Magic. Simultaneously one of the most fun and most infuriating things a writer can write about. A lot of writers tend to divide magic systems into either hard or soft magic, and when you do that you have a lot of baggage that comes with it. Well, I just so happen to be figuring out a lot of stuff about magic in my new section of The Paladin, so guess what? It's time to think about hard and soft magic.
In a nutshell, hard magic is when you give you magic system defined rules. To do X you must first do Y. To perform A, you must have condition B met. If you really need a hard way of thinking about hard magic, think about games, especially tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. There are rules for days about when you can cast spells, how many times, and under what conditions. There are pages and pages devoted to what that same spell is going to do when it hits a vampire versus a lych versus the town blacksmith. That is hard magic. But then, so too is something like Harry Potter. True, we don't know why Harry's spell is more powerful than, say, Neville, but we know what it does and what the basic conditions are for the spell.
So then what is soft magic? Well, it's magic without all those rules. The classic example is to point to Lord of the Rings. If you had to make a list right now of what Gandalf's power set is, I know I certainly would be hard pressed to do it. Let's see... he can... make light? I think I remember that. And blow awesome smoke rings? And... make... water horses? But we know he's crazy powerful. What he actually does is fairly mutable. So if your system is open, if your spells do whatever they really need to do in the scenario, that's soft magic.
Now the question is which one should I use? I'll make no bones about it, I'm a detail oriented person, so I love hard magic. I like look at abilities like tools, knowing exactly what their purpose is and when they should be used. But soft magic most certainly has its uses. I believe I heard someone once comment that hard magic belongs with your protagonist and soft magic belongs with your antagonist. Keeping your antagonist's abilities vague and mysterious, potentially overpowered even, is better than allowing those abilities to fall into your protagonist's hands. I think there's some merit to that. After all, you want your villain to be hard to defeat, right? And it's much less of a cop out to have the villain display ill-defined abilities than to let your hero solve everything with a literal wave of their hand.
So what's right for my story? I think I'm actually going to be mixing things a bit. There are a fair number of races within my story, and I think that means that I can alter how each one of them approaches magic and the occult. Some might be more subtle and vague while others hit you in the face with their bluntness. Maybe that's just the balancer in me. But, hey, Siddhartha said to seek the middle path and that extends to writing, right?
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.