When Your Character Has a Power

When your character has a power, how do you keep the action fresh and avoid the same old tricks?

This issue has been on my mind because of my current work in progress, where the main character is a pyrokinetic. Everyone is a pyrokinetic, really, but the main character is one of the few who can use the power undetected.So he has an advantage. The tricky, though fun, thing has been trying to keep the challenges he faces interesting. Here are some ideas I’ve been using specifically, and some general thoughts on this topic:

  • Limits to the power. It’s always good to define the rules of your world in general, and a special power is no different. By clearly outlining what can and can’t be done with the power, your character can be put in many interesting situations he needs to get out of, and avoids coming across as a boring, omnipotent god-on-Earth. Yawn.
  • A physical or mental cost to using the power. Think magic points (MP) in a role-playing game. Or the system created by Jack Vance and used in early editions of Dungeons & Dragons (having to memorize a fixed amount of spells every day). Maybe the power ages the character, hurts them physically, makes them hungry, corrupts them, is dependent on the sun or moon or stars or whether the character’s team wins the World Series–it could be anything!
  • Immunity to the power. So you let character can shoot high-powered death rays from her fingertips. Great! What if a villain, or a robot, or a race of armored slug aliens are completely immune to this power’s direct effects? This will raise the tension, ratchet up the difficulty, and give your character a chance to shine by overcoming the challenge in a creative way.
  • Take the power away. What if something temporarily prevents the character from using the special power, or worse, takes it away permanently? Especially when he needs it most. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
  • Situations where the power is useless, or at least relatively ineffective. If your character has the ability to create ice, what happens if they fight the Ice Giants of Northheim who are made of ice?
  • Antagonists with the same power, or a counter-power. Think a magician-on-magician duel. Victory will come down to more than just raw power. But what if the magician is fighting a clever craftsman who has created an anti-magic field generator? Or if that ice magician from the previous bullet point encounters a fire wizard?
  • Antagonists who can avoid the power. Your character has the strength of ten hundred men. Does that matter when tussles with the legendary Amazon ninjas of ancient Sumariaka who are as swift as the wind and deadly with their poison darts?
  • Situations where using the power are more dangerous than not using it. In my story, using too much of the pyrokinetic power will tip off everyone else about my character’s whereabouts, because they’ll be able to sense it. So he has to be careful not to use his power too forcefully.

I’m sure you can think of others. And of course, these ideas can be combined in all sorts of fun ways. Otherwise, you’ll have a superpowered character that faces no challenges, which will make for a boring story.

Remember: Even Superman has limits.

20 comments

  1. It’s interesting to think of these limitations in the context of SFF characters I like – Paul Atreides, John Carter, Conan, Harry Potter, Jirel of Joiry, Eric John Stark…

    Not all of them have what you would call super powers (or supernatural powers), but some variation of these limits have to come into play to present challenges and conflicts for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Potter is an interesting one. I haven’t read the series in a while, but most magic battles came down to skill and raw power, since every character essentially had the same repertoire of spells.

      John Carter is another interesting one. He had abilities that helped him overcome his smaller stature compared to the green Martians and some of the other denizens of Barsoom. He was hardly invincible. To be fair, I’ve only read the first book, so maybe that changes in later installments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sure, I hear you there. The situations I’m describing are separate from personal flaws or other things.

      Generic kryptonite can be boring, but Superman had to be nerfed somehow lest his stories become utterly boring and predictable.

      Unless I’m completely missing your point. What do you mean by a weakness being “something genuine” and “real consequences”?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Labors of Hercules is a great example of them. Genuine danger, even to a Demi-god. He went through some really harrowing stuff.

        Superman and his various clones have always been boring to me precisely because nothing ever mattered. He’d be back and swinging the next issue. Even after the Death of Superman. That was before the reset fiction era.

        Depending on the Translation, Hercules was in deep trouble in every labor because of his flaws. He wore them on his sleeve so to speak. Pride, glory seeking, excess. That stuck with me as a kid better I suppose.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. What’s often better than limits on powers is thinking in terms of how the super-power gives the hero access to a problem which has to be solved some other way.

    Also, it’s important to give the hero some time to just utterly wipe the floor with his opponents because of his power. Some of the best spiderman is him wisecracking while he effortlessly beats up mooks. It can’t be all that, but if you leave it off his powers cease to be anything special. I didn’t see the movie but a good example is in the trailer to the most recent spiderman movie where a thug pulls out a switchblade and spiderman cowers and says “You’ve found my weakness. It’s tiny knives!” then stands up and webs the guy to the wall before he can react. You can’t tell *only* this, but if you omit it you miss most of the good parts.

    I think a good rule of thumb is for every page of angst or near-defeat there should be five pages of kicking-ass.

    Basically, what the hell is the point of telling stories about people whose powers any sane person would want if there’s no benefit to having those powers?

    Liked by 3 people

    • “I think a good rule of thumb is for every page of angst or near-defeat there should be five pages of kicking-ass.”

      This is a great guideline!

      I agree with you that you don’t want the hero permanently nerfed. I hope my post didn’t make it seem like that what I’m advocating!

      Like

      • I didn’t think you were advocating it. I thought it worth mentioning because people steeped in something can all too easily forget the basics. A brief reference can bring to a person who’s read 10,000 stories all sorts of memories that can take the place of actual story telling. I see this with a friend who’s hard-core into anime. He requires approximately no initial character development because all he needs is a trope reference.

        It’s a temptation we all face, since we write in genres we like (and therefore have read a lot of)—the temptation to skip to the part that makes our story different. So I think it’s important to always remind ourselves of the things it’s easy to lose sight of while concentrating on other important things, too.

        Liked by 3 people

      • It’s for me too. On my first novel (unpublished) I worked so hard to make sure no one could think my main character was an author self-insert that he had no personality at all. Then I decided “fuck the critics, I’m just going to make good characters and they can think whatever they want”. It’s a lesson that stuck with me. Never forget the fundamentals. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • They really do. 🙂

        Another incident that left an impression on me was reading the wikipedia page on Harriet Vane, who was a character in the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries. She was a murder mystery writer who was tried for the murder of her ex-lover and Lord Peter got her off, and several books later, after some joint investigations, he married her. The wikipedia page included criticism that she was an author self-insert. But she was one of the best characters I’ve read, and the books with her were the best Lord Peter stories. If she was an author self-insert then more people should try author self-inserts!

        Liked by 3 people

      • Yeah, it really is a bad look. Though to be fair to some, I think some criticism is just an attempt to put feelings into words. And some of it is misinterpreting things like your post or some of my posts about Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries which involve criticism but to learn—i.e. an attempt to refine one’s own craft. I know people to take that sort of thing to be hard-and-fast rules. I think it’s especially people who aren’t good with human beings and their reaction is almost, “finally! Here’s the manual which should have come at birth!”

        That said, yeah, a lot of it is exactly what you said. Though I have to admit I like Dale Carnegie’s formulation: any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.

        Liked by 2 people

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