Worldbuilding Q&A

Topic: Magic as a worldbuilding tool vs. magic as a narrative tool

Question:

Where do you stand on the ‘soft’ vs ‘hard’ magic systems (continuum) as introduced in Sanderson’s essays? I often think that this idea of soft vs. hard magic systems is a narrative tool that Sanderson integrated into his worldbuilding – what are your thoughts on magic as worldbuilding tool and magic as narrative tool? I take the view that magic is ‘soft’ when the POV characters/protagonists aren’t magic practitioners, but ‘hard’ when they are; but I’m generally against the instrumentalist approach that Sanderson has in his novels. (July 2021)

Answer:

For worldbuilding purposes, advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic (paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke). How cool is that?

To recap, Sanderson makes a distinction between magic with hard and fast rules (e.g. in Airbender) and magic that is much softer, perhaps more of a black box (e.g. in Lord of the Rings). Harry Potter would lie somewhere in the middle.

Just like magic, from one person’s perspective, technologies can either stick to hard and fast rules that this person understands, or they can be a black box. In SF writing, a seemingly impossible black box left unexplained is referred to as ‘handwavium’. Some SF writers explain the mechanisms behind the technological innovations, but handwavium seems pretty commonplace.

But how does magic relate to plot…

A hard magic system can be taught to the reader in various ways (e.g. an infodump or a deduction by the narrator or by some of the characters). Once the reader knows the rules, they can start to play around with the magic imaginatively, and come up with ideas on how the magic may advance the plot.

Soft magic can be used to make the world more compelling and draw the reader in, through creating a spiritual or religious sense of the divine. But if soft magic (or handwavium) is used to advance the plot, especially later on in the book, its use would come across as contrived (see M.D. Presley’s book for more on this). Remember that practically all worldbuilding should come in the first half of the book.

I see the soft vs. hard magic distinction as being about how explicit the rules are, or how explicitly they are explained to the reader.

When used well, soft magic can increase the reader’s immersion in the world dramatically.

When used badly, it can disengage the reader by seeming contrived.

Now, I’ve noticed that there is some advice out there that occasionally masquerades as ‘universal’ good advice for storytelling (e.g. show don’t tell, every scene must advance the story in some way, and the Save the Cat! beat sheet). Such advice is more about creating a book that can enjoy market success in Anglo-American publishing by consistently keeping the reader hooked on the text. Is this what you mean by Sanderson’s instrumentalist approach to magic? I’ve not read his novels, so can’t say much more about this point.

Authors like Tolkien break many of these rules. Take, for example, Tom Bombadil who possessed soft magic skills. His role was not important in advancing the story in Lord of the Rings, and he was completely dropped from the film version. But he plays an incredibly important role in the cosmology underpinning the world that Tolkien created. I (and I guess many other readers) found his character’s ambivalent position to the good vs. evil moral universe created deeply disturbing. As a reader, learning of such a figure generated a feeling of being in a place where the rules underpinning Tolkien’s world had imploded, while remaining in that world. It consolidated the cosmology that Tolkien had created and operated on a deep and emotional level that increased immersion. So, if you’re going to focus on soft magic, one tip is to think carefully about how it can be used to create and unsettle the cosmology/cosmologies in the world you have created.

As for your POV position, what you say makes sense. We expect to learn more about the rules that underpin the main characters’ perspective on the world and so if the main POV characters practice magic, we’d expect to learn more about how that magic works. But again, I guess this would be a rule of thumb that *could* be broken.

I’m planning a blog post on magic based on some insights from the history of science. Hopefully it will be up in a month or so!

Question:

Cultural or social worldbuilding consists largely of describing the details of the character’s everyday practices; the minutiae of culture’s systems of meaning.

How can I build my world while not making it ‘Other’ or ‘exotic’ but also making it a bit ‘Other’ so that it’s not just our culture rephrased? (June, 2021)

Answer:

It can be easy to get caught up in representation issues when writing. The same goes for cultural anthropology where the sense of responsibility is often even stronger as you are writing about real, living people.

One danger is that this leads to writing paralysis: if you are constantly thinking about how to adequately represent other worlds and culture, this can cut against letting your imagination run free.

This is why I’d suggest separating off time thinking about these issues from time for creative writing. Let your thoughts run free and later, when you come to edit and revise your work, think carefully about cultural tropes you may have drawn on from the real (Primary) world. This could be the difference between internal self-criticism (which can stifle creativity) and thoughtful critique (which helps develop your ideas). If you want to learn more about what kinds of tropes to avoid, there are lots of editors who focus on sensitivity issues (here’s a useful link on racist metaphors), and these have come into focus more strongly over the past year since the Black Lives Matter protests.

A second tip is to be sparse in features of your worldbuilding that don’t advance your plot, characters, or the fundamental understanding of the world.

Maybe you want to explore:

  • the social implications of flying cars
  • the biological implications of living on a world with three moons
  • how a new kind of magic creates a hierarchy between those who possess it and those who don’t

By focusing almost exclusively on your most important issue (what M.D. Presley calls a fantasy conceit) you can get into an incredible amount of detail while leaving other cultural content up to the reader’s imagination.

This is something I’ve noticed among cultural anthropologists too: once upon a time, some attempted to give a complete holistic description of a culture (which was often based on a kind of island thinking). Nowadays, many anthropologists focus on one specific detail, process, or element (e.g. the social importance of a bureaucratic ritual; how people pursue social relationships) and trace its implications.

Finally, I’d suggest that all worldbuilding will contain aspects of our culture, rephrased. They are not freestanding worlds, but worlds that exist in an imaginative relation to the real, primary world. The question is rather how closely features map on to existing cultural features. Try mixing and matching different features by creating analogue cultures (which I will discuss in a forthcoming blog post).