Of Limits and Strengths – What Does It Mean for a Hero to “Have the Power?”

This article is the fourth in a five part series dealing with the pitfalls and advantages of creating super powered characters. Parts One, Two, and Three may be read here, here, and here.

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When the topic of empowered protagonists comes up, it is almost universally stated that the characters’ superior abilities must be limited somehow. While this author agrees that an enhanced individual should have some sort of boundary they cannot or will not cross, she does not believe that this is the single most important factor to consider when creating such protagonists. That is why this subject is fourth in the series: to reverse the question found in the first article and turn it into a statement, a protagonist’s limits do not – cannot – make him a champion.

It is true that superpowers (or lack thereof) are an important factor for the writer to consider. However, they are often of secondary or tertiary significance when compared to the aspects mentioned in previous articles. To “have the power” before the character is to put the cart before the horse, as Rey and Thor’s dichotomy illustrates. Rey was pushed into the role of the powerful Force-wielder while Thor was conceived primarily as a neo-Arthurian protagonist who would introduce readers to the Norse myths. The end results speak for themselves, as the first post in this series explained.

Thus it is this author’s belief that extraordinary abilities and their limitations are best considered after a writer has conceived of a character. Or, if possible, he ought to create them simultaneously. He will have more success there than in doing the opposite – ninety percent of the time, at least. Sometimes ideas come outside of an established or “normal” pattern but remain completely worthy of attention. 😉

Having said this, the powers and abilities of a superhuman character must be carefully contemplated. There is a plethora of astonishing superpowers available for use in fiction. In order to present strange capabilities in a practical manner, there must be some limits or boundaries where the superpowers stop being an asset. These restraints are practical and they allow writers to explore the human condition.

There are five general categories or classes for fantastic abilities. These five are physical prowess; enhanced physiques; ESP-based strengths; energy production or the ability to channel energy, and cosmic powers. While a certain amount of overlap can be found among these five basic types, generally, each one pertains to a specific set of astounding capabilities.

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Physical prowess, the first class under discussion, is a power that is often overlooked or dismissed these days. The “power” of physical prowess may be defined as “normal” strengths – i.e. regular physical force, speed, agility, eyesight, intelligence, willpower, etc. – used by “baseline” protagonists in exceptional circumstances. This type of “power” is best encapsulated by the likes of Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, along with such Thriller/spy heroes as Jack Reacher, James Bond, and Jason Bourne. None of these men have abilities that qualify at first glance as “superpowers,” since they have no extrasensory strengths or enhanced physiques. They are quite literally ordinary men with above-average talents and skill fighting in amazing situations.

By the very ordinariness of their abilities, however, they prove themselves to be exceptional. What is more, this type of “superpower” has some natural, obvious limitations, especially when brought to bear against an enhanced antagonist or some other empowered character. Although James Bond would not be a match for, say, Lord Voldemort in physical combat, it is very likely that he would find ways and means of fighting against him that did not require bodily confrontation.

All of which is to say that watching characters like these do battle against an empowered villain would make for a very enjoyable story. Having an evil overlord of Voldemort’s standing be continually defeated by a hero with Jack Reacher’s talents would provide a great deal of entertainment for writer and reader alike. Bequeathing this particular “superpower” on a speculative hero would also allow a writer to seize many creative opportunities that would otherwise be left unused.

Characters with enhanced physiques possess inherent limitations as well. Protagonists in this category possess a greater-than-average level of strength, their power allows them to deal with threats that most others would not survive. Marvel’s Hulk, for instance, is capable of achieving fantastic physical feats that would kill ordinary humans. Whether catching thrown logs or being hit by a round fired from a tank, he cannot be overcome by “normal” means – especially since his physical strength increases with his rage.

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But while it is a great boon in combat, his rising fury is also an enormous weakness. The greater his anger the less focused the Hulk becomes, until he is a danger to his fellow heroes as well as to his enemies. This makes him an unintentional menace to those he cares for and has chosen to protect, leading to a great deal of tension with his colleagues in the Avengers and an unending inner conflict.

Similarly, Jessica Jones can lift and throw a car, but catching one in the chest would kill her. Her enhanced strength does not grant her invulnerability, only greater physical prowess. Telemachus Rhade, from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, is a Nietzchean, a member of a genetically enhanced human subspecies. His strength is greater than a normal human’s, yet does not prevent him from being overwhelmed by superior numbers or machines. It does not grant him invulnerability either. Likewise, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Worf’s great Klingon vigor is not enough to protect him from being injured by a falling bulkhead or dying due to a drop from a twenty story height.

These protagonists’ superior physical strength is above the human average, but it still has boundaries they cannot cross without paying a significant price. Increased strength, durability, and physical resistance to injury do not cancel out emotional, mental, or even bodily pain. Depending upon the limitation one chooses to utilize, the possibilities for good stories featuring protagonists in this class are nearly endless.

Extrasensory Perception (ESP) abilities are a very popular form of extraordinary augmentation. From the Witches of Estcarp to the Martians of Barsoom, from the telepathic X-Men to the Drift in Pacific Rim, the restrictions for this gift may be either great or small. In the latter’s case, psychic powers may be a short range, artificial ability, as demonstrated by the Drift in Pacific Rim. Using neural science, a psychic link is established between two partners allowing them to control the massive exo-suits and to synchronize their abilities.

On the other hand, this power can be a widespread, natural form of communication which may be taught to Terrans, as seen in A Princess of Mars. John Carter learns to exchange psychic messages with the inhabitants of the Red Planet while simultaneously receiving all of their telepathic communiques without trouble. This grants him several advantages over the adversaries he encounters during his adventures.

More often than not, though, the depiction of ESP abilities is somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. This is well illustrated by the treatment of Jean Grey from the X-Men and the Witches of Estcarp. In the world of Estcarp, mind reading and other psychic talents can be accomplished from a distance. Occasionally the space between the Witch and her target can be enormous. As long as the Witch knows whom she is contacting and has the physical strength or force of will to reach them, the vast space of country between her and her receiver is not an impassable barrier. Jean Grey has a lesser reach in this regard, but using the computer Cerebro to boost her abilities should make her the telepathic equal of a fully trained Estcarpian Witch.

Other ESP-based abilities are usually hindered by the user’s line-of-sight. Jean Grey cannot telekinetically affect her surroundings outside of her immediate position. And while the Witches of Estcarp may be able to reach across great distances with their telepathy, their own telekinesis usually has a more limited range. They may be able to set certain forces in motion and maintain the ability to direct it, but as a general rule they must see what they are trying to move with their mind.

Clearly, extraordinary powers such as telepathy, psychometry, empathy, telekinesis, and other psychokinetic abilities provide writers with a great deal of story potential. While amazing and quite useful, they are nonetheless subject to the faults and limits of the human mind. Authors do not need to search for restrictions on such powers; they merely have to choose from an everyday array, and then apply those difficulties to their protagonists consistently throughout their story/series.

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Next is the fourth category of superpower: the ability to produce or channel energy. This is not the same type of ability as psychokinetic control over one of the four classic elements, as demonstrated by the Marvel villain Pyro. He can psychically control fire but he cannot generate it. His suit is equipped with flamethrowers to produce the flames he can command by thought. Without this or another source of fire, Pyro is easily overcome.

In contrast the Firebenders from Avatar: The Last Airbender possess not only pyrokinetic abilities but the power to produce fire. With a thought they can start a flame burning in the air above their hand or, perhaps, in their surroundings. They are naturally able to control, produce, or somehow channel a force outside of their own bodies and wills.

The Jedi of Star Wars fame and the magicians of the Harry Potter series are also energy manipulators. Magic in every story where it appears is almost entirely energy-based. The power can come from an animal or item that possesses its own energy source, such as the phoenix feathers and unicorn hairs used in the wizards and witches’ wands. Or it can come from the magician himself. The Harry Potter series combines both worlds, as there are items/creatures that possess magic, but also humans – witches and wizards – who have a natural ability to use forces beyond “normal” ken.

In Star Wars, the Force is said to be an energy field created by life. Whenever Jedi, Sith, or other Force-users tap into this field, they can channel its energy through their minds and bodies to accomplish fantastic feats. The stronger their belief in the Force and the more they practice with it, the greater their ability to utilize it. And while the Force itself has no limits, this is not true of those who are sensitive to it. They have physical barriers, hereditary strengths and weaknesses, and wounds they cannot heal. Even at the height of their power, Force-sensitives have boundaries they cannot exceed without coming to or causing harm.

DC Comics’ Green Lantern Corps also falls into this category, albeit by artificial means. Through the use of specially designed and charged rings, the Green Lanterns can create and manipulate energy constructs by thought alone. They also have a built-in limitation; once the rings run out of power, the Lantern is left without his extraordinary asset. This can be either an inconvenience or a life-threatening catastrophe, as the rings produce energy auras which offer life support to the wearer in the vacuum of space. If a Lantern loses power in vacuum or in the midst of a battle, then he is vulnerable to death or injury, just as any normal person is.

Last but not least, we come to the cosmic powers class. In plain language, cosmic abilities are those which ordinary mortals cannot acquire, which come from a cosmic source, and/or which seem limitless. Clark Kent/Superman is one such character – not because his abilities lack boundaries, but because he draws all his power from a celestial body: Earth’s yellow sun. Take Superman away from Earth or put him on a planet without a yellow sun, and he becomes an ordinary mortal subject to natural limitations.

In a comparable position, as the avatar of a sun Trance Gemini, from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, has a great deal of power at her disposal. Aside from her instinctive ability with plants and medicine, she lives through various futures until she chooses the right one and can assume a miniature variation of her solar form at will. She can also “go supernova” to destroy and create or recreate a particular object, though she may also leave the ship on which she is standing intact while using this ability. Hers is not a proximity based power but one of nature; as a solar avatar she is continually linked to her natural sun form, meaning she can access its powers to various degrees as she sees fit or as the situation demands.

Q from Star Trek and Genie from Disney’s Aladdin are also cosmically empowered characters. Both can, with a snap of their fingers, alter reality on a whim. Though Genie is technically bound by the three wish limit imposed by his tie to the lamp, this in no way inhibits his power in circumstances where he can act on his own or attempt to fulfill a wish to his and his master’s satisfaction. This is made clearest when he transforms the monkey Abu into numerous animals and items before settling on an elephant; Aladdin wished to be a prince, but it is up to Genie to decide how to fulfill the request made of him.

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As Q demonstrated repeatedly, he can change fundamental aspects of the universe when the notion strikes him. Whether changing the laws of gravity, bringing a Mariachi band to the bridge of the Enterprise, or playing the role of “trickster god” to an alien people, his powers are apparently boundless. The only comfort one can draw from his near wanton use of his abilities is that he cannot create ex nihilo or out of nothing. He only seems able to pull items from different times and places into the areas and eras he desires at will, and to exert some influence over the minds of others. So it is not an absolute power in that sense.

With such seemingly infinite forces at their command, a writer is presented with the dilemma of how to set boundaries for characters with these powers. The answer lies not only in different shades of kryptonite, nor in the occasional removal of these gifts. Those are just two of the three ways to stop a cosmically empowered protagonist. The third is establishing what such protagonists are willing or unwilling to do with their cosmic strength.

Of the four characters listed above, only one happily “broke the rules” for his own pleasure. Most of the Q Continuum seemed intent on avoiding meddling in the lives of the mortal races of the galaxy, presumably adhering to their own version of the Prime Directive. When Q would not abide by it, they stripped him of his powers and left him on the Enterprise, with the evident aim of either changing his attitude or allowing him to live and die as a human.

Superman, Trance Gemini, and Genie all have moral boundaries they will not cross. Even when bound to the lamp, Genie declared that he would not bring back the dead or make mortals fall in love with one another, while Trance did her best to hide her powers for most of Andromeda’s run. And Superman refuses to use his extraordinary abilities for his own benefit – even when the benefit is winning a friendly, innocent game of cards. If an author intends to include a cosmically empowered hero in his story, this particular limitation on said champion’s abilities should not be ignored.

These are the five main categories of superpowers a writer may choose from. Each offers speculative fiction authors a great deal of storytelling potential worthy of exploration. This is not simply in the limitations for their powers but for what they can do with their gifts. After all, what’s the point of having superpowers if they don’t make life easier – or a little more fun?

So choose a category (or five) and have fun creating empowered heroes, future writers! Test their strengths and their weaknesses. Push the boundaries, and go where other writers have not yet gone. I look forward to seeing the results of your efforts. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her novelette, “Halcyon,” will appear in Cirsova Magazine’s summer issue.

3 thoughts on “Of Limits and Strengths – What Does It Mean for a Hero to “Have the Power?”

  1. Wow, well done!

    I agree that the best heroes are the ones whose limits are purely moral or purely mental rather than physical. More powerful characters are more interesting to read about, because they can do more things. Meanwhile, a story is what its characters decide to do, and nothing builds more tension that wondering, not *how* but *if* they will choose to do something, and why. Ashok Vadal from Correia’s SotBS series is the most deadly combatant in the world, but *is* he going to fight when it’s the right thing to do–to save his friends…but his orders tell him not to, and Ashok Vadal has never broken an order? Corwin of Zelazny’s Amber series is also in this category: the only real constraints on his actions are what he decides to do…and is he going to decide to take bloody vengeance on his own people, or will be decide to be a hero instead?

    But! On the other hand, a hero (or rather, a “protagonist” at that point) with *no* moral constraints but great power is also interesting to follow, either because they end up learning to follow a code or wrecking basically everything: Ryunosuke from the movie Sword of Doom, and Gavin Waylock from Jack Vance’s To Live Forever are examples of this. Waylock has absolutely no constraints and a single goal…and ends up (spoiler) completely destroying the society he lives in. Ryunosuke ends up…dead and/or insane (the two are not mutually exclusive).

    ON THE THIRD HAND 🙂 there is temporarily handicapping your hero–especially a very competent hero of whose success the audience would have no doubt–to add dramatic tension. This is usually done by some physical injury, but it can be done well or poorly. The last Kate Daniels book I reviewed did it poorly: Kate gets a brain aneurysm, forgets two chapters’ worth of material, and is told she can’t use magic for a while. It’s done poorly because Kate is not noticeably troubled by the injury, doesn’t struggle to get around the limitation, and is using magic again by the end of the book to help win fights. Now, done well: there’s a western movie called Face of a Fugitive, in which the very capable hero gets into a gunfight with a bunch of goons, and there’s no doubt he has them on the ropes–until he falls through a hole and breaks his leg. Now, the tables are turned and it’s a long, suspenseful sequence created where no suspense really existed before.

    I’ll go away now. 🙂 Part 5 soon?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very good summary of powers and limitations!

    You’re exactly right about Superman: his primary ‘limitation’ is that, at heart, he’s just a good man from Kansas and so he knows better than to use his powers recklessly or for his own benefit (I get rather tired of people saying that he’s ‘boring’ because he’s too powerful).

    Looking forward to part 5!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Final Chapter – 4 Ways to View Powered Protagonists | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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