Limiting your superpowersPosted: February 21, 2014
I’m a huge fan of superpowers—special abilities beyond the norm—having downsides or weaknesses. There’s nothing more boring (IMO YMMV ETC) than Captain Cheesecake, the speculative fiction superhero main character who can do anything. I’m looking at you, Superman—although he had kryptonite, his day-to-day abilities are over the top compared to other superheroes.
The contemporary equivalent of Captain Cheesecake is, of course, Ms Mary Sue (or Mr Mary Stu), the beautiful, talented and charming main character who seems to get whatever she wants and has men falling all over her. You particularly see her in fan fiction—and that’s where the term Mary Sue came from—but she crops up in traditional publishing from time to time as well.
Forgive me for saying it, Twilight fans, but Bella is a good example of a Mary Sue.
If a main character is going to have a supernatural ability, it’s important to me as a reader that it have clearly articulated limitations. It’s important as a writer too, because it’s hard to convolute your character’s life if he or she can just wave a magical doodad and unkink the twists in your plot.
And life is always more fun with a little kink.
Vampires become weak from lack of blood, and usually can’t go in the sun. Mages burn their own internal reserves, an act that limits their magical capacity. Wizards have wands, which can be lost or broken, or need special ingredients that are hard to find. Werewolves have issues with silver and hairy palms. Physically enhanced characters have limitations on how much damage they can take or how far they can push themselves before they keel over (except Captain Cheesecake Superman).
I’m a big fan of an energy limitation because it can be applied in so many different ways—vampires’ requirement for blood is a good example. I’ve used these types of limitations with the main characters in both my novels/series to date: Isla (of Isla’s Inheritance, funnily enough) and Melaina (from Lucid Dreaming).
In Isla’s case particularly, I also wanted to show the consequences of misusing special powers: what happens when they get out of control. It’s hard to give examples—because hello, spoilers—but think Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Or Renfield in Dracula.
(It’s really like neither of those things except only peripherally, but that’s the best I can think of.)
Also, another thing to consider is this: moral dilemmas are fun. Just because you can do a thing, should you? This subject could be a whole other blog post (and probably will be one day)—but a character’s morals can impose as much of a limitation on the use of a power or talent as any other, more-physical impediment to their use. (I guess this is where Superman redeems himself. Ok, fine, you can come out of the naughty corner, Clark.)
If you’re a speculative fiction writer, how have you stopped your main characters or bad guys from using their special abilities to wreak complete havoc with your plot and the world around them? And for the readers, what are your favourite examples of a writer putting the breaks on a power?