Why Soft Magic Systems Are So Hard to Write 🪄

It took me two attempts to finish reading For the Throne by Hannah Whitten. At first, I thought I was just bored because the book started off with different POV characters. But in the end, the thing that was really bothering me was the magic system.

Soft and hard magic systems are like the difference between Star Wars and Project Hail Mary. Everyone’s favourite space opera is pretty approachable even if you don’t care a lick about science, while Project Hail Mary, from the author of The Martian, will only appeal to those who are willing to learn about the nitty gritty details of the science at play.

The Nerds vs. the Daydreamers

Fantasy writers treat magic in a similar way. Brandon Sanderson, for instance, will build out magic systems like exact science with clear rules, parameters, cause and effect. It’s intricate and stunning in its complexity. The unravelling of each story is as much about each character learning about the lengths and limitations of their power. There are checks and balances on what they can do, ensuring that they’re not so overpowered as to be without weakness.

Studio Ghibli films and books like Howl’s Moving Castle, on the other hand, show you a door with a four-coloured dial that opens onto four different locations, without ever telling you how it works or why. No waxing eloquent about the intricacies of dimension hopping, worm holes, or other explanations of portals between worlds. The magic just is, and it works just fine until it doesn’t.

The challenge with a soft magic system, then, is presenting unbelievable things as believable, whether rationale is present or not. It’s easier to do this with some magics than others. Howl’s Moving Castle — the book, by Diane Wynn Jones — is a middle grade adventure that’s meant to be wild, whimsical, and somewhat hilarious anyway, so she gets away with a lot. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, while perhaps a touch more serious, has a similar touch. The main character is swept into a world of spirits with no explanation for how or why. She tumbles through an entire operation of magical creatures and logistics used to keep their establishment running. Along the way, she meets the witch at the very top, who uses magic to petrify the rest of the spirits into submissiveness, and everything the witch does is so she can care for the giant baby she calls her child. (I’m not kidding, go watch it, it’s great.) This is a great example for why soft magic is so hard to write: without explanation that seems logical to the reader, it sounds absolutely NUTTY 🐿️ (but in Ghibli’s hands, the film is a sublime masterpiece).

The Wilderwood Series

For the Throne and its predecessor, For the Wolf, are very much the opposite of “whimsy.” These books are dark and moody fantasies, a tale of twin sisters unwittingly rooted in a prophecy they have no desire to fulfill, nor knowledge on how to do so. Dark, moody fantasy is one of my favourite genres, whether I’m reading or writing, so I was expecting this series to be everything I loved and more. And I did enjoy aspects of it, such as the creative nods to Little Red Riding Hood in For the Wolf. But I quickly grew weary of the sisters’ discoveries of the feeling and function of their magic, which happened largely through trial and error and a mysterious, innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. For reasons that can only be described as a convenient plot device, one sister’s magic can be transferred through kissing. Even more conveniently, her enemies-to-lovers-fated love interest is the only specimen available for the task.

Ahem. But that’s besides the point.

In order to channel these two distinct yet mirroring magic systems — one for the Wilderwood and one for the Shadowlands — the twin sisters in this series use the magic of each one with matching ambiguity. They feel it in their bones, in their veins, in their bodies; and unleash their power by spreading their hands and … waiting for the magic to respond how they need it. It never seems to work the same way twice. There doesn’t seem to be a reason why they can access it so directly except for something about a prophecy set in motion centuries ago. This leads to dissatisfying discussions around theories and countless ambling adventures across woodlands or up mountains that present as though there’s logical reasoning behind each choice when, really, it’s the equivalent of going on a long and dangerous trek because one of the characters just feels in their gut that it’s the right thing to do.

But What Do You Think?

Maybe I’m just a kill joy. Maybe I’m just not be the audience for this series because I suddenly prefer magic systems with more clearly defined rules! But my undying love for Studio Ghibli seems to say that soft magic systems have a place in my heart too … if done well. So are soft magic systems just more conducive to screenwriting? Or maybe to a child’s more permissive imagination? Do you have any soft-magic book recommendations you think I might enjoy? Fire away — my inbox is always open. 📚✨🔮🪄

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