Let's discuss magic!

Magic is a part of any fantasy story providing that fantasy story has magic in it. As such a large topic I wanted to share my thoughts on magic and see what others had to share. In my opinion there are two main types of magic: Hard magic and free magic. I was originally going to categorize them as strict and floofy but floofy isn’t a word as my spell check keeps reminding me.

Let’s talk about “Hard Magic” first. Hard magic adheres to a specific set of rules. For example the “Ignis” spell will summon fire(Cause it’s gotta be latin). There’s not really much up to interpretation with hard magic and that’s okay. The advantages here are pretty clear. You can explain the magic user’s spells ahead of time so the reader knows exactly what they’re capable of. This means, when done well, the reader will never feel you’re just pulling out powers as the plot demands it. If you’re as self conscious as I then it’s relieving to think about.

Another good advantage to the hard magic system is what I like to call fan bonuses. Fans of your story will know that the “Ignis” spell will summon fire and feel connected through that. It’s almost like adding memes to your stories that your readers can share while normies scratch their heads in confusion.

One final idea with hard magic is something I’ve wanted to employ but haven’t yet, and it actually ties in with world building. If saying “Ignis” and waving your arms around like a madman in a specific way summons fire, who discovered it? How was that discovered? Most readers probably won’t think about this stuff unless you bring it up, so consider it an optional plot point to pursue when using a hard magic system.

One of the major negatives with hard magic is there’s no real mystery. That’s where free magic comes in. Sometimes weird, ‘floaty’ magic is the way to go. A lot of people berate the idea of free magic. One of my English teachers in High School flat out said fantasy is a bad genre as you can just use magic to negate any conflict.(He was a real inspiration to me as an aspiring fantasy writer). Despite this it’s my belief that free magic can be used well.

I don’t really have much experience using free magic in my stories(I’m a hard kind of guy), but I feel it’s best used in an overarching way. Instead of a tool, it just is. For example a gateway to another world that could open anywhere at anytime for anyone.(I’m talking about you Narnia).

One idea to prevent lack of conflict is to prevent characters from ‘using’ free magic as they do hard magic, instead it’s just a supernatural force that may be driven by some divine god or just exist mysteriously. You can also have the character manipulate the already existing force with varying results. One common example that comes to mind is the idea of fate. Sometimes you can weave your fate, other times it’s locked in place. The conflict then arises from the character needing to learn how and why they can manipulate this force to do one thing, but not something else(like save a loved one). You actually see this conflict a lot in Science Fiction with time travel.

When it comes to free magic I personally enjoy the idea of a character going almost mad trying to figure this system out. Anytime it starts to make sense something else random happens until the character finally concedes that it’s beyond their comprehension and they’re playing with fire possibly losing themselves pursuing a goal that could be(or should be) impossible.

On one final note: You don’t have to limit yourself to just one type of magic in your story. You can use both or even a combination of the two. Never limit yourself to fit into predetermined molds. Break the mold, expand your imagination. I believe that every story idea can be done well once it’s properly refined.

Anyway, I’ve shared my thoughts now share your own!


I liked the magic in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The sort in the Harry Potter books left me uninterested: too gimmicky. Like a high school science project.

I’ve not written anything that involves magic. But if I did, I’d probably use a tribal tradition of healing and cursing as a model.

For example, among the Diné (Navajo) there’s a belief in hidden natural forces that can make a person sick or kill them. If one cooks a meal using a piece of wood from a tree that’s been struck by lightning, the power of lightning can enter their body and make them ill.

The illness is diagnosed by a hand-trembler who locates the power and prescribes a ritual to remove it. That can involve the entire family, or clan, along with specialists who administer medicines, artists who create sandpaintings, and singers who recite chants in a complex observance that can last several days and nights.

Any error can cause a failure in the healing.

Witchcraft might be something like gathering bone from a grave, grinding it to powder, making a tiny ball, and shooting it at the victim with a blowgun. The witch can also acquire some part of the person (sand where they have peed, dust from their footprint) and infuse it with the curse. An awl or needle fashioned from corpse bone can be used to pierce an item of food they’ll eat, carrying the “corpse poison” into their body.

There are also were-animals, especially Navajo Wolves or Skin Walkers, evil humans who have learned to put on an animal skin and transform themselves, who move about by night and threaten people.

Ethnographic studies are great sources of this sort of detail.


That, my friend, Is a wonderful insight. I have the same perspective, I often wonder if my kind of Magic is “too hard” though. I’ve always wonder how far is far enough when classifying and explaining magic.

Have I gone too far and totally demystified my magic, at which point does it just become a “power”?

I hate having to process my own writing so much :unamused:, but honestly, it’s probably best to learn from my mistakes. Though I hope I am not making any

In my opinion, a “power” is more fixed than magic. Take, for instance, the power of flight. A character, let’s call them a superhero, is able to defy the laws of gravity (if such laws exist in your universe) and can propel themselves into the air for extended periods of time (the altitude and the flight time is something the writer would have to determine for themselves). Flying is something that is inbuilt into the DNA (through whatever backstory you want to choose).

However, if someone is using magic to get themselves to fly, that means they are using an outside force, a type of energy if you will, to make them fly. This may be a spell, a potion, or a magical artefact. This person, let’s call them a magician, has the power (there’s that word again) to manipulate outside forces to get them to fly. Their skills do not lie in flying. Flying is not something that they can do without an external object.

Using a different analogy: a person who can breathe without assistance and a person who needs a medical equipment to breathe. The superhero is the first, the magician is the second.

EDIT: I really don’t know if this makes sense to you. It’s just how I see it. The link below is the best thing I could find on the topic.


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I think I get what you mean ^.^ I shouldn’t feel so bad, I’m definitely not writing superheroes. Thanks for brightening that up for me.

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I can only repeat what publishers declare on their site pages for accepting story submissions. If there is no system behind your use of magic, if it has no parameters to limit it, don’t come knockin’ you are wasting our time…

Its a story problem. A superman without kryptonite problem. If everything is solvable by a hand wave,and there are no limits on who how what and where it can be employed you have no story. The story end is pretty much the hero showing up and making everything better with a wave of his hand. There’s no tension, no balance of conflict. A so Joe pulls out his super-zapper wand and shot all the bad guys, THE END. story. Fantasy stories have to have what is called a magic system, er, needs to have a system that guides and limits its use. Has to have a specific clockwork. Usually, there is a cost, often personal, for using it, or use requires rare or sparse resources to generate, or advanced preparations, some limiting factor, at the minimum. At least that’s the argument people who edit, buy, and sell fantasy use.

Now this doesn’t mean anyone can’t write down whatever they want on paper, or type whatever they want on screen, But they will find writing a compelling drama difficult without a defined limit to such things to work against. I checked my library about this , looking at Terry Brooks First King Of Shanarra, Randal Garret’s Lord Darcy, and Roger Zelazny"s Lord Demon , so on, and it seems to be true. Anyway, something a starting writer might want to fiddle with.

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What you just said does not equate to soft magic. Soft magic is perfectly fine, undefined systems don’t have to be limitless.


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I always tend to make my magic have practical uses as well as inefficiencies. Hard magic can be good, but when it’s only really good at one thing it can become a bit unbelievable for me.

I’d like to think the magic system I’m developing is in the middle. You can learn it, but it’s very unpredictable, especially in an uncontrolled environment. One minute you might be commanding some apparition to kill something, but then the apparition, for one reason or another, thinks you look like someone it didn’t like in a past life. So, instead, it tries to kill you.

So, kinda free, but not. Mess around with it if you dare.

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I love magic systems. I’m still learning hard and soft magic systems but I gotta say I prefer hard system​s. Like chakra from Naruto. It’s a hard system that even children can grasp. I also love how the magic system plays a part in the story.

Soft magic is , well, soggy bread, and does not show up in adult fantasy. Its fine for children’s books, because children do not require structure in what they are fed, or even understand what that means. That comes later. Hopefully, not to much later. Good for (some) comic books though, and for some anime, though not much of it…

As a hard magic user, I don’t agree. Magic is sometimes not meant to be fully understood, completely soft magic, one without ANY rules or restrictions… now that can be an issue.

But for example your characters get grimoires when they are born or something, and it is said that as they grow spells appear in it. That’s a soft magic system… and quite frankly there’s barely any trouble using it.

The real key, I feel, is to make magic not seem arbitrary while still providing enough rules so that it doesn’t become like a text book.

If it becomes arbitrary, to can either seem silly, or like deus ex machina if, by some chance, it has anything to do with saving anyone. (The eagle segment from LOTR was always a matter of great debate in that regard.) But then again, that has more a likelihood in happening in a soft or ‘middle ground’ magic system.

For me, I always like to be in the middle. If I suddenly need to start having ammo counters indicating how many fire balls a character has left, I’m going to be sorely disappointed, because that’s not magic anymore, that’s more like rubber science I don’t want to read about. And also, as I said in a previous post, if magic just so happens to be very good at one thing. That’s just ridiculous. Instead of having miraculous healing powers that are only good at healing, maybe come up with several orders of operations using a variety of magic to create a healing process. Something to cauterize the wound if it’s fresh, etc. Maybe fire magic, if elemental stuff applies.


My MC has an ability to create dark matter objects which gravitational fields’ he can manipulate in unnatural ways.

I consider this hard magic.

But say from that, you can’t know what exactly to expect from him, it’s rather broad and it depends on his creativity what he makes so that softens it. Which lands it in the middle ground for me.

I still say that both ways can be used properly, hard magic is very defined but not all aspects have to be revealed immediately. Soft magic is not defined at all, but it doesn’t mean the writer has to spam bullshit.

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The eagle segment was never a matter of debate, it was just a pointless argument between people who understood the material and those that did not. :wink:

Call it a eucatastrophe if you will, but.

Dem birbs are awfully picky in such dire times.

Note: I’m not familiar with the background material, but I think the eagles had something of their own political system. I’m not sure. Or Gandalf had some measure of influence over them.

Correct. They were noble, but not charitable. But the main argument of complainers is nonsense. They weren’t Gandalf’s minions or familiar. He couldn’t just order them to fly to Mordor.

"No! we are glad to cheat the goblins of their sport, and glad to repay our thanks to you, but we will not risk ourselves for dwarves in the southward plains.” - Lord of the Eagles, The Hobbit.

And that was when it was just fear of men, goblins, and a dragon no one had seen in decades. Neither was their rescues lazy writing. To quote another forum where I had this discussion recently.

They may have been convenient, but they weren’t lazy. He could have removed many of them if he wanted without harming the plot. The Hobbit was full of pointless reversals.

One example is they discover in The Hobbit, that if the Goblins hadn’t attacked them, their intended road would have led them into trouble and dead-ends and they would have wasted weeks looking for a new one. There was no reason to mention this except suggest divine intervention since they would have never found it out otherwise.

We are also told that their fight with the Goblins delayed or ruined the goblin’s plan to attack the villages in the valley and that those people were spared because of Bilbo/Eagles/etc which also has no influence on the plot.

I suspect he was just a religious person who liked to have miracles in his work, making it clear that divine figures were helping things along and not just watching passively to see if mortals sorted it out alone. In a way, the Hobbit is a religious text, but not in a “Praise the Lord” sort of way.

And I can understand his viewpoint when he was saved from being sent back into combat in WWI by a repeating sickness for months, but survived. Then when he was finally ordered to return to the front, the military discovers his previous group are all dead and buried and they had nowhere to send him anymore and simply dismissed him from service instead, assuming he’ll just be back in the hospital before they can transfer him. It sounds a lot like his books. Balancing between disasters and the timing working out just right for success.

Yes, they were Deus Ex Machina, but that was the point.

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You are repeating what I said. It is given that in a novel, detail is only added to the extent that it serves the plot, but magical systems are , eh, systems. Whether inferred or detailed, they have a sense of structure, and limitation. Fairies cant handle iron. Garlic repels vampires. Witches depend on the power of their coven, herbs, and the lore they know. there is structure. Some structures are generic, in that they are well known tropes that do not need to be expanded on by additional or comprehensive exposition. That does not mean the basis is not there. Just that it goes unsaid. Far as I can tell, some stories make little use of it, others use the magic system of choice or invention heavily, depending on the storyline. That does not constitute “Hard” or “Soft” just of more, or less importance to the plot.

Well, you are using scientific terms to define hand waving (albeit wrongly, since dark matter is just matter that does not interact with light or other matter, except for having normal gravitational interactions ) Good thing you are writing fantasy, as you would not be amused with the reaction of SF buffs to that sort of …invention. Whether by ESP or device, or Demon pact, you might want to consider inferring, at least, some origin for this ability.

Tolkiens use of magic (outside of his childrens books) had inferred systems, Sauron was a source object, He could not materialize without the OneRing, because part of his self resided within it. Users of the rings partook of Sauron’s essence, and became contaminated by it (absorbed). He was the black magic equivalent of a black hole, And was treated as such by the story, not as a role character. Other references to magical power were either relegated to preexisting history and not divulged, based on english lore or other legend, or were self limited to artifacts. or limited inherent abilities of non-human entities. (Gandalf, Saruman, so on) As with most long tomes,the system fit was not perfect, and often not detailed, but it was ever present. Destruction of the OneRing was the Achilles heel and ultimate limitation, its destruction ended Sauron,

It’s not Dark Matter, it’s “Dark Matter” literally a special kind of matter his magic allows him to make that is… well… dark.

I could go into my magic system here but… it is still pretty much hard magic so it’s a lot. I think I even made a google doc.

Heh of course though, the magic has an origin, but does this origin have an origin? Yes, but does the origin of all origins have an origin? No way I could logically explain magic - there are just excuses that people tend to accept.

I’m not sure If I even get your point though, but I suppose this question should let me understand your position more: Is LOTR hard or soft magic to you?