Hard fantasy vs soft fantasy

December 3, 2013

There are many types of fantasy in the world of fiction, but one dichotomy I find to be especially interesting is between what I call Soft Fantasy and Hard Fantasy.

Soft fantasy is the stuff of legends, fairy tales, and sitcoms starring teenage witches or stay-at-home genies. The magic in these stories is malleable, and often anything can happen so long as it’s wished for. When most people think about magic, it’s this or stage magic they’re thinking of. If Disney is involved, it’s probably soft fantasy.

Hard fantasy, on the other hand, has rules. They don’t just have magic, they have magic systems, and ones that are well-fleshed out and explained so the reader can understand. While the rules of hard fantasy are often based on principles or themes that aren’t even close to logical – this is still fantasy, after all – they will be internally consistent. If a story is strutting around like sci-fi without explaining its central mechanics too clearly, it’s probably hard fantasy.

Between the two, I prefer hard fantasy. I love fantasy in general specifically because it doesn’t have to make sense, and because it can transport us to worlds that could never exist here on earth, but there’s no substitute for a world I can sink my teeth into and really understand. The central tenants don’t have to make sense so long as everything that springs from them do, because that’s when I can try to figure out all the little tricks and anticipate what will happen, all without worrying that a magical dues ex machina will ruin it all.

For a little while now I’ve been telling people I would start giving more peeks into what my upcoming novel is about, and that’s what this is. I can’t go into too much detail until it’s much closer to being finished, but I’ll try to occasionally give you a peek into the broader ideas or themes behind my story.

This is one. My book is in the fantasy genre, and more specifically it’s hard fantasy. That’s only part of the story though. The world I’ve created is a little more complex than that, with a fun little wrinkle that will…

Well, you’ll have to wait to hear more on that. I’ll go get back to work then, shall I?

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    I like hard fantasy more too. Not because soft fantasy is bad or anything. It’s just that I enjoy a lot more realistic stories and usually you can find it in some shape in the hard one. “It just happened, it’s magic” for me seems a little to shallow in some ways and as well as characters or plot I like it to be deep and well developed. So deus ex machina in general gets a big NO from me. Also the soft fantasy is a sign of much more lazy writing. You incidentally chose really good name for it. Well thought hard fantasy is definitely harder than a soft one.

    Good to know you are making it the hard way. I can hardly wait now… Yeah, you should get back to work. ;p

    1. Reply


      Soft fantasy isn’t necessarily a sign of lazier writing, though it certainly can be. Some stories simply require that flexibility in order to evoke the world they’re trying to build, and that’s cool. For the rest though, it’s just an excuse to play around without explaining themselves, and that’s no fun. Or not as much fun as it could be, at least.

      *feels the cracks of the whips* I’m on it, I’m on it! Back to the word mines… : )

  2. Reply


    I like fantasy. whether it’s hard or soft. for me a good fantasy is a good fantasy. this distinction doesn’t change much for me. but fantasy isn’t alone here.
    a story might have simple fantasy element(s) (not necessary DEM) and involve it very lightly, yet nicely. or we can base the whole theme around it, then it become much more centered.
    on the other hand, you can have the epic fantasy, with your own world and rules of magic, races, history and so on. it’s “harder” fantasy. but that depends on the storytelling.
    you’ve mentioned Disney. some of them have a high fantasy involvement by definition, even with rules and all , yet it kinda..soft because they didn’t develop it by far.

    what I am trying to say is…”hard” or “soft” is kinda difficult to distinguish just like that. you have to take into consideration other factors like the storytelling, main theme, the world and its rules – mostly how much it’s developed. and so, if you really want to examine the “fantasy type”. sometimes types meant to be ignored, just like rules (:

    1. Reply


      Of course. Even more established genres like Fantasy and Sci-Fi are often limiting when it could be argued that a single story could fit into both or neither. The point is not to set out a black and white dichotomy where all stories must fall completely into one camp or the other, but rather to give another tool for us to describe a story we’re reading.

      Well, that and I wanted to use said tool to describe my own story : ) But just as you said that some genres are meant to be ignored or bent, it wouldn’t be correct to say my own is 100% hard fantasy. But like I said, you’ll all have to wait see how that works when I’m done ; )

    2. Reply


      It’s like that with everything. There is always something that fits both categories a little. In the end, there is always the gray part of life as well.

  3. Reply


    I don’t mind reading either taken that the plot and execution are interesting, but I don’t think I would be able to enjoy writing soft fantasy. Creating rules and seeing how characters would cope up with it makes world-building and plot-building far more interesting.

  4. Reply

    Allelujah Haptism

    This actually sounds a bit like an article by Brandon Sanderson. If you haven’t read it and want to do more thinking on the matter, check it out: http://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/

    1. Reply


      Oooo, interesting. I’ll read this when I’m suffering through some travel time on my upcoming vacation. Thanks!

  5. Reply


    Hard fantasy, on the other hand, has rules. They don’t just have magic, they have magic systems, and ones that are well-fleshed out and explained so the reader can understand.

    First thing I thought of when reading that was Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei Now that is one WELL defined magic system – arguably too well defined (LOL). I’ve had to reread passages just to figure out all the technical stuff.

    AFAIK, Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei anime adaptation is set to air next (Spring) season! Praying that it will be a 2-cour run (24 eps) covering the LN volumes 1-4 volumes. If they do the adaptation well, it should be a very good show. The 9 Schools competition arc (LN vol 3-4) is simply great. My favorite arc so far.

    Anyway, if you haven’t read the LN, I strongly suggest you do check it out unless you want to remain “unspoiled” for the anime. As for the anime, I recommend you plan now to snag coverage rights on RC. The series is one I think you will highly enjoy – both watching/reading and blogging.

    1. Reply


      Duly noted. I’ll probably remain “pure” for that one since it seems up my alley, though Madhouse has burned me lately, so that’s an unknown quantity.

      As for magic systems, there’s certainly a risk in making them extremely well-defined. One of the great things about fiction is that you have the flexibility to do things that are impossible, so if you constrain impossibilities too much then you had better hope you left some interesting things possible for you to write about. Or you know how to intelligently and selectively defy your own rules, which is very tricky.

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