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?
I came a little unstuck in drafting my current work in progress last week. The WIP is an urban fantasy, like my last two, but this time it’s for adults rather than young adults. Anyway, I was working on a fight scene and, halfway through drafting it, I drew a giant mental blank as to what to do next. My muse basically stormed off to her trailer with a sassy flick of her hair and a rude gesture.
The problem I had was that I was working with a non-traditional bad guy (rather like an evil flying jellyfish), so its attack options were pretty much limited to striking out with its tentacles. And my leading lady, Melaina, wasn’t using any weapons either.
I had a whinge about it on Twitter and my tweep Pippa recommended I buy Rayne Hall’s ebook, “How to Write Fight Scenes”. I’m almost halfway through reading it (a lot of the chapters are about types of weapons, for example, so they are interesting but not directly relevant to my current scene). But it managed to get me unstuck.
I’d worked Melaina’s combat weakness into the book already, but emphasising it a little more in the scene established the stakes, which is important if I want the readers to be cheering for her as the underdog rather than having a little snooze. For example, in typical Hollywood fight scenes I tend to get bored and start thinking about something else—because the scene usually involves a lot of stunts but no real sense that it advances the story, and no real risk to the protagonists.
The other problem was that, given Melaina was fighting unarmed, I needed to have her use the environment. And my initial description of the place where the fight takes place built up the atmosphere but didn’t really include any features she could use as weapons. So last night I went back and added a couple more things that she could use—including the “weapon” she used to strike the killing blow.
She killed that flying jellyfish good! 😉
I think it’s easy for writers of speculative fiction—where their characters are magic users of one stripe or another—to forget that all magic needs to have a cost to the user. Otherwise, the magic users become overpowered demigods. And where’s the fun in that?
I always thought writers who talked about their muses as though they were people were being self-indulgent, using some of that artistic license that is one of the tools of the trade. In “On Writing” (yes, I go on about that book—I just re-read it over the break), Stephen King describes his muse as follows:
“He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.” (The full quote is here.)
I’ve seen my stories take unexpected turns—but I thought it was just that, as you were writing, you saw better options.
Then two experiences changed my mind.
The first was when, more than halfway through drafting my previous novel, there was an entirely unplanned kiss between two characters. One of them did something a little bit clever that the other didn’t see coming, and the other, in an excess of exuberance, gave the first a hug that suddenly got all romantic.
This was particularly awkward given that the kissee had a significant other.
I knew the kisser was interested, of course. But I never in a million years thought he’d make the first move. SURPRISE!
The other instance was more recently. Some of you may recall me having a whinge about not knowing which novel idea I wanted to pursue next: the fantasy (fully plotted out) or the urban fantasy (no plot whatsoever). I’d decided on the fantasy; I borrowed books to do research, so I could start my world-building, and was all good to go. Excited, even.
Then, one day driving home from work, I had the basic plot structure for the urban fantasy land in my head like someone had dropped a load of bricks on the car. I lay up half that night thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go for days, walking around like I was sleepwalking (I probably was, given the laying up all night!).
It only stopped when I gave in and started the other manuscript instead.
My conclusion from all of this is that my muse, whoever she is, isn’t a bloke smoking cigars in a basement. I don’t know where she lives or what she looks like, but she wears combat boots (for stompin’ ideas into my recalcitrant head) and probably has a battered and super-trashy novel featuring a love triangle tucked under one arm.
Is your muse personified? Has he or she pulled stunts like this on you?
My son has recently been watching old Disney movies. The most recent one on the repeat cycle has been the 1997 movie Hercules. He loves it because Hercules is really strong and beats up monsters, something a little boy who’s afraid of the dark can fully appreciate.
I like it, though, because it’s the only Disney “princess” movie where the leading lady isn’t a sweet little princess. In fact, I doubt she’s actually a princess, although they never reveal anything about her family origins.
I realised, watching it, that Meg was my ideal novel protagonist as well. She’s sassy and self-sufficient, not innocent and naive (and probably not a virgin, although this is Disney so that’s suggested rather than stated outright). She does her damnedest to take charge and get herself out of problems, although that sometimes gets her straight into them. Which is called life, really—we all do it.
When you compare her to the other Disney girls, she’s streets ahead. Some of them aren’t too offensive as female role-models (Jasmine is ok; at least she’s trying to have some independence, even if it’s not working); others make me deeply uneasy (Belle, although I love her bookish habits, basically teaches girls that if you love a man enough he’ll be “cured” of his abusive tendencies; Cinderella teaches girls the only way out of a shitty home situation is through marriage).
My characters come with varying levels of sass, but so far I haven’t had a wet noodle for a main character, and I don’t intend to start.
Here are a few choice quotes from Meg:
Hercules: “Aren’t you … a damsel in distress?”
Meg: “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress. I can handle this. Have a nice day.”
Meg: “I’m a big tough girl. I tie my own sandals and everything.”
Hercules: “You know, when I was a kid, I would have given anything to be exactly like everybody else.”
Meg: “You wanted to be petty and dishonest?”
Who’s your favourite kids movie leading lady and why?