Mar 11 2010

Please Don’t Use Uncontrollable Superpowers to Angst Readers

One of the more frustrating things I see is when an author tries to give a character a guilty backstory but one he is utterly not responsible for.  For example, the character’s powers might manifest by killing the town and/or pretty much everybody she knows.  (Please see the TV Tropes Power Incontinence page for more examples).

If you want this character to feel guilty about her backstory, why not make her actually responsible for the accident?  For example, instead of having uncontrollable poison-massacre powers*, which is merely awful luck, maybe the character has powers that he uses in a reckless or ill-conceived way.  For example, maybe a flame-controller accidentally blows up a neighborhood by lighting up a gas line.  It’s still unintentional, but at least this gives him a choice to regret and atone for. Overcoming that will be more dramatic than “Gee, I’m sorry I was born to be a town-killer.” If the goal of the story is to have the character atone for his sins, it probably won’t be too dramatic if he’s not actually responsible for the sins in question. Or, if the character’s powers are completely uncontrollable, perhaps the character played some role in acquiring them, like participating in some poorly thought-out scientific experiment.

*Which are a losing Superpower Lottery ticket if ever there were one.   Pretty much everybody else in Heroes has something cool like superstrength or flight or time-travel.  Poor Maya.  Even the psychopathic serial killer has more control over his face-ripping telekinesis than she does.  (Also, he spent  a lot less time moping about his body count than she did).

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Please Don’t Use Uncontrollable Superpowers to Angst Readers”

  1. The Last Man on Marson 11 Mar 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Im pretty sure i saw this in an issue of action comics…I think the guy’s name is redemption and he got his powers through people praying to god which this other guy channeled to him then it overloaded and the guy ended up killing a entire town…think that happened twice in that issue actually

  2. Wingson 11 Mar 2010 at 5:47 pm

    There is probably only one character who could qualify for this in my books: Julian/Harbinger/Infinite of TAWNBT, but since he was intenionally created in such a manner to be as destructice as possible, I don’t think it’s as glaring an issue. He eventually can control it, but the downside is that he has to be using his powers constanty, making it impossible to hide them.

    – Wings

  3. B. Macon 11 Mar 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Does he angst about it, Wings? I think uncontrollable powers aren’t inherently a bad idea. However, having the character feel super-guilty about them is usually a cheap and unsatisfying way to give a character something to feel sorry about even though they aren’t guilty of anything but bad luck. In general, I would say that a character that feels really guilty about something he isn’t responsible for is a sign of a Mary Sue.


    However, if we’re talking about a super-realistic and serious work, it’s probably worth nothing that there are many cases of people in real life feeling guilty for uncontrollable events. Survivor’s guilt is a fairly common example. If you’re doing SG in fiction, I’d recommend focusing on an incident where the individual has some remotely plausible reason to feel guilty. The character’s trauma will probably feel more realistic and easier to empathize with if it looks like (s)he might plausibly have been able to do something differently.

  4. Wingson 11 Mar 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Well, in the beginning he did try and keep away from other people (Not a bad idea if when you sneeze buildings explode) but overall he’s coped rather well, considering the fact that he has no memories of his life up until Crimson fused him with the Titan’s Diamond and nearly destroyed New York City.

    – Wings

  5. Miss Mynaon 11 Mar 2010 at 7:04 pm

    I’m not sure about in my story, but right now in rpgs Kaleb has a berserker mode on his abilities. It’s sort of like a split personality, but it acts like a psychotic kindergartner that takes over and is heck bent on ‘fixing’ something. The result is usually a massacre.

    He doesn’t angst that much about it until the berserker results in killing his foster mom, and even then, I mean… Kaleb broods a lot, but he doesn’t usually show it, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t have him sitting around moping is what I’m saying. He thinks about it. But the others can’t tell. He kinda keeps to himself about it ’cause he knows the situation bothers them as much as it does himself.

    I still doubt I’ll keep that for the story, but maybe that’s angsting enough regardless?

  6. AJon 12 Mar 2010 at 4:41 am

    (I must point out that I’m the one who got his foster mum killed, so not totally Kaleb’s fault… and Adriana thinks it’s her fault… kinda funny they’re both blaming them selves.)

    In my story Adriana does feel insanely guilty about what happened to her mother and latter her Fiance. She knows she could have saved them both but she didn’t. Only after having both of those incidents used against her does she realize she needs to let go of the past because those people already forgave her for what happened.
    She doesn’t like quit daily activities to sit around and cry about it at all. She thinks about it occasionally when others bring it up. Otherwise she tried to forget about it.

  7. catswoodsriveron 18 Jan 2016 at 8:39 am

    I have a character who wanted to end the war/battle of Pangaea. The only way she could do this was by sacrificing herself and using all of the energy of her life to push the daemons back into the underworld. However, her adopted sister said no, you can’t do this, I will. The character who survived feels guilty that she didn’t try harder to save her sister and sad that her sister died. It is later revealed to the character and the readers that the character’s sacrifice wouldn’t have done it and everyone would be worse off from it. The sister somehow saw that.

    Also, later there is a character with semi-uncontrollable fire powers. When she gets angry, sad, or excited something within sight spontaneously combusts and her hands get hot enough that anything flammable that she touches bursts into flames. Her mother (a doctor) has made a drug which turns off the character’s powers, and her flame resistance. It also messes with her vision a little and makes it harder for her to show emotion. Her supergroup is going to fight her father (a supervillain) and, like any rational human being, he makes a highly concentrated batch of her mother’s drug and stabs the girl with a knife coated in it. When she recovers, she loses her powers for awhile and eventually gets them back with control.

    Do these events sound okay?

  8. catswoodsriveron 18 Jan 2016 at 8:41 am

    Oh, also before the first character met her adopted sister, her parents died. Her dad had a disease, and her mom chose not to break the bond between her and the dad so she died too. The character is really sad about this and ran away.

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