Hard vs Soft Magic Systems: An Exploration of Sanderson's Laws of Magic

Hard vs Soft Magic Systems: An Exploration of Sanderson's Laws of Magic


Magic is an element common to most books in the Fantasy genre. Broadly defined, it is a supernatural force of some kind present inherently in the world and often controlled by people. Virtually all magic in Fantasy fiction exists outside the natural laws of our world.

In this article, we'll explore the concept of Hard and Soft magic systems.

What are Magic Systems?

Let's begin with defining magic systems.

A magic system is the framework of rules (or lack thereof) in which the magic exists. It defines the laws and limitations of the magical elements in your world.

For example, the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender involves controlling the natural elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. These powers have rules, limitations, and interactions; these nuances combined define Avatar's magic system.

Hard vs Soft Magic Systems: A Spectrum

Magic systems are often categorized as one of two kinds:

  • Hard magic, where rules are clearly defined and consistent, and magic can be reasoned about rationally.
  • Soft magic, where rules are vague and magic carries a sense of awe and wonder.

Notably, no magic system is exactly one or the other. Rather, they exist on a spectrum:

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Soft magic does not mean there are no rules, simply that the reader (and potentially the author) don't understand them.

For example, in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gandalf performs a highly effective spell to blind the Goblins and allow the Dwarves to escape. To the readers, the exact nature and rules of this spell remain unknown — we wonder whether Gandalf will use this again, and in what circumstance. Yet, to Gandalf, the exact inner workings of the spells are probably crystal-clear.

After all, a magic system with no rules would be completely random and magic would not be able to repeat itself even under the same circumstances.

Soft Magic: Like Science Fiction

Science Fiction often involves science that is unclear and vague.

Let's explore the movie adaptation of Dune. We know that the characters in Dune exist in a world that is extremely similar to ours. In Dune, people stand on their feet, breathe air, and eat food. It follows that the particles that make up their bodies are held together and fall to the ground via gravitational force in the same way as ours. Therefore, it's safe to assume the same laws of Physics apply to both Dune and our world.

The sandworms in Dune can be seen moving at incredibly fast speeds deep under the sand. Science tells us that movement of that kind can occur in one of three ways:

  1. A sideways, slithering effect.
  2. An up-and-down burrowing motion.
  3. Ejecting matter at a high speed in the direction opposite to the movement (in this case, ingesting sand from one end, and excreting it from the other).

Given that we see the characters ride the sandworms, and they don't move sideways or up and down, it's safe to assume options 1 and 2 are not the explanation. Option number 3 is the only feasible one.

Still, the exact mechanism by which the sandworms move is not explained. We know that this happens, but not how. We are left theorizing, wondering how this is achieved. This has the same effect on us as Gandalf's blinding spell.

Soft magic reminds us of our natural world, where some things remain unexplained by our current understanding of Physics. Albeit frustrating, the fact we don't know how certain things occur doesn't mean there are no laws behind them. This feeds into our creativity and imagination, and it's the power of Soft magic systems.

Hard Magic: Like Fantasy Physics

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Hard magic systems. These are logical and rational and can be reasoned about by the reader in a way that helps them explain and make informed guesses about our story's plotline.

Hard magic is all about exactly why and how magic exists in your world.

Take the Allomancy magic system from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn:

People capable of Allomancy are known as "Allomancers" and have the ability to use or "burn" metals to fuel a variety of physical and mental enhancements or abilities


Metals are categorized based on their pushing and pulling power:

Allomatic Metals

Image source: https://coppermind.net/wiki/Allomancy

Allomancy is a Hard magic system, in that it has strict rules that govern how it works. These rules have deep implications in Mistborn's plotline.

In contrast, take Sam from The Lord of The Rings facing the spider Shelob. Holding the light of the star Eärendil, bottled into a phial, Sam inflicts serious wounds on Shelob, who flees from the scene. We can safely assume Shelob is scared of the light. We cannot, however, reason about laws and rules of Eärendil's light, and give an exact reason as to why Shelob was scared of it. We couldn't say that she fled because of any natural property inherent to the star's light, such as what we would have with Iron's pulling property in Allomancy.

Reasoning about The Lord of The Rings from a Hard-magic perspective doesn't make much sense. Moreover, by giving a Hard-magic explanation to this face-off, we would attribute Sam's victory to the magic of the phial, taking merit away from his hard-earned courage.

A Hard magic system is like an entirely fictional set of Physics rules on a smaller scale, which interact with each other, shape your plotline, and give limits and constraints to your character's powers.

Sanderson's Laws of Magic

As we mentioned earlier, Hard magic systems are all about giving limits and constraints to your magic. When characters use magic, they must act within the limitations of your system.

In contrast, a Soft magic system allows for much more flexibility and power imbalances. This means that authors can use Soft magic at their convenience. Depending on how this is done, it can either improve or worsen your story.

Why exactly did Saruman defeat Gandalf in The Fellowship of The Ring? We assume it's because Saruman is the more powerful wizard, but there are no rules around this that we know about. If Tolkien wanted, he could have made Gandalf defeat Saruman, and the story would have still made sense. After all, Gandalf is a knowledgeable wizard, and his full powers are only briefly touched upon in the books. Therefore, we can also assume Tolkien chose Saruman as the duel's winner because that decision made the most sense for the story.

Imagine, however, that in the final conflict, Gandalf defeated Sauron and his whole army. This would still make theoretical sense (after all, we don't know how far Gandalf's powers stretch). It would, however, make the story feel pointless. Why did Gandalf not save the day on page 1?

To address these issues, author Brandon Sanderson has devised three laws around magic systems.

The First Law

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

If Gandalf were to single-handedly defeat Sauron, the readers would be frustrated: how did he do that, and why didn't he do it before?

Remember that magic systems exist on a spectrum. If the reader understands a little bit of the magic, then the author can solve a little bit of the conflict with it.

For example, Harry Potter has a magic system that is a distinct blend of Hard and Soft magic. There is a clear system of spells channeled with the aid of wands. However, we don't understand what the innate source of magic is. We know that there is a standard set of spells and that powerful wizards can create their own. We don't understand where the power of magic stops.

The Patronus charm is a spell that conjures a guardian and protects against mythical creatures such as Dementors. This knowledge is shared and explained at length in the books. Therefore, when Harry protects himself and Sirius Black from Dementors using a Patronus charm, the reader understands why and how.

J.K. Rowling solves some of the conflict in the book (the Dementors threatening Harry and Sirius) by explaining some of the underlying magic (Patronus defeats Dementor). She could have made Harry create a new spell, or find one in a book from the library's forbidden section, and defeat the dark lord single-handedly with it. But this would not make for a compelling story.

The Second Law

Limitations > Powers

Sanderon highlights that the most interesting bits of a magic system are about what the characters can't do, rather than what they can do. This applies to both Hard and Soft magic.

It's fascinating to watch Harry as he learns how to cast the Patronus charm. This spell requires a deep emotional connection. It has limitations, too: casting a powerful Patronus is very energy-consuming for the wizard.

Sanderson's point is also that anyone can write a character with any power imaginable. The interesting part is the context around the character:

  • Who are they?
  • How does their ethics affect their use of power?
  • What are their weaknesses, and how do they play into their magic?

Gandalf's and Saruman's duel becomes more interesting when we consider their deeper relationship to one another. We can begin to theorize that perhaps Saruman won because Gandalf trusted him and was caught by surprise. Similarly, we can presume Saruman had the intention of betraying Gandalf for a long time and thus was training the exact magic that is most effective against Gandalf.

As we can see, crafting a nuanced context around the magic can enhance your story, whether you choose a Hard or Soft magic system.

The Third Law

Expand what you already have before you add something new.

It's easy for an author to get stuck into worldbuilding. One way to avoid this is by using the Iceberg Method. Another one, as Brandon writes about, is to expand on your material before adding more.

Anyone who sat down to write a magic system can relate to this issue. When you experiment with creating magic, you can quickly start adding:

  • Spells.
  • Magic artifacts.
  • Innate powers tied to bloodlines.
  • Mythical creatures.

It's then easy to create sub-categories, such as fire spells, water spells, earth spells; ancient magic, and modern magic.

Adding more material can cause issues for both kinds of magic systems:

  • Hard magic with too much "stuff" can become difficult to manage and build upon for the author, and become difficult to understand for the reader.
  • Soft magic can also suffer, as the "awe" and "wonder" often comes from the fact that magic is used sparingly, and only when necessary. If Gandalf had cast a spell every other paragraph, magic wouldn't be as exciting in The Lord of The Rings.

Sanderson reminds us that, when it comes to magic systems, less is more. A compelling and unique magic system, whether of the Hard or Soft kind, can provide a perfect foundation for your story, even when it's simple. A nuanced and fascinating context surrounding the characters, their backstories, and their relationships, can enhance your story further.


In this article, we explored the concept of Hard and Soft magic systems, how they differ, and how you can use them to craft a compelling Fantasy story.

We also explored Science Fiction and how it often accomplished the same as a Fantasy story with a Soft magic system.

Lastly, we looked at Sanderson's Laws of Magic and learned what to do, and not to do, when it comes to writing magic systems.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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