create a tree.  Which means you could also create paper or a clock's body (you'd probably need metal for the gears).  However, it takes a lot of study as well to not only know how things are composed and work but how to concentrate just right with the magic symbol thing (transmutation circle).  They don't ever really explain why those are necessary (I don't think) nor why the main character doesn't need one.  So there are soft elements to the system, it isn't utterly explained.  Also, as a side note, what energy does it use to fuel the change?  Is it something inside the alchemist?  And what makes the glow?!

    I have to say, I enjoy hard magic more than soft magic as the constraints make for the most interesting methods and situations.  For example, should you not have as much mass as the person you are "pushing' in Mistborn you will go flying backward, not them, but if there is something with more mass like a building or the ground on the opposite side then the other person will go flying.  This allows for not only interesting battles but also clever tricks like using coins on the ground to "jump" around the city.  The possibilities for situations are incredible as well as difficulties for the characters in other ways.  In essence, I like what the constraints add to the story and the feel of the magic over the wonder and potential power given by most softer systems.  Hard magic makes me think and it makes my mind fly through possibilities then the author surprises me with their use anyway.  It's clever and exciting!

    One last thing I want to mention is the main aspect of Sanderson's Second Law: "Limitations > Powers".  In essence, it is the limitations of magic that often make them interesting.  Using Mistborn as an example again, the allomancer needs to have the metal (we'll go with steel for this one) ingested.  Steel allows you to use your weight to push on metal with your own mass (as well as mass that affects you like a wall).  However, you cannot push on metal inside someone else.  You only have your own mass to work with and you have to face the consequences of pushing something greater than you.  You only have a certain amount and the harder you "burn" it the faster it runs out.  In addition, extended use can have serious consequences on the body (shown with other metals more often).  You cannot surpass the limitations here and that adds so much that you can barely even think of to the action and the story.  This also means, the stronger something is the more its limitations have to be.  For example, Atium is the strongest metal to burn but burns out the fastest making it more of a trump card than a way to win every fight.

    I'd say read the laws for yourself as they are interesting and think about the magic of books you like.  Do you tend to prefer soft magic systems or hard magic systems?

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