Writing Fantasy: Where I Fall on the Mohs Scale of Magical Hardness

Magician Bear by Jules Dubost
Magician Bear by Jules Dubost

Some fantasy authors feel the need to go into “the rules” of the magic they write about. It’s limits, the can and can’t do’s of it, whatever. I particularly see a great deal of that in fantasy fiction written in the last few decades and suspect it comes from a strong Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing and video game influence on the genre.

There’s a lot that has been written about “hard” and “soft” magical systems. Brandon Sanderson prefers a hard style, and has written a balanced essay outlining his views on these two competing styles that outlines the pros and cons of each. I recommend giving it a read, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say the heart of his philosophy is his “First Law of Magic”:

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.

It’s a fair and evident little axiom. More colorfully and less succinctly said, you can say that the more a writer allows his characters to use magic to save the day the more they have to explain it. Otherwise, reaching and rounding points of the plot feel hollow and unfulfilling… Like the writer got lazy and simply said “A Wizard can do that. Didn’t you know?”

I can agree with that sentiment in principle: At its worst it’s simply a let down: Poor writing and storytelling. But a key thing to remember is that the concept only applies to using magic to solve conflicts: not creating them or add to the story in a neutral way where the characters still have to sort their problems out by themselves without sticking their hands into the magical hat.

When it comes to magic in my fiction, I prefer to foster a sense of wonder… I’m a big magical softy, but there’s no shame in that. Tolkien was. R.E. Howard and Lovecraft were. So I’m in good company with many others even if that style might be a little out of fashion at the moment. And the truth is that I’m just a big wide-eyed kid at heart. Writing about magic without a sense of awe and/or mystery just isn’t me.

It’s a funny position for me to have, because I came to the genre as a child that loved D&D. You would think that a role-playing game background at an early age would have fostered a “harder” inclination towards magic systems… But then again, I gobbled-up a lot of different fantasy games and media. So perhaps that exposure is what gave me the idea that magic is flexible and undefinable.

I think rules and limits on magic are absolutely needed in the context of a game like D&D. But in my written fantasy fiction, I don’t see Sanderson’s Law as above the law of telling a good story. That’s my “First Law”, for most of what I write, actually. But Sanderson’s Law isn’t in opposition to mine, it’s actually an ally to it with a useful, narrowed focus.

You see, both boil-down to promoting good storytelling and narrative. Sanderson’s Law gives a great rule of thumb about how consistency and foreshadowing is important to supporting a twist sprung on a reader. If that surprise isn’t supported by what came before, it’s going to feel like a cheap cop-out. Pull too many of those and folks stop reading.

Both the hard and soft approaches to magic have their ups and downs. I’ve seen a lot of “hard” storytellers break their own rules with one-shot exceptions after writing themselves into corners. Or seemingly because they want to tell a certain story that their own pre-established rules should rightfully prevent. That’s just as bad as “soft” authors having a character pull magical problem solvers out of the sky (or their butt) that neatly save the day… Again, it all comes back to good storytelling and narrative.

She Walks in Shadows by Sara Diesel
She Walks in Shadows by Sara Diesel

So how does this old softy handle magic in his fantasy stories? Well, as you would expect I keep my rules limber. So limber in fact that I prefer to call them “guidelines”. ;-) My setting of Burus has my most fleshed-out magic system, so I detail the guidelines I follow for my stories set there.

In Burus magical talent, referred to as being “Mage-Touched” or more rarely as “Witch Blooded”, is usually something a person is born with. Such gifts can occur in children without a family history of magic, but it’s far more commonly passed from a parent or parents to their children. This has created hereditary lines of magicians and magical families, some of which wield considerable wealth and power.

So therefore in Burus, and quite unlike settings such as D&D, my characters can’t just decide to learn magic. They either have the spark of ability to foster and train from childhood, or they don’t. There are rare cases where magical talent can be bestowed by some event or greater power, but such happenings are far outside the norm and always involve complications I can inflict as a storyteller. ;-)

A magical child usually exhibits their talent in minor ways after infancy, and that talent develops and strengthens as they become more mature at pubescence. A person’s raw magical potency peaks at adulthood, and then will remain fairly consistent for the rest of their life. For many, but not all, the ability to manipulate magic is dependent on their physical and mental state. Spellcasting can become physically taxing and requires varying degrees of concentration, so injuries and poor stamina can effect how much a caster can do. And their ability to concentrate and focus will determine how well they can do it.

The innate power and ability of sorcerers and wizards also varies widely, with some lesser magicians being not much better-off or astounding than regular people. On the opposite end are the great mages, but those with lesser powers are far more common than those with the greatest.

So that covers the basic guidelines common to all my spell-slingers and magic workers in Burus. However, at this point things diverge into two main branches of magic-wielding:

First, I’ve got Wizards and Wizardess’. These folks have a kind of universal magical talent that they can hone with practice and study into abilities through the use of “Arcana” or “Spells”. They gain powers through learning. They are limited in the fact that they need learn how to do magical things: A wizard might know any number of arcana from experience, but that experience might not include a useful spell to help with the problem at hand

This type of magical folk must be taught how to focus and gain their abilities from instructors, and this is usually done through apprenticeship to another wizard who teaches (or should teach) them some core and advanced magical skills. Wizardly study and improvement can consume one’s life much like the constant pursuit of academia. And although some may have broad knowledge and spells, understanding a specific arcana well enough to cast it reliably or to great effect has complexities similar to learning a language, a martial-arts technique, and preforming an improvised song. True mastery of an arcana requires constant practice and dedication that limits a wizard’s greater magics to a few specialties that often take a long career to accumulate.

Cleric of the Burning Sun by Tomasz Chistowski
Cleric of the Burning Sun by Tomasz Chistowski

A wizard or wizardess seeking to gain new arcana can either slowly research and self-teach themselves in a process often taking years, or seek out the knowledge they need from books, living instructors or stranger sources. Wizards also usually require objects and talismans to focus their powers that are quite useless to mundanes… things like potions, wands, and so forth.

The second type of spellcaster in Burus are the Sorcerers and Sorceresses, also known as folks with a “sorcerous talent or trait”.

These people have magical powers that are limited to a specific theme, but that theme could be almost anything. This could be something very broad like “Fire” or “Ice”, or more focused, like shapeshifting into a specific animal. Sometimes it can even be maddeningly focused, such as controlling the water in a single, unique pond… or the ability to ferment milk and control dairy products.

Compared to a wizard, a sorcerer develops their power, within its limits, more via practice, intuition and creativity than with esoteric study. Sorcerers are often self-taught out of necessity because between sorcerers their powers are highly individualized and varied. Rare indeed would be two sorcerers with magical powers similar enough to teach one another anything arcane beyond the most basic fundamentals.

However, a wizard with arcane knowledge similar to a sorcerer’s talent could offer instruction of value to a sorcerous apprentice. Such a pupil would never escape the limits of their power’s scope to gain a wizard’s versatility, but expert instruction would make it likely that they’re quite good at what they can do.

Because a sorcerer or sorceress is locked to a specific and often limited theme of powers, they have a lot more freedom to pursue other interests than wizards do. Wizards need to devote lots of time if they want to broaden their skills in the magical arts, whereas sorcerers comfortable with the control they have over their talent have nothing to gain by this. Therefore, sorcerers are far more likely than wizards to have skills of use outside of the arcane disciplines. For example, some sorcerers learn the skills of arms and armor, becoming formidable magical warriors if their talents are conducive to that role.

Knight by Jeong Seok Lee
Knight by Jeong Seok Lee

Relations between wizards and sorcerers vary considerably between groups and individuals, ranging from distain to fellowship. Wise members of both parties acknowledge the strength and weakness of the other, even if they dislike them. And it’s not unheard of for an inclined sorcerer or sorceress to marry a wizard or wizardess. There have long been magical families of such unions, often containing siblings of both magical sorts.

One last but important note is that the divinities of Burus don’t grant magical powers to their religious agents. Those with magical powers that serve a temple and God are invariably wizards or sorcerers just like their secular counterparts. Such people are often welcomed into the ranks of religious organizations and fellowships, where they can offer knowledge, learning, or simple acceptance not found elsewhere. Magical potency has nothing to do with piety or faith, and many heads of the greatest temples haven’t an ounce of magical power.

So there are my magical guidelines for Burus. And if you compare them to my interpretation of Sanderson’s Law, they preform the same narrative function: That if my protagonists are going to overcome a problem with their magic, it must be consistent and foreshadowed in how the character has been written up to that point.

It can be a hidden twist, but it can not be an unsupported one.

For example, Dirtin the Wizard can’t just suddenly have a spell that turns a wall to mud and get into the castle if it hasn’t been made clear from fairly early on that he knows such magic. However, if he knew beforehand that he would need something to get past that wall… and spent some time hinted at in the progressing story… then that would be a supported surprise when he tries his stone to mud spell for the first time.

And Sacwren the Scorching Sorceress with her fiery abilities can’t just shoot ice or water whenever she (and the plot) needs her to. But having her find a way to heat metal with an unflashy touch probably wouldn’t have any reader batting an eye.

~Jason H. Abbott.

12 thoughts on “Writing Fantasy: Where I Fall on the Mohs Scale of Magical Hardness

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  1. Wow! I love this! “In my written fantasy fiction, I don’t see Sanderson’s Law as above the law of telling a good story” – I couldn’t agree with this more! I think you make a ton of good points here, but first and foremost is the author’s ability to tell their story. I’m going to reference this a lot and think more on my own approach to magic. Great, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Morgan! I’m really glad that my essay became a resource for you. It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these “here is how I go about this particular writing thing and feel about it” posts. Your words encourage me to do some more! :-) I think it’s really healthy to see how other writers do their craft, but also I find that in writing about my own methods I gain a deeper and more defined understanding of myself as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh absolutely, I find the same thing. Please do put out more writerly essays! I think they are super helpful and it’s also fun to see sources like Brandon Sanderson and other authors included to help gain another frame of reference.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting post, Jason. I like Sanderson’s rules as guidelines. His magic is very grounded, and though I don’t think we all need to do that, we do need to “flesh out” and understand how magic works in our worlds and characters. From your descriptions, it seems that this is what you’ve done. And it’s not easy.

    Magic systems have to be thoroughly defined in order to fit into the story. They aren’t more important than the story, but they need to integrate seamlessly – consistently and believably. In my thinking, magic has to have parameters; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story to tell – the great wizard would just get rid of his enemies and the story would be over before it begins.

    There are dangers if a magic system is too soft – particularly around consistency. As a reader, I ask, “Why didn’t he just use his magic like he did before (or later).” Or even worse, the deus ex machina use of magic that can completely destroy a story at the climax. Limits might be on the required endurance to sustain the use of magic, the need of a charm, or the individual’s capabilities and moral compass.

    Great post on a topic that I’m always interested in!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Diana, I’m really glad that you liked it and it stirred some thought for you!

      It would seem that we are in agreement on a good many things, including the need for an author to have parameters around their magic to keep it consistent and not overpowered. Power Creep, the tendency for magical powers to grow in application and potency as stories progress, is a very real danger in fantasy. I’ve seen too many tales ruined down the road as creators allow magic to grow past the boundaries they initially set. Once you let (sometimes literally) the genie with phenomenal, nearly-cosmic powers out of the bottle so the heroes can put the smackdown on the Dark Evil God of the Universe… It’s really hard go back and still relate to the characters in the same way.

      So staying within parameters, at least for protagonists, is a very good thing in my book! And of course, the less powerful your characters are the easier and more varied their challenges can be.

      I absolutely agree on using too soft of a system as well… It would be like trying to sculpt with liquid.

      Thank you for the wonderful and thoughtful reply, Diana! :-)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are welcome, Jason. Thank You! It’s such an interesting topic and unique to fantasy, so it’s hard to explore in depth with non-fantasy writers. I thoroughly enjoyed the post :-D

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting post! I’ve seen a lot of writing advice that dictates magical systems must have rules that are very explicitly communicated, so it’s nice to see the other perspective, and acknowledge that magic doesn’t always have to be so “hard” in fantasy. In my writing I’m probably somewhere between “hard” and “soft”, though more on the “soft” side, when it comes to magical systems… I would likely never write a system as complex and rule-based as the allomancy in Sanderson’s Mistborn novels (though I love that system!) but at the same time I wouldn’t be too mysterious about the magic… anyway, it’s an interesting topic to reflect on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the feedback, Nicola! I’m happy to reassure you that not everyone who writes of fantastical magic does so with stringent and painstakingly constructed rules. :-) Like you, I too have seen a lot of advice by and for fantasy authors outlining how hard systems are needed and should be explained. As my style is quite different compared to that, I decided to write this essay. I’m glad that I did, too. Because in doing so I seem to have helped a number other authors pondering the same feelings.

      A middle path is usually my preferred route, so a balance of hard and soft technique on magic is probably close to what I do in my stories so far… although it might be more like 60 or 70% “soft” depending on how I turn my head. ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

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