Aug 05 2011
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.