Aug 05 2011

Writing Psychic Superheroes and Psionics

Published by at 8:11 pm under Guest Articles,Superpowers,Writing Articles

Problems with Psychic Heroes is an interesting article with a lot of good points, but I think most of these pitfalls can be easily avoided.


1. Mind-reading doesn’t need to be an instant problem-solver. Psionics (specifically telepathy, from which most other non-physical mental capacities stem) probably shouldn’t be as simple as just turning on a power and using it.  It’s not like finding a particular product at a grocery store, is it?  It isn’t very likely at all that what the psychic is looking for will be neatly packaged, labeled and sorted.  Consciousness just shouldn’t work that neatly, at least not for your average (or even slightly above-average) psychic.  The mind is an extremely complex, living network of constantly shifting thoughts and emotions, memories and awareness. It’d probably be dangerously easy to get lost if you didn’t know exactly what you were doing.


2. If the telepath does recover the secret/information/weakness, it doesn’t have to be the ultimate trump card it’s commonly made out to be. For example, maybe the psychic uncovers only a piece of the larger puzzle. It’s pretty uncommon that a hired goon will have a full grasp of his master’s grand scheme. Also, a psychic police officer might learn who the killer is, but that doesn’t count for anything unless he can prove it in court with actual evidence. Having the information is one thing, but applying it is something else altogether.


3. With most superhero-types, the same trick isn’t likely to work as easily a second time.  Perhaps non-psychic characters can learn how to defend themselves against psychic attack.  For example, in “Only a Dream,” Batman mentally overcomes Dr. Destiny.  Also in Justice League, Lex Luthor acquires a power-nullifying device that enables him to overcome Grodd’s mind-control. Alternatively, the X-Men’s Emma Frost has been depicted shifting into diamond form specifically to block an attempted telepathic intrusion, despite being a psychic herself.


4. Psychic fights/action can be depicted by using effective symbolism and metaphor.  This is something required of any writer regardless of the use of psychic characters, so the good news here is that you don’t necessarily have to learn something too terribly specific to psionics. But concerning psychics specifically, what’s helpful is to depict the mental sphere symbolically, with metaphors and archetypes (like dreams do). For example, you could describe the initial contact as though your character were maneuvering down a long, twisting corridor with many other corridors branching off, each with their own doors, perhaps some of them locked, or perhaps walled up completely (a little generic, but you get the idea). Will the telepath also feel certain emotions emanating from them? Mind is perception, and everyone’s is different, so depict the mind being invaded appropriately to the nature/style/attitude of that character. If you can effectively narrate any other aspect of your story, you can just as effectively narrate psychic activity.

For more on mental metaphor & symbolism, please check out a dream dictionary. That’s a great reference for appropriately utilizing aspects of meaning for whatever symbolism might be lurking in your characters’ (sub)consciousness.


5. Mind-control/possession should not be a sure, quick fix.  Even dicing up an onion takes careful concentration (unless you’d like to dice your radial artery).  Shouldn’t holding and controlling an unwilling victim’s mind be more involved?  For example, perhaps the psychic needs to maintain total, constant concentration–any distraction will cause the control to dissolve.  Perhaps the victim can fight off the attacker.  Add in the element of personal injury (psychic backlash, coma, whatever) as a consequence of failure and suddenly you’ve got suspense and danger.


6. If you’re uncomfortable having psychics kill their enemies (by, say, rearranging their organs), there could be a psychic backlash.  If the psychic is in the host’s brain, killing the host could be much riskier than merely inducing injury or unconsciousness.  I think there are some things that even master telepaths just shouldn’t be able to accomplish without direct, personal and equal consequences. (Plus, it’s a better, much more credible explanation for why the hero won’t crush the villain’s windpipe than “but s/he’s a good guy,” even if the villain is literally seconds away from destroying the planet).


The author, Aj of Earth, is a reader, a writer and a seeker of truths. He also eats his spinach.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Writing Psychic Superheroes and Psionics”

  1. Chihuahua0on 06 Aug 2011 at 12:15 pm

    These are great points that will help with my current novel, especially 1, 4, and 6! Thanks! I would like to add two things though.

    * A psychic that has an unsteady state of mind gets their powers compromised. For example, if they’re blinded by anger, their powers are more likely to fizzle out. I’m going to use this to narrow the gap between power levels in the climax.
    * Some powers, like mind-reading and mind-control, are impractical in high-pressure situations where pausing for a moment would get a bullet through your head. In order to use these abilites in combat, either the target needs to be immobilzed, or the user has the element of suprise. I’m also using this point to justify the antagonist not probing into the protagonist’s minds.

  2. B. Macon 06 Aug 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Those make sense, Chihuahua.

  3. BlueRoseCrowon 07 Aug 2011 at 9:15 am

    I love this article, and will make sure to share it around with people. For one, I love how you point out the DC Universe, as I prefer the DC (hahaha). By far, I believe that I enjoy numbers 1 and 4 the most. The whole article is fantastic, but I believe these two really show the true essence of psionic perspective. Your writing style shows the same passion and eloquence that I remember you always having. Please continue to write, because you have a true talent!!

  4. Aj of Earthon 07 Aug 2011 at 10:11 am

    @Chihuahua0 – That’s really excellent thinking! Excellent way to come up some creative aspects of your own for the use of psychic power. It’s really only as flexible as the imagination of the writer and the unsteady emotions/power compromise is especially relevant, creative and believable. Keep it up!

    @BlueRoseCrow – Hey, thanks man! Actually, B. Mac did an awesome job editing up this article for me, and it’s a real pleasure to have it up, so kudos to him too! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I definitely hope it was helpful. Spread that love, baby!

  5. Sylaron 10 Aug 2011 at 8:08 pm

    If you want my opinion, telepathy is not a good power for the heroes. BUT… it is a great power to give the villains! Think about, a villain using telepathy against a seeker of justice builds the suspense of the story, and makes us ponder what our hero will do next. So much better than a suspense-killing telepathic hero…

  6. Aj of Earthon 10 Aug 2011 at 8:23 pm

    An interesting perspective, Sylar. Personally, I’m very much enjoying the challenge of effectively executing a psychic protagonist (as well as [one of the] villains) – using the guidelines I’ve outlined above. That said however, you’re absolutely right in that an unseen, villainous presence can definitely add to the suspense and tension of the story- the overall sense of unsettling, ubiquitous malice. Dig it.

    Also, consider that there are other, wide-spectrum abilities that fall into the category or psionics that aren’t specifically mind-reading, “suspense-killing” telepathy (something else I’m working on, and enjoying the attempt to do justice with).

    Your opinion is a good one though, and valid; something that should be kept in mind when writing psychic characters.

    Heh, poor psychics, still gettin’ a bad rap….

  7. MyLil'HoneyBadgeron 19 Aug 2014 at 1:41 pm

    As far as my psychic character, the reason he doesn’t just abuse his power is when he does use it, his mental stability is linked to his victim.

    And the main character has been tortured to insanity and back, so would that be as fitting way to let him control average people, and other main characters, but not the hero?

  8. P.K.F.on 22 Aug 2014 at 7:08 pm

    There character in this scene is a telekinetic, simialr to psychic in that you can’t see them use their powers. Please let me know if I did a good job or not! 😀 thank you!

    Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go. Steven typed furiously as he plugged in a USB to download all the files from his laptop. Noticing that he was tapping the floor absentmindedly as his fingers blurred across the keyboard, Steven paused to take a few deep breaths.

    Calm down, he thought. You cannot be efficient if you cannot think. Find the data, get Connor, and get the hell out of here. Simple.
    After a few more clicks, he found what he was looking for. His eyes swallowed the words while he scrolled down the page and he took mental notes on whatever stuck out.

    Oh God. What has Mother done? He stepped away from the computer and held his head in his hands. Now is not the time to be weak, he scolded himself, forcing last nights dinner to stay in his stomach. He pressed the enter key and the USB went to work.

    5 minutes, he thought, looking at the approximated downloading time. I could be dead in 5 minutes. Peering out his 3rd floor window and into the night, he saw two men in black suits exit a sedan and enter his apartment building.

    She must sent a Trio to avoid detection… where’s the third man he thought as he finished packing the last of Connor’s belongings. His eyes searched the windows of the apartment complex across the street. They settled on a window with a gap between it’s blinds. There. Steven backed away from his own window and hid in the closet of his room. 1…2…3… he counted to himself and as if on cue, his door came crashing in. The two suits were back to back with guns extended out. Their eyes searched for him behind their dark shades and they slowly stepped farther and farther into the room.

    “Do you think he’s here?” The younger of the two said as went over to inspect the packed suitcases.
    “He has to be, we just watched him come in ten minutes ago.”
    “What about the other one?”
    “Don’t worry about him. First we catch the telekinetic, and then we’ll go and catch the firestarter.”

    “Honestly, I’d rather take my chances with a firestarter. At least you can see fire.”
    “Hey, cadet, what’s on that laptop?”

    Both men stalked towards the laptop and out of the view of the window. With their attention focused on the screen, Steven slipped out of the closet. As he took his first step out of hiding, the hinge on the closet door groaned.

    CREAK. The two men whipped around and pointed their guns at him.
    “Nice try,” Steven said. Before their fingers could press down on their triggers, the guns came flying out their hands.
    “You boys should know better than to fight a telekinetic.”
    He clapped his hands together and as if controlled by invisible strings, the heads of the two men smacked together. They lay still on the floor, blood streaming from both their heads.

    I thought I told Connor to oil the hinges before he left. Steven shook his head as he remembered one of his mother’s old proverbs. If you want something done right, do it yourself.

    “Hey, what’s going on?” barked a tiny voice from the earpiece of one of the men.
    Steven strolled to the window and pointed his finger at the window where the sniper hid. He made a“come hither” motion and in seconds, the woman and her sniper rifle burst through the class and landed on the sidewalk one story down.
    People screamed below as the woman lay on the ground in a heap. Panic ensued, sending pedestrians running in all directions.

    “Time to go,” Steven sighed as he stuffed the USB in his pocket, picked up the two backpacks, and struck a match alight.

    “How did that feel?” Steven hissed in her ear, doing his best to sound gruff.
    “I-I-I can’t feel my legs,” she stuttered as she struggled to look up into his dark eyes.
    “From that height, you won’t be paralyzed. Fractured vertebrae? Probably..”
    Her eyes grew wide and terror reflected in her eyes. If he had to guess, Steven would have said she was about 23, 24 years old. She’ll recover in month or two, plus rehab.
    “You must be quite the markswoman for mother to have sent you after us. Am I right? Blink twice if I’m right,” he ordered. Probably could have taken it a little bit easier on her.
    Two blinks.

    “Well that means you’re at least a level 7 and have the clearance to report back to my mother. Tell her that next time she sends operatives after, they’ll be coming back in pieces. Got it?

    Another two blinks
    “Good. Have fun in rehab,” Steven told her. “Ask for John, he gives the best messages.”
    He left her with that final piece of advice and sent a quick text to his brother as he stuffed their belongings in the back of their van.
    “Hopefully he’s not out doing anything stupid.”


  9. Samon 21 May 2015 at 2:23 pm

    About that part referring to psychics and others who can use telekinesis not killing people with their powers, I think a good way to prevent that is to have them feel what they do to their enemy. I have one character who, when he uses telekinesis, mentally connects with whatever it is he’s affecting (even nonliving things) to get a better reading on where it exists in comparison to others (like, imagine being blindfolded and walking across a plank with seven inch foam under your feet, you wouldn’t know where you were) and at some point did a Darth Vader choke on an enemy, but he felt the pain he induced on that person. He developed claustrophobia and PTSD from it, where even slight pressure on his neck made him think he was being strangled from an unseen enemy, and swore off using his powers.

  10. Blaze Kodakon 21 Jun 2016 at 9:19 am

    I came up with my own version of telepathy; which I call Aifipathy. Its like telepathy except it inly works on contact with the intended target. Limited, though useful, I think its a good balance.

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