Reposted to my blog and the Pen and cape Society.
I’ve mentioned more than once that among the character-based story arcs I tend to do is what I call the ‘power arc’.
You see, in superhero fiction in particular, I find the actual relationship between a character and their powers to often be compelling in and of itself. For my money, character who either love or hate having powers are far more interesting than those who don’t give them any thought, but at the same time, seeing someone who took their powers for granted learn greater depth to them as part of their natural progression is supremely satisfying. So if watching a character learn about their powers—particularly through trial and error.
Therefore, this week, I’ll be discussing power arcs; the theory and execution. This includes the many forms a power arc can take, such as…
Probably the most common type of power arc is the one where a character starts out not having full control of their powers.
While there are many forms that this takes, the most common are activation and manipulation.
Activation is exactly what it sounds like: the character has trouble turning their powers on and off. If you’ve read my series, The Descendants, has some discussion on this where people with descendant powers simply never figure out how to turn their powers on.
It’s very rare for a major character to have that problem. More often, they will have difficulty triggering the activation: having it work sometimes but never knowing exactly how or why, or having it go off when they don’t want it to. The later, of course, makes secret identities more of a challenge.
The other side of the activation coin are powers that are difficult or impossible to turn off. These are a bit trickier to make into a viable component of a power arc because sometimes… it’s just not that bad. Having invulnerability on 24/7 isn’t just awesome, it’s a survival trait, so there’s no problem there. Being on fire 24/7… significantly more of a problem.
Working either of these into a power arc largely involves the character exploring the mechanics of their powers (think Peter Parker figuring out the hand gesture to shoot webbing in the first Spider-man movie), learning the on/off switch; coping with the consequences of a power that is always on or can misfire; or finding alternate means of controlling the power (perhaps a device to force the power ‘off’).
The journey to control a power’s activation can be the entire arc surrounding a character’s powers. Rogue of the X-men went decades without being to touch people for fear of draining their lifeforce, powers and memories before finally finding out how to turn the power off.
However, it is sometimes the first step in the arc and the next is manipulation.
When I say manipulation, I’m specifically talking about manipulating ones powers. Where one character who can generate fire blasts can just generate fire blasts, another might figure out how to use them for flight, start smaller or larger fires, weld metal, warm themselves without visible flame, and create a flame shield. The arc comes in when we start with that first character and watch them become the second through experimentation with their powers.
Often, even characters have elemental powers, they start out with all of that. The most common power you see paired with this type of power arc is telekinesis because there are very defined ‘stages’ to telekinetic manipulation.
At its base, TK has push/pull/lift, where the user can only really move things around in a general way. In a fight, TK users like this usually just pick up things and hurl them at enemies. Just past that is what’s often called ‘invisible hand’ telekinesis, where the user can more or less do anything with their TK what they could with a big, clumsy hand. After that, we have what the HERO System called ‘fine manipulation’, where you can use your TK to move things normally too small and fragile to move, or perform exacting movements as if you were working with precision tools. At this level, you start to see the scary TK stuff like disassembling complex devices in moments like we’ve seen Tantrum do in my own Liedecker Institute series.
At the top of the TK scale is perfect control, at which point the user is assembling and disassembling matter on the molecular if not atomic level and screwing with energy valence levels to the point where there’s little difference between TK and reality warping. I’ve honestly never seen a sotry where a character didn’t build up to that point as part of their power arc, probably because the kind of power needs to be earned for major characters.
Just the use of powers isn’t all there is to a power arc though. You can also deal with…
In the context of a character’s power arc, ‘integration’ is how that power fits into that character’s daily life.
I’ve said time and again that I have a major thing for what TV Trope calls Mundane Utility: characters using their powers to accomplish everyday tasks. Things like an ice controller chilling their drink, or the super-strong lifting the whole couch to vacuum under it.
Watching a character realize they can do that sort of thing is an example of integration, but not the sole example. Consider the case of characters whose powers leave them with a strange appearance or special limitations like having to eat way more than normal. How and why the character deals with this and grows as a result are also part and parcel with integration.
Again, if you’re a reader of The Descendants, you would know I’m rather partial to not giving my characters the usual secondary powers that typically make standard power sets so powerful/versatile. For example, the villain Wartorn is has enhanced durability, but needs a suit of powered armor to get the strength to make it useful while Chaos can manipulate wind, but needs a special cape to use in conjunction with that for flight.
In the case of Chaos in particular, this is a part of his power arc, as in earlier appearances, he cannot fly and needs help getting around quickly. His arc also exemplifies manipulation, as he slowly learns more tricks to use with his power over fluid density, such as creating explosions.
One of the greatest examples of integration as part of a power arc comes from the X-men Franchise, particularly in the eighties where they would have the ‘mutant ball’ scenes. Mutant ball, if you aren’t familiar with the trope, is where the team would try and play a game (usually baseball) and have it devolve into a free-for-all of everyone using their powers to give them an advantage in the game.
The scenes went a long way toward characterizing the players: showing who was and wasn’t ready and willing to leap into the powered cheating, what tactics they applied (i.e. demonstrating their creativity with their powers), and just plain showing the characters at their leisure. Later when the conceit of the Xavier School became more like an actual school, ‘Mutant Ball’ was actually used in-universe to build character in the form of teaching young folks with powers how to become more comfortable with their powers and even enjoy them.
And finally, we have the most basic form of Power Arc:
Sometimes a character just gets more powerful. Whether that means they get actual explicit upgrades or their power works like a muscle and gets stronger with proper use, it’s often just a given, especially in serial fiction that runs long and escalation is likely.
Up until this point, I haven’t talked much about execution, but using sheer strength as a component of a power arc is dangerous ground. There are a number of reasons for this; first and formost being that fact that you’re unlikely to be able to take it back once you increase a character’s power. Even if it’s treated as a one-time thing, the door is now open and savvy audience members will now be looking for It to come back in similar situations.
Which brings us to another danger and that is that a more powerful character means the threats of them need to scale. The problem here is that a lot of ‘scaling’ seems unnatural. A character gets a power-up and suddenly everythng they face is automatically stronger. Yes, you can make use of minions as outlined in my award-deserving post on the subject, but this changes the nature of every major threat you can employ forever.
The last pitfall I’ll outline is one of audience acceptance. As a general rule, shifting a character who has always been street level all the way to cosmic level is rarely a good idea (unless that’s the point of the story). It’s jarring and often presents the audience with a character who is no longer who they signed on to read. Strength-based power arcs really need to be properly paced and throttled to make the transition gradual enough that the audience acclimates to it.
Of course now that I’ve talk all about this concept, you’re probably wondering:
Why Use Power Arcs?
Well the answer to that is in my mantra as a writer: ‘characters are people’. By extension, a character’s powers are part of who they are. Not that I’m advocating the old saw of fire-controllers being hot-headed (GET IT?!), or even indicting them. What I mean is that having these powers and how they interact with them is part of the characterization. It’s important to spend a bit of time on that, even if it’s not much in the scope of the work.
This is something I firmly believe. While not every character needs to be eternally introspective about their powers or have their powers develop, the simple act of taking how they normally act into account when they use their powers goes a long way.
Just as a small example, going back to The Descendants, we have resident shapeshifter, Cyn. While she has the ‘fuel’ problem with activation and it’s caused her some problems in her life, she’s fine with being a big eater, loving fod in general. At te same time, she loves her powers and uses them for everything she can get away with—while still being a terrible, terrible actress who can barely impersonate anyone at all. Yet, there has never been an issue of the series specifically about her powers. It all comes out in how she acts and what she does, adding depth (at least in my opinion) on the same level as her rotten childhood and relationships with Warrick and Laurel.
In that sense, power arcs are just another kind of character development, just tailored for stories about people with fantastic powers. And I’ll be the first to say that you can’t go wrong with some more nice character development.