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.
Update: Friend of the blog Caroline Furlong just wrote part one of her five-part series on the topic of characters with powers. It is excellent, so read it here!