**I’m not entirely sure why this became a ‘How to Write About Super Powers’-type post, it just kind of did…**
I think a lot about super powers. Not in the “I have super powers but am not sure if I want to use them for good or evil” sort of way, nor in the “I wish I had super powers to stave off this really boring day” sort of way but in the “I’m a writer and I think too much about the most ridiculous of things” sort of way.
Most of my writing is in the science fiction or fantasy genre and within these genres’ limitless boundaries can justifiably be contained characters with powers or abilities of the super variety. And in fact, a lot of my characters in my various science fiction and fantasy stories do possess powers or abilities of the super variety. Because I’m cliché.
Now, I’m sure there are some people out there wondering (non-writers, I suspect, unaccustomed to spending long periods of the day thinking about how best to describe the color red), when it comes to super powers, what is there to think about? If you want your character to fly, for instance, you just give them the ability to fly and ‘voila’ you’re good to move on to the next character, right?
When you introduce super powers into a story, you bring with it a whole mess of new plot points that need to be adequately fleshed out: Where does this super power come from, how does it work, what are its strengths, what are its limitations, how does it affect your character psychologically, how does it affect your character physiologically, how does your character use it, how does your character secretly want to use it, if anyone knows about this super power how do they react towards it, etc, etc, so on and so forth.
And most importantly: How does this super power play in to your story?
Now, as many of you may know, science fiction and fantasy are actually the same genre. They share a shelf space in the book store, they’re always clumped together in the library, and they both contain fantastical elements in unfamiliar, imaginative environments, where just about anything can happen. So, obviously, when bringing super powers into a story, you would use the same method for fantasy as you would science fiction.
Or you realize whoever first decided that science fiction and fantasy could be stocked on the same shelf because they’re relatively the same type of stories, at least, they’re read by the same type of nerds anyway, needs a good kick in the shins, and that, taking into consideration how different these genres actually are, you would still use the same method to introduce a super power into each of them.
Yes, it’s true. You would ask the same questions of your super powers when writing a science fiction story as you would when writing a fantasy. The only minor differences will probably come in the form of explaining these super powers.
For example, let’s say you want your character to fly. Awesome, that’s a great super power. Everybody wants to fly at some point in their life; it’s that very desire which prompted all those ancient aeronautical engineers to work so hard on designing the first airplane. Now, how are you going to explain this ability?
In a science fiction story, you would need to create some sort of science-y explanation for the ability while bearing in mind that most science fiction readers are not idiots and can smell a cop out a mile away (ie. This is a futuristic society so technologically advanced that even I, the almighty author, cannot explain the miracles they work – you might weasel your way out of this if your story is more character driven, but your characters’ and their story arcs better pack a real punch). Typically you’ll find the ‘nifty-machine’ plot device in science fiction stories and it does come in handy, so long as you can explain the mechanics to some satisfactory degree.
Using this device on my character that can fly, let’s say she has a pair of ankle cuffs that give her the ability. She clicks them together, and off she goes. Now wait…how do these ankle cuffs work? And we’re back to square one. Here’s an idea, when she clicks them together, it alters the polarity of molecules within its field of affect. She’s not really flying, but levitating due to magnetic repulsion. And now that we have our explanation, setting up limitations is a breeze: obviously, she can only use these cuffs where her surroundings can be polarized (or magnetized), because it has a field of affect it must have a range limit (she can only ‘fly’ so high), and, of course, the energy required to alter a structure on a molecular level sounds like it would be a ridiculous amount, so let’s say, she can only use them for a short period of time before the batteries die (no worries, they can be recharged, but she has to wait several hours before using them again).
Limitations, for some people, may not sound as fun to come up with as the super powers themselves (personally, I love coming up with limitations, but that’s just me…). We want our heroes to stand out, to be powerful, strong, smart, and unstoppable. Except, our readers don’t. They want to see our heroes struggle, to come close to failure – so close that we, and even our heroes themselves, think they will fail – only to make it out in the end by the hair of their teeth…or some better metaphor that makes sense. And the only way to do that, to give them that opportunity to fail, is to give them limitations.
If you think about it, super powers actually give far less to your story than the limitations they bring with them.
Outside of ‘nifty-machines’ there are several other ways to explain super powers in a science fiction story. Currently, I’m working on a manuscript that employs the ‘genetic-mutation’ plot-device, in what I hope is a ‘creative new-ish sort of way’. There’s no flying power in my story though because, personally, I’ve never been very fond of flying in science fiction. There exist very few strong scientific explanations for the power outside of ‘nifty-machines’.
When writing super powers into a science fiction story it is key to remember the ‘science’ behind those powers. Most science fiction readers are drawn to science fiction because they are science buffs with a strong grasp of scientific principles, meaning, if you want to ‘wow’ them, you must also have a strong grasp of scientific principles. If science is not your strong suit, then fantasy may definitely be the route for you.
So, let’s give a character the ability to fly in a fantasy world. In fantasy stories, your explanation for just about anything out of the ordinary will most likely boil down to ‘because it’s magic’. A lot of beginning writers make the mistake of believing that this easy explanation gives them the license to do just about anything in their fantasy world, because ‘magic’ is limitless. Except, as I’ve just discussed, readers like limitations. ‘Because it’s magic’ only gets you so far and then the readers want real explanations, such as, how does this magic work, what are its rules, what are its limitations?
For a moment, let’s digress into this ‘limitations in fantasies’ thread, by taking a look at a popular example: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the Harry Potter world, J.K. Rowling did an incredible job of setting up rules for her magic, so incredible a job, that any child that’s read the books could tell you what is possible in her world and, more importantly, what is not. Magic exists, yes, but a character has to possess the ability to use magic: some are born with it (and go on to become witches and wizards), some are not (and are out-casted for being muggles and squibs). And if a character possesses the ability, he must have a wand through which to direct his magic. Furthermore, he also needs to know the incantations, and (even better) the proper way to flick his wand, in order to cast his desired spell. Explanations set limitations: if our hero loses his wand, he’s pretty much powerless (magic-less), and if he cannot speak he is pretty much…powerless (magic-less). There are a lot more rules and limitations in J.K. Rowling’s stories, but I think I’ve made my point.
So, getting back to giving our character the gift of flight; in fantasy, you can use relatively the same devices you would in science fiction but the explanations will be different. In science fiction, the explanation must fit somehow within the rules of science. In fantasy, the explanation just has to fit within the rules of your world. Using the ‘nifty-machine’ device, let’s say our character has a magic ring that gives her flying capabilities. I’m sure some of you are now thinking, easy enough, moving on. Now is where the explanation demand comes in: where did this ring come from, how is it used, why does it work, where did our character get it from, and the list goes on and on.
I will admit that you can get away with a lot more in fantasy including the cop-out ‘because it’s magic’. This isn’t because science fiction readers are more intelligent than fantasy readers or anything to that end but is simply because fantasy readers are looking for something entirely different. Where the readers of science fiction are interested in science, they want to see advanced civilizations, they like the use of technological terms, they get a rush from hearing complex scientific explanations, fantasy readers are interested in (gasp) fantasy. Fantasy readers are looking for magic, they’re looking for that air of mystery, that aspect of the story that doesn’t need to be explained because once it has been explained the mystery is gone and all you’ve got is a silly man pulling rabbits out of a trapdoor through his hat.
Getting back to our magic ring, let’s say in order to use the flight ability, our character must twist the ring round her finger and speak the incantation “hullabaloo”, then away she goes. The ring is imbued with a magical enchantment that makes its wearer light as a feather on command (hence, the incantation). And that’s really about all the explanation that you need, as beyond that your reader will assume that it works because – say it with me everyone – it’s magic.
If you want, you can embellish a little, give your item a bit of a background story. Maybe this ring is one of a five-piece set created by a master jewel-smith mage for an evil troll queen. The other pieces are a bracelet, a necklace, a pair of earrings, and a tiara; each of which grants the wearer a different ability, and when worn altogether make the wearer incredibly powerful. Which leads to the question: how did our character come upon this ring?
An important part of story-telling is knowing how much to tell the reader and how much to leave for his speculation. In both fantasy and science fiction, sometimes it can be to your benefit not to explain how your character came across his or her particular ‘nifty-machine’. It can add a new layer of depth to your character: somewhere along her life she came across this powerful item, but where and when, well, she ain’t telling. Either it isn’t important (maybe it’s something anyone can pick up at the grocery story, or the tale is a little lame, she found it on the side of the road one day), or it’s not something she likes to talk about (part of a sordid past, maybe given to her by her best friend Jim the BlueJay who died in her arms). Leaving it unexplained adds a touch of mystery to your character, and makes her more real. As usual, try not to take advantage of this: do not load your character with a bunch of super power granting items and never explain why she has them. Also, no brainer, don’t give your character items that don’t fit what you’ve already told us about her character (ie. She was a slave for years, stripped of everything she owned and given rags to wear but, oh yeah, she’s got this magic ring that gives her the ability to fly – where did it come from? – oh, well, she’s kind of had it her whole life).
Alright, back to the ring. We’ve explained its power, and as I’ve said before with explanation comes limitation, let’s give this magic flying ring some boundaries. Obviously, and much like our science fiction ankle cuffs, since the ring needs to be activated, if she’s unable to activate it she can’t use it. Looking at exactly what the ring does, makes her light as a feather, maybe she can’t use it on windy days because she could very likely blow away.
Whew, that’s a lot of thinking, right? Of course, I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that needs to be considered when using super powers in a story. Next time, I think I’ll talk about each individual super power starting with the traditional abilities (flight, strength, speed, etc.) and moving into the more innovative super skill sets.
Reading over this, it’s easy to see how methods of story creation span across genres. While you might say, “of course developing fantasy and sci-fi stories is so similar, they themselves are similar, at least they must be, because they sit right next to each other on the bookshelf”, and I would be forced to smack you over the head, the root idea in this post: explain and limit, is universal throughout storytelling; much like other techniques such as character development, plot development, dialogue (never changes no matter the genre), etc, etc, so on and so forth.
Moral of story: If someone asks you how do I write a good horror novel, tell them, the same way you write a good romance novel.