As a guy who writes superhero works, I dedicate a great deal of time thinking and writing about powers. Magic spells, natural abilities and tech—they’re all on the board now, especially in The Descendants and it can often be more daunting coming up with a power for a character than the character themselves.
Obviously, thanks to the magic of the internet, all the basic (and not-so-basic) superpowers have been handily cataloged for writers like me over at TVTropes, but just being able to see all of those can be less useful than one might think. You might assume I’m talking about the problem of matching characters with powers, but no, sometimes it’s the powers themselves. Sometimes, they’re just a pain to work with.
While TVTropes thinks breasts are the most common superpower (ugh), I’d put real American dollars down on the real most common power being the ability to fire ‘some kind of energy’. The type of energy really doesn’t matter: it could be radiation, lasers, lightning or fire—it all knocks down enemies just the same. There’s a good chance that if a character can manipulate something that can even be vaguely construed as ‘energy’, they’ll have this power.
In fact, I have seen freaking Magneto pulling this from time to time when someone who doesn’t understand… anything… writes him.
On the surface, we all know why this is so well worn as a trope: they’re simple and easy ranged attacks that can be plausibly non-lethal for a character you don’t necessarily want to be Murder Man, the Lifer. So what’s the problem?
Well before I go into that, let me just say that this article isn’t about powers I hate or powers I wish would go away. It’s about powers I generally have problems wrapping my head around given my interests and background. With that said, my big issue with slapping energy projection on characters is that most of the time, that energy behaves in no way like that type of energy.
If you have a heroine who hurls lightning bolts, it won’t electrocute people, seek ground, or leave nightmarish burns. It won’t even act as a taser as one would expect via comic book logic. Nope, it knocks people down and might leave a small burn at the point of contact.
Say you’ve got a robot with an atomic beam (which we’ll assume is radiation). It won’t go right through targets, causing internal injury or inflicting radiation poisoning, it knocks people down and might leave a small burn at the point of contact.
Or maybe you’ve got a fire guy. At the very least, you would expect fire to ignite things. Guess what it does. Come on guess! Yep: knocks people down and might leave a small burn at the point of contact.
Weirdly enough, ALL of these works just dandy if you want to plasma-saw your way through a metal door though.
Now, I am not saying that it would be better if heroes went around shooting people with a beam that gives people cancer. This isn’t Funky Winkerbean. Heck, I’m the kind of person who is glad that even modern comic writers have the restraint not to show Storm leaving piles of corpses covered in the signature fern burn pattern of an electrocution… but if a character can shoot lightning, I feel like they should be capable of it and mindful not to do such a thing.
Not only that, but I feel like they should be limited by their type of energy. Unless you can bring the blue flames like Azula from Avatar, a stone wall should stop a fire-user in their tracks. Lightning should be really hard to aim. Radiation should be a thing you don’t let off the chain.
I guess my big problem with energy projection is that it is rarely as interesting as it could be and it can and does hurt things like team books. For example, you will often see teams constructed so everyone has a role and there may only be one or two ‘blasters’ when in reality, a sonic screamer should fill an entirely different role than someone with a face made of lasers. If energy projection was treated based on the type of energy, there would be more variety between characters, especially in stories where there is a LOT of power combos that amount to flight + energy projection.
Now that we’ve eased into the concept of the article, let’s tackle…
If writing superpowers was a college class, duplication would be the PhD thesis where it turns out you backed over the professor’s dog with your car.
Note that I said write. If you’re trying to show duplication, it’s stupidly easy with modern techniques and a decent choreographer or animator can make it look like poetry in motion. Unfortunately, that poem is usually called ‘unruly dogpile on a guy’. Something about dupes turns screen writers into Zapp from Futurama, sending wave after wave of their own men at the target with a strategy of… um… ‘win or something’.
I’ll say that I still like watching those fights, but they really don’t read so well. It gets rushed and confusing and not fun at all. Which is why I think duplication is such a complex and difficult to grasp power. And before you think I’m getting cocky: yes, I used duplication and I totally punted by giving it to a comic relief guy.
No, to do duplication properly, I feel there are a lot of questions one should ask and then utilize as part of the story it appears in. Among these questions: How does the Prime control the dupes? Do dupes have minds of their own? What happens when a dupe is unsummoned? Are objects coped by the dupes? Are dupes living things or something else like a golem or a psychic projection? Can a dupe die? What are the limits on the duplication? Is there a maximum range?
Like I said, it’s all very complicated, but I feel like these questions are part of a larger can of worms that gets opened when duplication is put on the table. Obviously, one does not have to answer these questions and can write a great character with that power without doing so. Just as obviously, not everyone in your audience is going to need even the minimal amount of these.
What I’m getting at though is that by answering these questions, you make the power and to an extent, the character deeper and better. It gives you new direction when writing scenarios with it. And unlike asking where all the matter goes when someone shapeshifts, almost all of these answers would add something worthwhile to the story.
Duplication is one of those powers you do really, really simply or one that can form the complete backbone of a plot. What I’m saying is, it’s pretty darn nifty.
There’s a rant I could be writing here about the 90’s trend of taking a character, giving them a minor power that rarely shows up, then sticking big guns in their hands and calling it a day.
This is not that rant.
Instead, a trend came along a bit later to attempt to ‘justify’ superheroes carrying guns around that was much stranger. In a word, they made the character’s literal power ‘guns’.
This came in two flavors. In the first, the character has the power of being a really, really good shot. That power in and of itself is interesting, especially when the character can effectively turn anything into a dangerous projectile weapon or when they use trick ammunition like line-dragging and boxing-glove arrows that make the whole shtick fun and interesting.
The reason I’m not interested in it when the guy has just a plain old gun is that I’ve seen action movies.
Well here’s the thing. I’m not around guns a lot. I don’t particularly like guns in real life. Therefore, the only real exposure I and a LOT of people have with guns is from action movies. And if there’s one thing a lot of action movies have in common it’s a good guy who is generally a very good shot.
The takeaway here is that in my experience as a consumer of pop culture, being good at guns isn’t a superpower. It is, at best, an alignment perk. If you’re a good guy in a piece of entertainment, you hit people you shoot at most of the time. That’s just how it is. So it’s really hard to convince me that there’s anything special about a person whose superpower is being Bruce Willis.
I figure it can b done if they made impossible shots to get effects one doesn’t associate with shootings all the time. Like if they shoot through a wall to damage wires and kill power to stuff, or bounce a bullet around a room until it’s moving slow enough that it merely gives a dude a concussion rather than a sloppy lobotomy.
…But then there’s the other flavor of this trope and here I have to sigh heavily. This is where they’ve taken it was literally as possible and ‘guns’ is their actual power. I mean that literally. They generate guns and/or ammunition.
In a genre that gave us Arms-Fall-Off Boy and evil, sapient yeast, this might be the worst power ever.
To put this into perspective, I have never seen a character of this type produce anything more advanced than a nine millimeter pistol or a machine gun, neither were anything better than armor-piercing rounds. Living in Virginia, where I can totally get pretty much any weapon I want without a background check because that’s a great idea that will never arm Mexican drug cartels or New York gangs, I’m here to tell you that this power amounts to ‘able to generate a couple of thousand dollars.
Only generating a couple of thousand dollars lets you buy things that aren’t guns and ammo… like defensive devices or transportation. Actually, being able to make a modest amount of money on a limited basis would be a pretty dang useful power. If you can generate a couple thou a night, you can just hire all the goons in the city away from their bosses and solve organized crime. You could donate to the Kickstarter of any wild-eyed scientists who just invented the spider-tank or the de-molecularization beam so they don’t feel the need to use it to rob jewelry stores. You could fund social programs to help kids develop their talents and prevent future crime.
… Or I guess you could just shoot all those guys.
Let’s finish up by talking about the exact opposite of that.
I have a bad relationship with reality warpers. They interest me with their infinite potential and yet that same potential is a plot-ruining, reset button hitting, chaotic ball of awful; The second you throw a reality warper down on the table, literally nothing else in the story matters because the ‘warper can just edit it out with a whim.
And yet they Always. Lose.
Think about that: a person for whom all of creation rolls over and plays dead and it is almost a universally forgone conclusion that they are going to fail by the end of the story. Granted, if they’re a villain, they were probably going to lose anyway, but most villains can’t alter reality.
For me, the problem of the reality warper is a lack of limits that you must then reign in artificially in order to have a coherent story instead of a sodden mess. Most of them end up being beaten by getting outsmarted or because they’re mentally ill (giving the mentally ill reality warping powers is a staple… somehow) and have a breakdown.
I’ve hinted at there being a reality warper in The Descendants, hinted at in that their powers don’t work like anyone else’s. There are, in fact, two (plus a magical character who is nearly one) and the way I have and shall continue to handle them is to impose limits on them at the design phase.
For example, the two ‘true’ reality warpers don’t know the full extent of their powers. They know they manifest in a certain way, know at least a little bit about how to use that way in more creative contexts, but have no reason to try and delve deeper. In this way, I’m actually using reality warping as a way of creating more esoteric powers than my slightly more scientific series would normally allow (including one that is a predestination paradox).
On the other hand, we have the character Mad Mad Madigan, who has an item that gives him reality-warping power… with a limited range. He is god of a tiny sphere about 80ft across and in that space, he can do anything, limited only by his imagination. His other limit is… well his imagination. He’s a petty man set in his ways and not as creative as he thinks he is. Not only that, but the object that gives him this power has a will of its own and seeks to manipulate them.
And these aren’t the only ways to mess with the concept of ‘reality warper’. How about a perception warper, who doesn’t change actual reality, but how we see, touch and feel it? How about someone who can shunt others into other realities like some kind of evil Slider?
The heart of the power is all about screwing with the environment and understanding thereof—there are a lot of permutations to play with.
And I’d like to read all of them.
That’s all for this week folks.
Fans of superhero literature would do well to pick up a copy of The Good Fight, an anthology from Local Hero Press and featuring stories from myself as well as some of the top people in the literary genre from The Pen and Cap Society. If it isn’t free in the link provided, please take a moment to report it as free on Smashwords.