Powers in Fantasy

Today, I thought it would be fun to talk about magical powers in Fantasy and the different strength levels magic can have. So, let’s begin!

One of the things I think about when writing a fantasy that has magic (and this could also be applied to non magic, for example how good a marksman someone is, how well they perform on tests, how strong a fighter they are, etc), is the power levels of the magic. Why? There is a big problem when you give a character too many powers. At first you are probably saying, “Well wait, that’s kinda cool! My character should have this and this and this and this…” Pretty soon your character can do everything. Then we have a big problem: there is no conflict. For there to be conflict, we need to believe your character can be beaten, but if they are too strong, how can this happen? Let’s look at an example of a cool superhero who I believe is insanely difficult to write about: Superman.

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Superman is a fun character. He has a body of steel that can’t be broken (except if a rare piece of kryptonite hits it), can fly, has x-ray vision, has super run speed, has laser eyes, can spin the world around and turn back time…now do you see the problem? Superman has almost EVERY POWER YOU CAN THINK OF. Superman has basically become this:

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And how do you go around beating that? Honestly, you don’t. Now, you have little to no conflict. If Superman can’t be beat, why pay attention to his story? If we know he is so strong he will always win, then I’ll just go take a nap and and you can wake me when the movie is over. At this point, Superman has been written into a corner. Kryptonite had to be thrown in to give something, ANYTHING, that can make Superman vulnerable, and frankly, that is poor power level development.

There is still hope for Superman. Hints from the new movie (Man of Steel) show other people from Superman’s home world coming to Earth. Ahhhh, now we have someone that can legitimately beat him (let’s hope it stays that way in the movie).

As you can see from the example, a character that starts off too strong makes for a boring character (not to mention one extremely difficult to write about). For a character to be interesting, you need to start them off with some power, but not all of it. That power can develop over time, but there always needs to be a threat that can defeat your character. Next time we tackle this subject, we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum: villains that are too strong.

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3 Comments

Filed under Fantasy

3 responses to “Powers in Fantasy

  1. Characters with immense powers (such as Superman) can be given conflict if you abandon the wish-fulfilment fantasy background that often creates them. For example: Superman’s weakness is not only Kryptonite, it is Lois Lane, it is wanting to keep his identity secret, it is the pain of not being able to always be there.

    I feel that the greater the depth and breadth of human experience addressed in a work, the easier it is to create conflict for a powerful character. Of course most “literary” fiction deals with characters of little power.

    Maybe there is a gap in the market for literary superfantasy: anyone for Proust’s Recherché Les Krypton Perdu, opening with Superman describing how lifting a car off an injured man always takes him back to the first time he used his powers to help Jonathan Kent keep the farm.

  2. This is why I think dragons are too powerful in some fantasy books. They’re intelligent, magical, shape shifters, and breathe fire or something else nasty. Authors know that dragons would rule the world and limit them in cliched ways, like saying there’s only one left, for example. I decided to just get rid of them from my main set of novels. Hopefully that won’t prove a mistake!

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