I would call this the “mental powers rant,” except that that would probably bring up issues of character intelligence, and then we would be here all night. So, just to make it clear: I’m dealing with things like telepathy, telekinesis, communing with the dead, and all the rest of the froo-froo that Gets Capitalized, gets unlimited power, takes over the story, and kills characterization.
1) Please avoid Cutesy Capitalized Names.
Telepathy is almost never telepathy, even in worlds (like our own, in urban fantasy) where people use the name. If a character asks, “This is telepathy, isn’t it?” another character will be quick to assure her that no, it isn’t. It’s Mindspeech. It is also a Gift. The word Gift shows up to randomly assault all forms of magic at various times, but it’s particularly bad with telepathy Mindspeech. It is always Capitalized. Sometimes the noun isn’t enough for authors, and you will get “He Mindspoke her,” or, even worse, “He MindSpoke her,” or “He Mindspeeched furiously.”
Look, people. Fantasy already has PrObLeMs WiTh RaNdOm CaPiTaLiZaTiOn, okay? (If that particular string of words did not turn your stomach, seek therapy at once). Any magic-worker is a Wizard, every forest is a Forest, and so on. The last thing we need is more of this shit. And when you’re trying to convey the awesome power of magic, the last thing you need to do is dress it up in silly, cutesy words and corrupt English grammar in order to get the point across.
Does that mean you have to use the word telepathy? No, though I think it would make things a whole lot clearer, and in some fantasies it would fit better. Try, if you must, mindspeech, or thought-speech. For telekinesis, please avoid “Power.” For precognition, can we please stop it with this Sight nonsense? That could refer to several powers, for one thing, and it gets used in such different ways by so many different fantasy authors that there’s no telling what it is in a particular situation. (Even worse, some authors break their own rules; they assert at one point that Sight is Seeing the future, and then they change it around when they want the character to See dead people instead. And yes, the verb gets the capitalization too). Go for names that will mean things to at least the mages who use these powers. When the mages themselves are familiar with this magic, have used it every day of their lives, and yet inflect the names with a sense of reverent awe, it makes me vaguely ill.
Or should that be Ill?
2) Put some damn limitations on them, will you?
The Sight changing when the author wants it to is only one example, though maybe the most common. Characters who use elemental magic can be too far from a source to touch it, characters who use incantations can forget the incantations or be gagged, characters who need the help of demons might not summon a demon in time…but damn, those mindspeakers or whatever else the author has determined to have can do anything. From, let it be noted, any distance, and with no drain on any source of energy, and without injuring themselves, and no matter what defenses the enemy has in place, if the enemy even knows about them. (See point 3).
Gods, people. “If anything is possible, nothing is interesting,” remember? So your telepathic heroine can read any mind, from any distance, and locate any thought in it, and find any person that she wants to, even if she hasn’t had mental contact with that person before. So why doesn’t she dive into the villain’s mind on page 10 or whenever she first learns about him, pluck out his secret plan, and stop the war?
Because then the author would have no story to write, gasp shock! But, guess what, gasp shock, I don’t believe in the stupid-ass contrivances that the author tries to put in the way of her all-powerful heroine, after having gone out of the way to assure me that she really is all-powerful.
There has got to be some limitation on these powers. I don’t care if they come from the “astral plane.” Does the astral plane have no dangers to humans? No limited number of uses? Nothing native to it that would lurk around and try to slip into a distracted human mind?
And what about telepathy? If it’s really speech coming from the mind, wouldn’t someone eventually get tired, that way that we do when exercising, oh, I don’t know, other mental skills? The cheap way authors get around this is calling it mindspeech and yet not letting the characters know anything about the human brain. The readers aren’t supposed to notice that nobody is getting tired. Well, guess what. The power still has to have a source, and if it’s not the literal brain, then you have to invent another one. Yes, you do. No, you can’t let the character do anything she wants, because then you have no story.
There are all sorts of limitations you can introduce:
- Distance. Perhaps a character’s empathy is really only strong at a distance of a few feet.
- Action. A character who can touch an object and read memories from it is still not going to be much use if she can’t touch the object.
- Weariness or weakness in the brain. Is a delirious character one you really want to trust with a delicate telepathic message?
- Problems contacting another person’s mind. Say that your character is in a town of a few thousand people, and she wants to influence the mayor into voting a certain way. Yet she’s never met him and has no idea what his mind feels like. I want to know how she’s going to find him in the first place, never mind rearrange things to her satisfaction. Hypnosis, the skill most often compared to this, relies on calmness and the subject’s suggestibility—something that the telepath won’t have in this situation.
- Alienness of the experience. A character traveling in an astral world very different from her own may take time to learn all the signs and wonders, and still may not unravel a riddle until it’s too late. And if someone can see into death, is she really going to just stare, say, “Yeah, Hernando says the assassin is that guy,” and then glance casually away?
- Character of the person doing the mental skill. For some reason, if a person has a psychic power—so sorry, Gift—in fantasy, that person is 99.9999999999% likely to be good. Yet magic shouldn’t work that conveniently. Where is the megalomaniac empath who influences everyone to worship him? The telepath who kills people who betray her with a bolt of mental lightning? The medium who charges insanely high prices to tell the dead person’s loved ones what he says about them? This can make things a lot more interesting than yet another bland tale of someone Gifted frowning and wincing her way through life.
3) The enemy should have some damn defenses.
Another set of limitations that most psychic powers don’t have is a way to defend against them. Telepaths are secret, there is no stopping an angry telekinetic, a pyrokinetic can set even stone on fire, etc.
Once again, this is Boring. It means that the moment the good guys get a Gifted person (hack, gag, choke, cough, retch) on their side, the reader knows the bad guys are going to lose. The author often heightens this “tension” with sly remarks about whether the Gifted person’s Gifts (vomit, moan, howl, groan, wheeze) will get out of control or not. Of course they don’t! Magic is not allowed to get out of control, only appear that way!! Don’t you know anything?
Be logical about this, please. If telepaths are pretty common in the world, why wouldn’t the enemy have some working for him? (Unless you’re obeying the stupid “rule” in point 2 that only good people can use psychic powers, and I sincerely hope you aren’t). If they’re a secret, but the enemy is represented as one of those great and powerful Wizards who’s studied Ancient Books of Lore, why wouldn’t he know about them? It’s insane that he seems to know every dark secret to summon Nyarlathotep’s second cousin, and yet he doesn’t know about the telepaths. Set up some defenses opposite them, and make it a real war.
4) Psychic powers could have more uses than just war and magical bonds, you know.
There are the Gifted people—
Oh, screw fantasy correctness.
There are the people with psychic powers who fight wars, and there are the people with psychic powers who bond with animals. (About which I already did a rant, which is the reason I’m not mentioning them much here). And there are the people who do both. But, y’know, there could be more uses for that magic than just those two. In fantasy societies where they’re fairly common, there certainly would be.
Just a small sampling:
- Telepaths would make great messengers, guards (if they’re able to read someone’s thoughts and tell when they’re lying), counselors, healers of mental wounds, and veterinarians, depending on what their particular gifts allowed them to do.
- Telekinetics could help build bridges and other large structures, clean up after natural disasters, construct city walls, and transport food and other bulky items that might have to go up stairs or steep hills.
- Pyrokinetics are the ultimate trash disposal system.
- Precognitive people could predict the ultimate fate of marriages, whether certain business decisions were wise or risky, the sex of children, what long-term consequences a seemingly simple act would have—like removing that boulder from the mysterious blocked well—and perhaps where the country could best find a resource it needed, like gold or iron.
- Retrocognitive people, those who can see into the past, could insure that no innocent ever goes to jail again.
- Mediums, or whatever other name you’re using for those who speak to the dead, could help out with more general research about the past as well as provide the stereotypical communication between survivors and the dead people they love. If there are academies in your world, a medium might be in high demand to bring back the ghost of a certain philosopher so modern philosophers could yell at him.
- Empaths might be able to cheer up the grieving, to give the apathetic another surge of life and energy, to calm the angry or suicidal down, to spread the proper mood of joy and anticipation when a festival arrived, and so on.
Obviously, there are other uses, and it’s going to vary depending on what you’ve made these powers out to be. (Limitations, remember?) And there are lots and lots and lots of nasty things you can do with some of them, especially telepathy and empathy, which could easily amount to mind control.
5) Let the character be a person, and not just a Power.
“Ah-ha!” says the fantasy author. “My character will have a powerful telepathic Gift, and she will do this and this and that and that!”
Great, huh? ‘Cept that’s not a character, that’s an ability. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, since I see so many character profiles focused on the magic: don’t design your character around something she does. Make her up first. Make a person, and not just a Power.
This especially applies with psychic powers, because here you have a whole template just waiting to slip on if you don’t watch out. If the hero telepathically bonds with an animal, almost immediately he starts changing into the teenager alone in the world except for the One Friend Who Will Never Leave Him. If the character is an empath, she’s going to spend the rest of her life being depressed about feeling other people’s emotions. If she’s a medium, of course she’ll be angsty. If she’s a pyrokinetic, she’s going to be dangerous and possibly addicted to her own power. If she can see into the future, she’ll be depressed, as well, since of course she can’t stop what’s coming, and she can’t control her visions, and of course no one at all would ever make an attempt to cope with that kind of thing.
I can recite the stereotypes easy as breathing. So can you. So stop using them. Make your character herself, not her power. That way, if you do wind up with a depressed visionary named Claire, at least she’s going to be depressed because she’s Claire—and possibly because there are Random Capital Letters—and not because you just think that that’s the way anyone seeing the future has to be.
6) If you have a whole community with psychic powers, know what rules would have to change.
Telepaths are the classic example here, with authors usually indicating that a telepathic society would be very polite and have lots of rules about looking into someone’s mind. But that’s as far as it goes. What about the other consequences of telepathy? For example, are there telepathic shunnings if someone thinks a wrong thought? Do they suppress their emotions carefully, for fear of broadcasting inappropriate lust or anger? Do they have advanced theories of psychology, since a telepath, if no one else, would be able to tell you once and for all if the id, the ego, and the superego really exist? How do they conceptualize themselves? How do they relate to those who aren’t telepaths? Is it considered rude to only be friends with one half of a telepathic married couple, when they’ll probably share secrets anyway? Demonstrate the other consequences too, please.
If you have a community of telekinetics, perhaps they have certain rules about what they will and will not lift, so that people don’t get smacked by random flying objects. Or perhaps they automatically deflect them when they come near, the same way we might swat a fly. Do pyrokinetics have to live in the middle of the desert, where they can’t burn anything, and do they go naked, since clothing always seems to be the first thing to burn? Do precognitives never have accidents in their towns, because they can always see where, say, a wagon might be about to run them down? Do retrocognitives deliberately accumulate a rich and interesting variety of experiences, so they’ll have good past visions? There are all sorts of consequences that would play out.
One thing’s for certain: I don’t think that communities with psychic powers would be near the ideal societies that fantasy authors (McCaffrey in particular) often portray them as. Just because other people are also telepaths, or also bonded to telepathic animals, or also pyrokinetics, doesn’t mean they’re going to be happy and fun and wise and always smile at each other. Oh, and have more sex than the rest of the outside world combined.
People really should work these out more carefully, or they’re the ultimate Plot Devices.