“Hard” and “Soft” in world building

One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again. – C.S. Lewis

What does it mean?

You’ve heard the term hard and soft scifi used to describe science fiction world-building. In fantasy, it describes the magical system, but the two are essentially exactly the same principle.

Hard Systems

A hard world building device is clearly defined and has defined rules of engagement. In Scifi, it means that it adheres to hard and fast scientific truths and they will be explained. Oh, yes, they will be thoroughly explained. Think Star Trek.

In fantasy, it means the same. It refers to magic that has to adhere to hard rules. Potions must be specifically brewed or conditions must be met before a spell can be performed.

Soft Systems

In soft systems, you have wiggle room. Soft science fiction doesn’t have rules clearly defined and can appear almost magical. Star Wars is perhaps the most famous example. No one knows how light sabers work, but they want one.

Soft magical systems are the same. There are no rules, and it’s often built on abilities that can operate without defined parameters. Neither is good or bad. They are merely different.

The real question

Which do you need?

When you’re making world-building choices, you have to decide what kind of boundaries your world needs, and there are no rules here per se. It’s about what you need to tell your story.

Is it a space faring action adventure? A wild untamed magical thriller? Do you have a rigid society in turmoil and change or a frontier world with no rules of its own? Typically, the tools your characters need will need to match the world you’re building. It is, after all, the only world they’ve known.

Writing has some well trod ground when it comes to genres and their tropes and rules. It’s not like any of us are reinventing the wheel, but you do want to own your own story. The best way to do that is in your world.

The world you build…

That world reflects you in very real ways. It’s all opinion, and not all opinion is equal, of course. However in this case, world-building reflects more of the author than we ever realize.

Its the one place where your expertise and temperament can be key factors in your choices. I lean toward soft systems simply because I don’t have the patience for hard research. I love research, but science research just isn’t my thing. Not really. Plus, I hate getting it wrong, and I hate exposition in scifi. It’s the part I’ll skip most of the time. I want the action even when I write.

There’s also the factor that hard systems require commitment from the get go. Once you’re in, you’re stuck in a world with solid details that cannot be changed for book two or three, and that’s not conducive to some writing styles. Cough* Mine *Cough. Cough. Soft systems can be embellished at almost any time, and I much prefer that.

The book you write is the book you write, and that means that choices you make here need to be choices that appeal to you. I know there are a world of authors out there “writing to market”, and that’s the choice you gotta make. But, I know this much; If I don’t really love my story, how can I expect anyone else to?

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

William Shakespeare

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