Superpowers, Limitations, and Characters

I picked up a Playstation 4 this weekend, along with Infamous: Second Son. I loved the first one, and it took me a while to pin down exactly why. It’s not because of what it does well, but because of what it doesn’t do. One of the most interesting aspects of superpowers, to me, is their limitations. An example: Locomotion in the first Infamous. They could have just bullshitted their way through it and had your character fly, but instead, you ran from rooftop to rooftop, jumped on powerlines or railroad tracks, and hopped on top of passing trains. You could coast a bit in the air, sure, but it wasn’t flying. It was much more satisfying for its limitations. It’s why Spider-Man’s web-swinging is so beloved, but nobody gives a shit about Superman or Iron-Man or a thousand other superheroes flying about.

That’s probably indicative of why I couldn’t get into Superman and Iron-Man in the first place. It’s not that they’re too powerful, or uninteresting characters, it’s because their powers are too varied. There was always the sense that they had a million tools for any job that might come along. And if they didn’t, the writers would just write them a new one. That’s some lazy storytelling right there. I always thought superpowers worked best when they were confined to a single theme: You can control electricity. What do you do with it? Do you just shoot lightning bolts, like Thor? Thor’s a basic bitch. Why not take it a step further and control power to machines? Or you could really push the envelope, and realize that thoughts are just electrical impulses in the brain, and damn – your one limited little power just became godhood.

I loved what they did with Magneto in the ’90s and onward – he went from flinging sawblades at people to manipulating the iron in their bloodstream. I wrote a whole story-arc about this kind of thing for an animated series that got caught in development hell, and will probably never see the light of day. It was a parody pop culture reference show, so we got to use existing characters. In one arc, I had our heroes tutor Aquaman, the Wonder Twins, Hawkman and Robin on how to be actually useful. Playing around with exactly what a character cannot do is some of the most fun I’ve had while writing.

Now, I’m not terribly far into Second Son, but so far it’s doing things pretty well. There’s a sort of smoke-based system of movement, where you duck into vents and get launched by fans. It’s not quite as fluid or intuitive as the powerlines from the first game, but it’s better than just generic flying. However, I get the sense that, based on what the story has revealed so far, the hero is about to get a lot more powers. He’s not going to use the existing ones in increasingly interesting ways, he’s just going to get loaded down with whatever new ability the writers want to confront the situations they throw at him. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get. And if that happens, that’s where they’ll lose me a little bit. It’s something I try to keep in mind while writing, and not even necessarily about superpowers: Sometimes the limitations are what make it interesting. Without them, you’re writing generic infallible protagonists, rather than human beings.

And now, if you will excuse me, I am going to blow up a truck with a heat missile.

If anybody asks, I was talking about the game.

2 thoughts on “Superpowers, Limitations, and Characters

  1. Ross Williamson

    It seems pretty likely you at least know this author’s name, but if not, I think you would really enjoy most of anything written by Brandon Sanderson. It’s way more fantasy then sci-fi, but he’s a great writer, and has become pretty famous as being “The Magic Guy”. He got asked at a panel once “What do you think is the most important aspect regarding the use of magic while writing fantasy?”

    He got actual boos from the crowd when he answered “Limitations and rules”. He has his own rule that he follows when writing that goes like this: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. Basically, he will not use magic to resolve a conflict unless he’s positive the reader understands exactly how it was done within the rules of whatever system of magic he’s devised. He never has a conflict that gets magicked away because its convenient. It’s a very cool way to combine the consistency of sci fi and twist on the “magic solves the problem away” approach a lot of fantasy authors use.

    I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that defining rules for superpowers makes them way more interesting. I’ve made jokes on stage about how I’ve figured out that Superman actually only has 1 power; The power of the word “And”. He can fly, AND he has heat vision, AND he’s invulnerable, AND he can turn back time, AND he has freeze breath, you get the idea.

    I hope the new book is coming along well, I really enjoyed Rx. Although I heard somewhere that there was an alternate ending for the full version? I was part of the 3 piece experiment (which still seems like a cool idea, even if it wound up being more trouble then it was worth, as you said). I never got the full, single collective one.

    P.S.
    I am terrible at ending comments. It stems from almost never doing so.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Yep, me and Sanderson have the same agent! I’ve only read the Mistborn trilogy, but it was great for precisely those reasons. Inventive, but with limitations that force actual creative problem solving from the characters and create a lot of ridiculously badass moments. Also: Shoot a message to rxthebook at gmail dot com and I’ll hook you up with the final version. There’s a lot different.

      Reply

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