May 22 2014
Often with works of fiction that involve superpowers, writers look for ways to effectively limit or check those powers. This is done to keep characters vulnerable to challenges while maintaining dramatic effect within the story. After all, if a character can consistently deal with situations by using their unrestricted abilities, how invested will a reader (or publisher) be in the work? Probably not very.
Writers of comic books, superhero novels and other forms of speculative fiction utilize a variety of approaches in addressing this issue. Examples include requiring a specific power source or item to use an ability (e.g. Green Lantern’s ring or Mr. Freeze’s diamond-powered freeze gun). Another example is requiring the character to be within a specific proximity (e.g. in the film Push, Kira has to be able to see people to tamper with their minds). Sometimes a character is susceptible to a specific substance or external force (e.g. Superman and kryptonite or his vulnerability to red sunlight).
These limitations are mostly environmental or physical contingencies that the character must yield to. One alternative is using a character’s progressive learning curve to limit their capabilities.
If you want to restrict a character who can channel cosmic energy as concussive force blasts, a good place to start might be by asking: What does the actual development of that proficiency look like? (Keep in mind this question can be asked of anyone in any endeavor, not just fictional superheroes. Choosing to spend time with it as a literary theme could be a good way to develop relatability within the work.)
So what does it look like for a character to actually learn about their extraordinary powers over the course of a novel? Is it believable that they would start out fully knowledgeable in their understanding, or would there be gradations of trial and error, of setbacks and success, of growth? A character learning to use concussive force blasts will provide their own limitations in the form of their inexperience. Be encouraged to explore that. It could be a much more resonant and effective restriction than a target that has to be within X amount of feet. Even as the character grows in the use of their powers, surpassing old limitations, the learning process by nature should continue to supply new thresholds for them to meet and be challenged by.
In the sci-fi novel Psion by Hugo Award-winning author Joan D. Vinge, the main character Cat is recruited into a psychic research program. The technicians are able to determine the vast amount of telepathic power Cat possesses; they can ascertain what he should be able to do… But Cat can’t do those things because doesn’t know how to be psychic. Even as he gains greater understanding and command of his telepathy throughout the course of the novel, his learning curve continues to provide natural limitations and challenges for him in the use of his powers.
Of course, not every story’s main character is a fish out of water. While most superhero stories handle the initial emergence of the primary hero, some characters come to the plate further developed than others. And that’s fine. Even in those instances, I’d encourage writers of superhero fiction (especially novels) to consider the learning curve (specialized here, perhaps) as well as the more concrete and specific limits meant to rein in the chosen superpowers.
Wolverine can be used as an example of an already expertly-skilled character forced to negotiate the learning experience. When he first joined the X-Men, he was leagues beyond his teammates in training, combat experience and the use of his mutant powers. Despite this he still had a significant learning curve dealing with the way the team functioned and occasionally his approach to obstacles was more detrimental than helpful. Additionally, it was because of his experiences with the X-Men that he learned to take more control of his berserker rages, which were a danger to everyone.
Well-rounded characters resonate more with readers. Going through the journey of learning to use superpowers along with those characters – most notably experiencing how that process provides limitations, checks and challenges in organic and relatable ways – can contribute greatly to the development of that relationship, potentially endearing readers even more than originally considered.
To finalize, focusing on the superpower learning curve can be an enormous boon as there are potentially countless ways writers can incorporate it regarding their character’s superpowers, specifically as a means to limit those powers. These elements can be made to manifest as significant and effective by simple virtue of being so unknown, or it can be more a matter of learning to use familiar capabilities in entirely uncharted situations. In either instance, this also demonstrates the flexibility and personalization of the learning curve, in that it can be uniquely shaped to fit each character. This kind of development and attention to theme can greatly increase the depth and resonance of a novel while providing necessary restrictions and challenges for the characters within them.