Weaving some magical elements into your fiction novel?
Learn why a “hard magic system” can add much more to your story by aiding character development through limitation and growth mechanics.
One of the most enticing elements of a fantasy story is how “magic” and certain abilities play a role in the world. What makes a magic system more believable depends on the writer who explains how the magic interacts with the world and the limits set upon it. For this blog post, we are going to dive into the concept of a “hard magic system” to fully understand what benefits and limitations it brings to the story. Please watch the video titled “On Writing: hard magic systems in fantasy [Avatar | Fullmetal Alchemist |Mistborn]” made by the YouTuber Hello Future Me.
“An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic” -Sanderson’s First Law of Magic
This quote from the video tells us that having the reader know the laws surrounding the world’s manifestation of magic is crucial if they want to be engaged with the story. They know what can and cannot be done so they feel like they are able to think alongside the characters as to what could be done to solve a specific problem. The reader can attempt to solve the problems within their own minds instead of feeling like a spectator that has no clue as to what is going on. I like the phrase in the video “a wizard did it” because it accurately explains how having an all-powerful wizard just flick his staff to solve the issue at hand without explanation can cause an audience to disengage from the story. They want to feel apart of the world and solve problems along with the characters.
“Hard magic makes it feel more like it’s the character’s experience, intelligence, and ingenuity that allows them to solve problems.” This quote at time stamp 3:22 is a great example as to what I was saying about hard magic systems benefiting the development of the character. With different dynamics and limitations present in the magic system, the character is encouraged to be creative with their magic usage in order to gain the upper hand in the conflict. An example of different dynamics can be seen in the show Avatar: The Last Airbender (mentioned in the video) because the show uses different types of elements that can overpower or be overpowered by the others. When found to be at a disadvantage during combat or puzzle solving, the magic user must think of ways to manipulate their element and the objects around them for a favorable result. Air cannot beat fire but only strengthen it so what can the air user do to gain the upper hand? How the character goes about solving the matter comes from their experience, intelligence, and/or ingenuity, making them a more dimensional and complicated character. This added depth allows the reader to know more about the character, helping create a relationship that increases interest in the novel.
The actual rule construction of a hard magic system is created typically using three types of parameters:
1. Limitations 2. Weaknesses 3. Costs
The severity of these parameters depends on the author, whether one plays a big or small role in the story world. The bigger the role and influence these have on the story, the harder the magic system.
For limitations, the character would only be able to do so much before coming to a halt at the limit placed by the writer. There is a set value as to how much a person can produce before it becomes physically impossible. This allows the reader to get a sense as to what limitations the characters have so that they don’t have a feel of invincibility, something that breaks relatable aspects between the reader and character. Too much power equals not enough opposition, the readers feels that the character isn’t in danger of dying, making the story quite boring.
Above I explained weaknesses when I was referring to the Avatar example with the different types of elements being used. These weaknesses keep the magic in check to keep it from becoming invincible, another way to dilute the emotion associated with antagonist confrontation. There is no tension within the story if the character keeps doing the same magic and no one can oppose them
And the last parameter, cost. This one can vary to include unique blow backs from for example using the magic too much or in an incompatible way. This consequence aspect forces the character and reader to be mindful of the magic usage, creating another level of tension within the story. When a character is extremely close to violating the rules of their magic, it creates an anxiety-potent atmosphere, making the reader worry about what is going to happen next. This is an example of a story’s pull, what makes the reader want to continue the story and not put the book down.
Captain KT time – the hard magic system in my writing project
Within my world, the magic is called “enerchi” which is a combination of the word “energy” and one’s “inner chi” prevalent in Asian philosophy. It exists in everything, from nonliving to living, but humans just gained the ability to manipulate this enerchi. There are multiple limits as to how it can be used. Each human has a specific neural capacity that they can strengthen through practice and experience to support more enerchi flow. The enerchi from the earth is limitless but how much a person can siphon it is regulated. To boost their ability, certain engineered clothes can act as artificial neural connections but only to the limit of the technology at the time.
Since humans can manipulate enerchi with their thoughts, their hopes and fears have the ability to manifest whether consciously or subconsciously. Yes, the enerchi can be used when the user wants to attack or defend, but it can also be used to create things, beings, and situations. But creating something takes much more enerchi than one person can manage so if many minds focus on creating the same thing, it can become a reality. The limit to this is getting enough people to direct their enerchi towards the same thing.
The weakness of my magic system is that each region has evolved to become specialized in a specific enerchi skill. The more one practices that skill, the more their neural pathways are attuned to that skill and not another. If someone wishes to exercise multiple skills, the practice is more spread out, not allowing one skill to reach its full potential. Those who wish to have a career using a skill must choose only one, usually the one that their people have practiced from hundreds/thousands of years and have an affinity for. The skills are best used in certain situations that require protection, offense, tools/strategy, or perception. One gains an advantage over another depending on the specific situation so that is why teams in my story are made up of people that have become experts in their specialization. They are strong in their area of expertise but when at a disadvantage, one of their members can step in to help.
There aren’t extreme costs in my story. Just the physical and mental fatigue from strenuous things such as combat.
Questions for Novel Navigators:
When magic is implemented into stories, do you think that hard magic systems are essential to connect the readers to the world created?
Do you think that limitations, weaknesses, and costs should all be used in a hard magic system or is just one or two of these elements enough? Have an example of why or why not?
Do your own writings include these elements? Could you give a brief summary as to how it works?
How will this impact your writings in the future?
Do you have any preexisting works that could have benefited from this knowledge?