Types of Magic

Warning: There are going to be a few controversial opinions in this blog post. If you’re dearly attached to a particular magic system and would rather not read about how it’s categorized or if you’re the type of person who is going to fly into a murderous rage because *spoiler* Star Trek is identified as having a Magic System, turn back now. Or, you know, chill.robertburne.com

We all know, deep down, even if we haven’t properly thought about it, that there are several types of Magic in Fiction – and that’s fiction with a capital F because I mean it to include books, songs, movies, TV shows, and anything in between. There are tons and tons of examples, and almost every piece of Fiction has a fresh approach to Magic (and a lot of them don’t call it magic).

So let’s begin.

Types of Magic 1: Hard

Hard Magic is something that’s rarely seen outside of books. And this is because Hard Magic is… Hard. In the sense that it’s difficult to produce coherently and it’s especially difficult to consume in a world-building exercise. Hard Magic has very solid rules that it has to adhere to and very definite no-go areas. An example of this is the magic system known as the Will and the Word in the Belgariad and other books set in this world. I call this Hard Magic because it’s limited by very specific rules and has definite components – the Will and the Word. There is no third component that you can slot in to take the place of either of the first two.

There are, of course, examples that break the rules or don’t fall under the traditional Fiction sections. You probably don’t think of The Matrix as being magical, but indeed, unless you can explain all the intricacies of how the world works, it is Magic. And it’s a hard form as well. There are very definite rules in The Matrix – in fact, they’re the same rules as those in our own world since that’s what they modeled The Matrix on.

Types of Magic 2: Soft

The Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of Soft Magic done right – Soft Magic doesn’t mean it is ill-defined or nebulous, it simply means that the rules are not as rigid and can be flexible. And yes, I know that Tolkien wrote huge and complex backstories and explanations of things like the Maia, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of the canonical main text.

In the Lord of the Rings, we never really know what magic Gandalf has. Is it something to do with his staff? His hat? Is it his eyebrows?

He certainly uses magic – whether to blow impressive smoke rings or create fireworks that turn into dragons makes no difference, it’s still soft magic because we do not know what powers it or what the rules are.

For example, why didn’t Gandalf simply nuke the Orc army from high in the sky? He clearly has a vast amount of power when he comes back as Gandalf the White, so why not use his new power to solve all the problems? JRR Tolkien just shrugs his shoulders and walks away, blowing smoke rings.

Types of Magic 3: Hybrid

This is one of the most interesting forms that magic can take in Fiction. When you play with Hybrid Systems, it gets really complicated. I hate to harp on it again, but Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive really is an excellent example of this. In his world, you NEED the mysterious Stormlight to use magic.

There is no other way.

Unless you don’t need it and you can generate your own magic.

Or you’re a strange wind sprite.

Or a God who lives in the clouds.

You see? There are so many mixed systems in Sanderson’s work that it makes it interesting.

If we know exactly how all magic in a world works, we’re inclined to no longer think of it as special. Throwing in some smatterings of Soft Magic keeps us guessing and interested.

We never know for sure that something is going to happen the way we expect, and that makes for interesting plots.

Types of Magic 4: Science

This is where I get into trouble often when talking to people – Science Magic. When Asimov says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, it’s fine. When I translate that to say that the USS Enterprise falls firmly into the realm of Magic, people get all offended.

Let me preface this by saying that I *am* a Star Trek fan. I always will be – it’s a grand world, full of wonder and mystery and… magic. Even if we brush aside the wonderfully Magical example of Q and his constant need to show off, the whole thing is deeply seated in magic that’s *almost* Hard but isn’t quite there. And yes, I know that *now* we have brought some of what we see in Star Trek into or close to mainstream science but no amount of blueprints will ever persuade me that people actually understand how a Nacelle works – therefore, it’s magic!

Now Science Magic is an interesting creature because it really straddles the gap between Science and Magic very effectively. It’s just sciencey (Sciency?) enough that people can identify with it and pore over the aforementioned blueprints, all while arguing that NCC-1701 is better than NCC-1764 because of the efficiency of their transporters.

It’s also magicy (Magicky?) enough to keep people like me, who lack an engineering degree, interested.

Example time!

Now, I don’t know enough about other people’s world-building process, so I need to use my world as an example. The way I’ve set up the Octology I’m currently writing (the first book is available for purchase here) is by using something like the elements described in Chinese Wuxing Philosophy. It’s a modification of the elements/phases and their interactions, as well as the addition of three others.

My magic system is a Hard System. There are definitely rules to it and they cannot be broken by anyone, not even the gods themselves. The rules can, sometimes, be bent – but there are always consequences. Let’s look particularly at one element that doesn’t appear in the traditional sense – “Void”. Void is an absence of something – that’s easy enough to imagine and put down on paper. But what does it do for a Magic System? We all know what Fire, Water, and Earth do, but what conceivable use could Void have in a world like this?

Well, we can use Void to effectively nullify something else. In the world of Octology, each element has an equal and opposite partner. Each element influences that partner. Void, alone among the elements, has no direct partner and so is not influenced by any others.

You might think that this makes Void seem very strong. After all, it cannot be destroyed by Fire and cannot be influenced by Water’s calming effects. However, this comes at a cost. Though Void can nullify another element, it takes a lot more effort, and it carries a much higher price.

Caveat Emptor

These are not exhaustive. They may not even be right in your context – there’s nothing forcing any Magic System to adhere to any of the categories that I’ve so loosely defined above. And that’s on purpose – imagine if we tried to pigeonhole every Magic System into a tight little box? It’d be a huge drain on creativity and would lead to some pretty peculiar arguments on the internet.

All that these rules help me do is categorize my own Magic Systems and help me think about how other people have written Magic Systems that I enjoy. I very much encourage you to come up with your own list. If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting exercise.

Come on back next week for Part 5 in the series: Lying

If you’ve missed them…

Part 1: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part One) – Rules

Part 2: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Two) – Writing Magic Systems is Hard. And it Should Be.

Part 3: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Three) – Artifacts

Writing Magic Systems (Part 4)
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