The Magic System Spectrum
What sets fantasy apart from all stories is magic.
I discovered that magic systems in fantasy fiction fall on a spectrum from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’.
This blog post series is a deep-dive into the hard magic of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the firm magic of the Harry Potter series, the soft magic of Lord of the Rings.
We’ll look at what qualities of a magic system determine where it lies on the spectrum, and how authors use each type of magic to enhance their storytelling.
Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic systems feature strict rules and function like a science. They are the easiest to codify thanks to their clearly defined scope, consequences, limitations, and costs that govern what magic can and can’t do within the storyworld.
Hard Magic in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’
In Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s animated television series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, the magic system is the telekinetic manipulation – called ‘bending’ – of the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire.
The rules of bending are straightforward:
- Except for the avatar, benders can only manipulate one of the four elements.
- The ability to bend is innate (e.g. Katara was born a waterbender but her brother Soka was not), and determined by which nation a character is born into. (e.g. all waterbenders are born into a Water Tribe)
- Bending is a skill acquired through study and discipline.
- Bending is achieved through physical movements and gestures based on Chinese martial arts, and each element requires a different style of movement.
In ‘Avatar’, bending is a hard magic system because use of the magic largely conforms to the four pre-established rules above.
Because bending is so central to the story, ‘Avatar’s’ writers know the audience needs to understand the basics of how magic works in the storyworld in order to make sense of narrative and understand the characters. So each episode begins with a prologue that introduces the elemental magic system, and explains the extra bending abilities of the avatar whose purpose is to restore balance. The prologue also establishes the stakes: the avatar has disappeared and the storyworld has fallen out of balance with the powerful Fire Nation attacking other nations.
Bend But Don’t Break
‘Avatar’ pushes the boundaries of its hard magic system, but it doesn’t break its own rules. Bending isn’t mysterious or full of major twists in terms of how the magic works.
Occasionally there is a new bending style or extension about what the bending magic is capable of. But these new add-ons are logical and grounded in the magic that has come before. (e.g. Aang’s avatar state and ability to spirit bend, the extension of firebending to lightning, waterbending to bloodbending, and earthbending to lavabending).
The writers make the extensions of the magic system credible by mostly following their own pre-existing rules, and providing foreshadowing that appears organically within the plot.
Harder Magic in ‘Mistborn’
Because the rules that control magic in Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Mistborn’ series are more strict and prescriptive than ‘Avatar’, ‘Mistborn’s’ magic is harder.
In Mistborn, telekinesis magic only works on objects the character would be able to physically lift themselves.
But there isn’t an unbreakable, scientifically-determined limit on the amount of an element that a bender can move in ‘Avatar’. Benders are limited in the amount of an element they can bend, but this limitation comes from the softer aspects of the magic system (i.e. an individual bender’s skill level and confidence).
Very Hard Magic in ‘FullMetal Alchemist’
The magic in Hiromu Arakawa’s Japanese magna series ‘Fullmetal Alchemist: The Brotherhood’ is harder than both ‘Avatar’ and ‘Mistborn’ because the rules are so precise they create a formula.
Arakawa’s magic system of alchemy is governed by the laws of equivalent exchange: “It is impossible to create something out of the nothing. If one wishes to obtain, then something of equal value must be given.”
We see a character in ‘Fullmetal’ assemble a radio from a pile of pieces with magic, but all the pieces were there to begin with – none where created out of thin air. But a firebender can conjure fire out of thin air, making ‘Avatar’s magic softer than ‘Fullmetal’s’.
Storytelling with Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic systems require the highest level of internal consistency from writers. They also impose limits on a writer’s storytelling options since there are more rules to consider when using the magic narratively.
Because the rules of a hard magic system are so specific to the narrative, writers need clearly explain the rules to audiences so they can follow the story without confusion. Hence the explanatory prologue that appears before every episode of both ‘Avatar’ and ‘Fullmetal’.
But since hard magic is explained so thoroughly for plot purposes, it’s more difficult for writers to maintain their magic’s appeal of mystery and surprise.
With a very hard magic system like ‘Fullmetal’, audiences know – and even can reliably predict – what the characters can and can’t do with a hard magic system in any given circumstance. This makes it more difficult for writers to pull off genuine surprises and twists without breaking their own rules.
A common way writers stay a step ahead of their audiences is by withholding crucial information about the magic system from their characters, and thus from the audience. But the harder the magic system is, the more predictable it is. Therefore the more difficult withholding information without breaking the rules becomes.
‘Avatar’ For The Win
The writers of ‘Avatar’ address this issue by focusing the narrative on the character arcs of Aang and especially Prince Zuko, not on the capabilities of the magic system. DiMartino and Konietzko excel at balancing character development with their magic system, and the result is that bending is superbly integrated into the character arcs of ‘Avatar’s’ well-designed cast.
This smart approach takes the burden of keeping the plot moving forward off the magic system. It also keeps the audience – which may lose interest once they can predict how magic will be used in the story’s climax – engaged with ‘Avatar’s’ emotionally compelling characters.
‘Dune’ – fantasy’s cousin
Hard magic systems can form a bridge from fantasy to science fiction, and the lines between the two genres can be blurred.
Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is classified as science fiction, but the enhanced abilities produced in humans by ‘the spice’ are magical. The complex ecosystem ‘the spice’ creates on Arrakis is the core of Herbert’s geopolitical worldbuilding, another trait that fantasy shares with science fiction, and one that is closely related to magic systems.
Pros and Cons of Writing with Hard Magic
How effectively a writer uses magic – no matter how hard or soft – to tell their story varies widely, and isn’t dictated by where the magic falls on the spectrum.
Writers of hard magic systems have the advantage of relatively predictable and stable magic that slots easily into character design and worldbuilding. (e.g. the four nations of ‘Avatar’ are sorted by the four elements) But writers of hard magic also have a more difficult challenge keeping their magic fresh and engaging.
More Posts In This Series
Part 2 – ‘Magic User Spectrum of ‘Harry Potter” – the differences between firm, flexible, and soft magic users.
Part 3 – ‘Dementors and the Patronus in ‘Harry Potter” – how Rowling uses firm and soft magical elements in combination.
Part 4 – ‘Magical Conflict in ‘Harry Potter’ – how and why Rowling uses firm and soft magic to create and resolve conflict throughout the series.
Part 5 – ‘The Thematic Magic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – how Tolkien uses soft magic to convey theme.
Which do you enjoy reading more – soft or hard magic systems? Tell me why in the comments!