Monday, August 27, 2012

Consequences: Super Powers and Magic

Enhanced strength, laser vision, electric blasts, magic...  In the realm of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and any other speculative genre, we all create characters who are "special."  Whether their power is overt or subtle, natural or man-made, inherent or learned, it is important to remember that such abilities should not be a "catch-all."  The purpose of this entry is to address the use of super powers through either tech or magic, nature or nurture, and to show how to effectively use such abilities in your writing.

First, a super hero is only as interesting as his weaknesses. Wait, what?  Yes, you read that correctly. Think about it.  If Superman had no weaknesses, where would be the interest?  Where would be the drama?  If there's no chance he could lose, why should we care?  It becomes boring.  We know he's going to win because he always does.  The Big Blue Boyscout just zooms in and saves the day.


But then we introduce Kryptonite.  Then we introduce limitations on his powers.  Then we introduce Doomsday, a bad guy who can physically tear Superman apart, and suddenly we have real drama.  There's the possibility that he could fail, and that's why we keep reading.  Think about every hero worth his tights and you'll realize that every one of them has a flaw, an chink in their armor.  So when we write them, we need to give them weaknesses, and exploit them, to let the reader latch hold.  Give them something to invest in emotionally, and then they're hooked.

Most people think of how awesome it would be to have super powers.  But we, as writers, need to look beyond the immediate gratification.  We need to climb deeper into our characters' lives to see what the real consequences of having such abilities would be.  For example:

  • Super Strength - Implies super density, and therefore increased weight.  Would this person be able to ride in an airplane if he was dense and heavy enough to lift it?  Probably not.  Would he be able to take public transit?  How about sit in a chair?  Or lay in a bed?  Or have sex with someone?  Would a one-night tryst become a case of manslaughter?  Could he even live in a world designed for normal people?  
  • Super Speed - Einstien, that lovable follically challenged genius, stated that the faster something moves, the faster time passes for it.  I'm paraphrasing, of course, but think of the consequences of super speed in those terms.  A run around the block, a year of your life goes away.  Even if you could manage to keep your clothes from bursting into flames every time you took a jog, could you keep your skin from tearing off from wind sheer?  And let's not get into the whole sex thing again.  Oy. 
  • Flight - Okay, we've all wanted to fly at one time or another.  But think about what that means.  Assuming, for a moment, that you could actually breathe in high altitudes (there comes a point where you can't, by the way), what's to stop you from getting killed when you hit something like a bird?  Ever seen one go through a windshield?  Now picture it with your character's head.  Powerlines, airplanes, lightning...The skies are littered with potentially lethal obstacles.  And then there's the matter of navigation.  Unless your character is lame and follows the highways when he flies, how's he going to navigate?  
  • Invulnerability - Everyone thinks they'd like to be invulnerable.  Bullet-proof, knife-proof, everything-else-proof.  The implication there is that, no matter what, your character suffers no damage and no pain.  If that's the case, if a speeding bullet cannot upset the nerve receptors in your skin, then what can?  Certainly not the touch of another human.  And therein lies the tragedy.  Invulnerability would make your character one of the loneliest creatures on the planet.  
  • Immortality - Who really wants to live forever?  Not me.  Stand around and watch everyone you've ever cared for wither and die?  Watch cities crumble to ruin around you?  Realize that you're the last and only of your kind left?  That's a horror story.
The point here is that for every power you can name, there's a downside, and writers need to explore them to give that layer to your characters.  

"But wait," you say.  "Hold on just a minute.  What about magic?  My character can do anything through magic!  Magic has no rules!"  Not true.  No matter what version of "magic" your character uses, you're still trying to do one thing:  Keep your reader interested.  Again, if your character can do whatever he or she wants with the wave of a wand, what's to keep the reader interested?  It's the limitations that make the story interesting, and the consequences that make our limitations.  

Magic is, in simplistic terms, the manipulation of energy.  Energy, according to our follically challenged physicist up there, can neither be created, nor destroyed.  It can only change form.  So if your character is throwing energy around, where's it coming from?  A body can only create so much before it needs to be replenished.  Pulling energy out of surrounding things has its own consequences, and a body can only handle so much energy before it gets damaged.  That's why we can get electrocuted.  So what kinds of consequences are we talking about?  What kind of limitations? 

First, magic is not a catch-all.  If you're stuck (or your character is), you shouldn't get him out by giving a flippant wave of your hand and screaming "he does magic and it's better now!"  Magic should be specific, and it should cost.  In the Stanley Cooper Chronicles, my character, Maggie, uses magic in her daily life.  She throws around a serious amount of energy, and it costs her.  She draws the majority of her energy from within her own body, so she has to replenish her energies by eating.  Just like we do when we exercise.  Any character that tries to channel too much energy through their body gets burned.    Draw the energy from around your character, and there should be a reaction from the environment.  Does he draw it from the power lines?  Maybe the lights around him go dim because that means less energy getting to them.  Pulls it from the plants?  Maybe the plants turn brown and die because he's feeding off their life source.  What if he draws power from a higher being?  Do you think that higher being will give power out of the kindness of his heart?  Nope.  Chances are, he's going to want something in return.  And think about this:  Physiologically, energy passing through a body creates a sort of "high."  How addictive would it be?  How many times will the user want to keep using it?  How will it affect him physically?  Emotionally?  Spiritually?

In writing about magic, theres a blog entry by Mette Ivie Harrison in which several questions are asked about your book's system of magic.  I recommend reading the questions and putting some serious thought to them, as well as those listed above. 

The point of all of this is that having characters with special powers and abilities are fine, but you must make the powers finite.  You must give them limitations.  You must give them consequences.  Without them, there's no tension, no reason to turn the page.  And that's what you're really hoping for, isn't it?  That the reader will turn the page? 


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