I would have said, a little while ago, that I have a low opinion of characters with special abilities, but that’s not true. I have a low opinion of the way that most authors handle them.
1) Don’t design the character around the ability.
The road to fantasy hell is paved with special abilities that the author wants to see exercised, without regard to what they’ll do to the character’s personality, motivations, relationships with other characters, narrating ability, or anything else. If you decide that you really want to write about someone who can do X, you already have a problem. Why do you want to write about X? What makes X so special?
Too often the answer is, “Because it’s cool.”
It’s difficult to make a book run on descriptive ability and battle scenes alone, try though you might. The very scene that you’re imagining as powerful and brilliant because the character uses her fire magic to blow away swarms of enemies may be the one that most readers skim past, because they’ve seen its like before. Firestorms, death rays, and similar apocalypses end too many fantasy books to name. And if the whole of the book is nothing but a buildup to that one scene, the readers can feel cheated. You need something more to carry a plot, especially in a book as long as most fantasy novels are.
Likewise, that scene too often makes the character invincible. This goes straight back to the previous rant on suspense. If the author assures the reader that the character can blow away any enemy at all with her fire magic, we don’t need to worry about her. Any enemy that rises against her goes down in flames. That’s only exciting once. How do you make it exciting after that? Adding more and more enemies isn’t an answer. The book starts feeling like a D&D session. “Oh, more random monsters, time for more fire magic.” Yawn.
Invulnerable people aren’t fun to read about. Show me a character whose magic costs her something (see point 6 below), or who has an enemy just as powerful (see point 4). Those are the contests I’ll wait through with bated breath, because I know the character can behurt. It’s not even a matter of her dying; 99% of fantasy heroes survive, and I’m used to reading about that. But if she never suffers save from the manufactured jealousy of the other characters (see point 5), she’s an Author’s Darling, and not fun to read about.
2) Give a reason for any extra power or finesse the character displays.
So the character can control all the elements while most people can only control one, or can call more powerful fires than anyone has ever seen, or can levitate five rocks in the air while most people can only manage pebbles.
Inheritance isn’t the best excuse, unless everyone in the family is powerful, or there is at least one powerful ancestor to point to. Weak mages for generations on generations shouldn’t “guarantee” that a powerful mage pops up just when the Dark Lord starts conquering. And if most people can have parents who control different elements and yet end up with only one, why does Miss Special here have all of them, including elements that neither of her parents could control? Some authors go to pains to set up rules for the way magic runs in families, and then merrily break them all for the sake of having a Miss Special. Don’t. It goes straight back to rule 1: if the only point of your character is that she exists to throw cool magic around, she’s boring.
Destiny’s also a problem, once you start analyzing it. If the world needs a powerful mage to face and defeat the Dark Lord, why in the name of hell does Destiny create only one? Why not an army? Why not at least two or three, instead of the Miss Special that everyone else depends on? (Even in fantasy stories that have several protagonists, one is usually more important and special than the others, and the story would grind to a halt without her). More than one would increase the chances of survival to adulthood, too, since Dark Lords are often portrayed as trying to hunt down the special newborn baby.
If Destiny doesn’t have enough power, there are some hard questions to be asked. Why not? Why hasn’t the Dark Lord won already? If Destiny wants just one person to save the world, why? If Destiny has promised this one person for a long time in prophecy and the land has suffered while waiting for her, that is one sadistic Destiny. Maybe the bad guys are doing the right thing by trying to buck it. At least Dark Lords are usually adults and can fight their own battles. The Light sends out a teenager to fight for it, and appears to have no backup plan if she dies.
The Light in a lot of fantasy books is really fantastically stupid.
3) Make the character respond to the ability.
The characters in fantasy either say, “Whee!” or feel overwhelmed by the ability for a little while, until they grow into adults able to handle it (which often takes remarkably little time). There are few complex ways that they relate to their unexpected—usually—power, perhaps because the author hasn’t thought through just how the magic works.
If your character has fire magic that makes her feel really good when she uses it, let her become addicted for a little while. Or let her soberly test it, worrying about what will happen when she finally confronts the Dark Lord and has to let the power out all at once. Or let her lose control of it at some points and give her unsuspecting companions first-degree burns. If the fire magic works from inside her body, how will she respond the first time she feels it? Does it tickle her veins, set her blood to burning, make her heart beat faster? If she calls fire from outside, what does she think the first time she sees the campfire sway towards her? If it works from another source, say because she has a bond to a dragon—if you must—does she feel exhilarated about it? Tense? Overwhelmed enough to cry?
There’s very little development of the special ability in the way that most people in real life develop their hobbies or talents or obsessions. It doesn’t make sense. This person has a deeper and more significant relationship with her ability, in most cases, than, say, a gardening dilettante has with gardening. Yet the gardening dilettante is likely to spend more time thinking and dreaming about it, even if he never gets off his ass to create a garden. The fire mage who just has to, oh, save the world never seems to spend as much time thinking about what it means that she can use this magic. Does she become a pyromaniac? Does she come to feel a love of fire? Does she fear it? Does she start feeling a crawling unease around water?
Don’t know. That development is missing in action.
4) Give her an equal on the opposite side.
The Dark Lord can’t leave his tower himself, for X reason (usually, that he’d defeat the protagonist right away if he met her near the start of the story). Fine. And he’s so crushingly powerful that she can’t defeat him right now, but she will be able to. Fine.
Then why not give her an equal on the opposite side who is free to move about, and is powerful enough to make it a real contest? The Dark Lord is too often faceless, (sometimes) for good reasons. A lieutenant, a servant, his brother or sister if you’re going to make a more human Dark Lord, might not be. And if that person just happens to be the second most powerful fire mage in the world…well, it can make for some exciting times. And it’s not really any more of a coincidence that the Dark has the second most powerful one than that the Light has the most powerful one.
A nemesis like this can give a story a much-needed kick in the ass. The special ability becomes less the focus of the heroine’s character, because there’s someone else in the story who can wield it and isn’t being lauded all the time for it. She has an enemy that she can’t just rip apart the way she usually can the Dark Lord’s Orc-lookalikes. And this enemy can be human and sympathetic in ways that faceless evil can’t.
5) Don’t follow the well-worn paths in portraying how her peers react to the ability.
When a heroine learns at the start of a fantasy story that she’s the most powerful fire mage in the world, and the goddess’s chosen, this is how it goes, with slight variation:
- The good characters are happy for the heroine, having always known she was “special” in some ill-defined way. The evil characters, including bullies, are jealous.
- If the heroine is taken into a school environment, she’ll be one of the best students, but ignored and taunted by the other kids.
- If the heroine meets other people her same age, the girls will hate her. The boy will dislike her on sight and bicker with her, but eventually fall in love with her.
- She’ll save the world, and her peers will gape in awe, eventually having to eat their words.
I’ve had my say on bullies in the rant on them, but for gods’ sake, you could vary the reactions of the heroine’s best friends and the other students in the school, too. Have you never felt gnawing jealousy when something wonderful happened to your best friend? Have you never felt that someone who was possessed of our world’s version of special abilities, perhaps a great athletic talent, was stuck-up because of it? Have you never felt in competition with other students in your school, and resentful of the ones who won? Have you ever completely ignored someone your age because she simply didn’t matter to you?
Unalloyed love and unalloyed hatred are ridiculously extreme reactions. Make the heroine’s peers react to her gift in a variety of human ways.
6) Never, never forget the cost.
The heroine can call fire. And too often, she’s not only invulnerable to her enemies’ weapons because of that, but she’s invulnerable to any harm that her gift could do her.
Where does the energy come from? What sustains it? If she calls the fire from inside and loses control of it, what happens to her body? If she calls it from outside, what happens if she’s really tired and tells the wildfire to stop coming, and it doesn’t obey? What about the physical limits around her that have nothing to do with fire? The heroine might be able to start a fire burning, but if she can’t stop it burning and can’t run away fast enough, there’s a problem. And if she’s invulnerable to fire, it doesn’t mean that the people with her are.
All magic should have a cost. Fantasy authors seem to recognize this and try to establish it, except for the protagonists with the extra-special ability. That escalates easily from the heroine having a higher tolerance or less weakness than other people to her having no weaknesses.
Remember what I said about invincible= boring? Yeah, here too. If a heroine calls down a firestorm strong enough to roast an army, she should be suffering after-effects from that, and not a light headache either. I want her writhing on the ground, or suffering third-degree burns, or consuming herself in a fireball. It just doesn’t cost enough if the heroine can perform wonders with a wave of her hand.
7) Don’t tell the reader how special the character is.
Telling versus showing is a delicate balance in most parts of the story, and I don’t think all telling should be banished entirely—except in one place. Do not, under any circumstances, have the other characters expound on the good traits of your specially-abled protagonist to her or to each other.
A girl that no one would glance at twice if she didn’t have this fire gift is suddenly the focus of all eyes in a fantasy story. And despite the great number of those gazes, and the high amount of criticism that people naturally tend to focus on those in the limelight, not one of them can find a fault. If she weeps, she’s sensitive. If she snaps back, she’s witty. If she panics, she’s showing that she feels deeply. If she loses a high number of people because of a wrong command, they’re all people who would gladly die for her anyway.
The secondary characters explain this to the heroine, or to each other while the heroine sleeps—“I think we may have found a great queen this time, Bob. She’s smart, she’s sensitive, she’s funny, and she’ll blow away the bad guy”—and I die a thousand deaths for every word.
I resent, hate, despise, loathe, and ferociously resist being told that a character is the most special thing ever. Show me how this character is sensitive, witty, emotionally deep. Show me why these people will die for her; don’t just tell me they will. She has the fire gift. Fine. Show me how she can control it, why she’s the only kind of person who can be trusted with this power, why she won’t just become a Dark Lady in the Dark Lord’s place. Don’t give her powers and tell me that she’ll be a fantastic queen, and expect me to love her for that.
8) Watch out for plot holes.
Or, “Hello, special ability. Meet deus ex machina.”
The author loads the heroine up with special abilities, and then invents stupid reasons why she can’t use them to solve everyone’s problems in the first fifty pages. Even worse, though, is when the author forgets to invent the stupid reasons. So we have a heroine who can teleport anywhere she likes—
And she never thinks of teleporting into the evil guy’s fortress when he’s in the bath and stabbing him. That is one stupid-ass heroine.
Teleportation (or other ways of quick travel, such as opening portals), enormous strength, turning into animals, flight, and magic that persuades or compels other people are the special abilities most likely to work inside the story and have the author prevent them from working for no apparent reason. Watch out for others, though. If your heroine is powerful enough to destroy small mountains even when she’s not trained, why not have her take out the largest contingent of the Dark Lord’s troops and take on the Dark Lord himself later?
I’ve grown more and more allergic to heroes with special abilities. Too often, it seems as though the story were written for the ability, not the hero.