Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Dos and Don'ts of Writing Characters With Special Powers

This is a guest post from the incredible Hannah Heath. She is an amazing writer and an all around cool person, but don't take my word for it. If you like this article, and I know you will, check out her blog here, and buy her e-book, "Skies of Dripping Gold", on Amazon.  

Hi everyone! I’m very excited to be able to contribute to Tamara’s blog today. Many thanks to Tamara for inviting me to do this, and many thanks to you for tuning in!
Raise your hand if you’ve ever wished you could use the Force…maybe to grab that book from your shelf without getting out of bed. Don’t lie. I know you have.
We’ve all been there. When we were little, we pretended to shoot fire from our hands or fly around the world, mimicking our favorite characters. 
Now we’re older and it’s less socially acceptable to pretend that empty paper towel rolls are magical swords. Lame, right? 
Thankfully for us writers, it’s totally normal to sit around and imagine up entirely new powers and magic systems. Suddenly things aren’t so drab.
But hold on a second. It’s easy to let superpowers and wizardry get out of control. I think a lot of authors get carried away by the sheer awesomeness of it, which is why books are overrun with characters wielding half-baked powers and living in magic systems that don’t make any sense. Authors get halfway into a story and end up so muddled with their power-building that they can’t dig themselves out.
You don’t want that to happen to you. Here are some do’s and don’ts to crafting characters who have special powers:

1) Don’t change rules just to make your character cooler. Do keep the rules consistent. 

Before you get in too deep, consider sitting down and outlining the rules and regulations of the special powers in your story. What are the powers? Where do they come from? How are they controlled? Are there other characters besides the main character that have powers? What are the limits to these powers? Think out all of the details, write them down somewhere, and stick with them. These rules should not be thrown out the window when it comes to your main character. If your character is somehow excluded from certain rules, you’ll want to add some other “special” rules to keep him in check. You’ll also need a good reason for your character’s specialness. Unless it’s a central part of the story, throwing a 1,000 year prophesy at her isn’t going to cut it. And no, the “I just want him to be awesomer than everyone else” reason is not a good reason. Sorry.

2) Don’t overlook complications. Do think the powers through first. 

Like the rules, your powers need to be considered extensively. Your character can draw energy from her surroundings? Great, but “energy” tends to be in the form of heat, so wouldn’t that mean she would cause everything around her to become extremely cold? She could kill herself and those around her. Your guy can fly? Epic. But can he breathe at high altitudes? What if he goes too high and passes out? Being able to read thoughts or see into the future is neat, but it also has the potential to unhinge a person’s mind. THINK about powers and all of their complications before you put them to work. There should be no silly wand-waving or foolish incantations in your story.

3) Don’t make your character all-powerful. Do give him restrictions. 

Meet Bob. Bob has unlimited resources, is the coolest person ever, and never comes up against anything he cannot conquer. Bob can do everything. Nobody likes Bob. Don’t write a Bob. No one wants to read about a character who is invincible, because then there’s never any suspense. We know he’s going to come out okay, so why even bother finishing the story? Give your character limits. You can either give them a character flaw (such as arrogance) or a “power check” (a rule that blocks the character from full use of their power). Or you really can have the character be all-powerful, but still unable to reach his/her goal. Anakin was the most powerful Force user in the galaxy. Padme was not, and the fact that he might not always be able to protect her literally drove him mad. Neo had unlimited power in the Matrix, but he was held back by the fact that he couldn’t save Trinity. While these are not restrictions of power, they are emotional restrictions that kept the characters in check.

4) Don’t be generic. Do dive into some research. 

There are a ton of special powers you can choose from. Mimicry, alchemy, quantum tunneling, psychometry, negation. There are a lot of cool ones. Just go ask Google for a list of supernatural powers and magical abilities. You as the writer can pick between many phenomenal cosmic powers! Why limit your characters to an itty bitty selection of abilities?

5) Don’t substitute powers for personality. Do make your character’s ability purposeful. 

Your character is a person first, then a power-user. Avoid getting so caught up in a character’s power that you forget to give the character any meaning outside of his power. Find a way to make your character’s ability entwined with the character’s personality and journey. When you give a character a power, ask yourself why. Why this power? Does it symbolize something? Does it move something along in a story? Or is it just random fluff that looks cool but serves no real purpose? I mean, we can’t all make our super cute vampire guys sparkle in the sunlight for no reason. Resist the urge. It’s hard, but I know you can do it.

6) Don’t just show the power. Do explain how the power feels. 

One of the most interesting parts of a character with special abilities is getting to understand what it feels like to wield those abilities. Does it feel like the unleashing of a dam? Or maybe the weaving together of threads? Is the feeling always there, or does it only show itself when the power is tapped into? Does using the ability make her feel tired, high, or frightened? Tell us what the character experiences when engaging her powers. It makes it more real.

Creating a character who has superpowers or magical abilities is insanely fun, so run wild. But not too wild. You are the creator of this character, so learn how to enjoy the creation process while also putting together a character with abilities that make sense and fit the story.
Now go forth and create awesome characters with awesome powers! Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger.
Have you ever written a character with special powers? Do you have any tips to add or questions to ask? Leave a comment below!