Limiting your hero’s powers
Without fail, even literature’s greatest warriors, heroes, superheroes, armies, magical rings/wands/stones, and even gods and goddesses have had weaknesses. Some limitations ramp up the story when good heroes go astray; most keep the hero from solving the story’s plot lines and challenges on the first page.
Everyone who reads Superman comics knows he can be weakened by red or green kryptonite and that since his powers are natural, he has trouble fighting villains who use magic. Batman, of course, is human and while he has more strength than most men–not to mention high-tech equipment–he will tire sooner or later and may be injured.
You’ll find a handy list of ways to limit your hero’s power in a 2011 post on Superhero Nation called How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect. B. McKenzie writes that your hero’s powers may variously be unavailable, lacking precision or skill levels, socially questionable, require materials not at hand, limited in power and scope or susceptible (like Superman) to certain conditions or “evil” powers.
If you’re a fan of Jim Butcher’s contemporary fantasy series called The Dresden Files about a wizard/private eye working with police when “odd” and other supernatural crimes occur, you know that Harry Dresden doesn’t have the powers, say, of Voldemort and Dumbledore. In fact, the Harry Potter series always kept the most powerful teacher/wizards off stage to allow Harry and the other students to meet the primary challenges.
As Gandalf is not all powerful in Tolkien’s stories, Harry Dresden is not all powerful in Jim Butcher’s 15-book series. If he were, there would be no story, much less any danger or page-turner drama. One thing that weakens Dresden’s powers is that his magic spells only work when backed up with a certain amount of mental agility, passion and willpower. So, if he is tired or injured or distracted, he’s going to get into trouble.
Growing up, I read a lot of Hardy Boys type books where young people solved crimes and met challenges that the adults in the story could have solved a lot faster had they been in the right place at the right time. I also read a lot of superhero comics, so I was always very conscious of the kinds of limitations that kept superheroes from winning battles too quickly.
By the time the Harry Potter books came, I was–as a writer–especially interested in the devices J. K. Rowling would use to ensure that the Hogwarts School teachers–almost all of whom had very advanced powers as we saw near the end of the series–were never available to take on monsters and other challenges early on in each book. Had they been, Harry would have had nothing to do inasmuch as his skills were a fraction of his teacher’s skills.
New writers of fantasy–as well as writers in many other genres–can be helped by taking a look at the best novels, comics, and films of the past with an eye toward one question: how did the author limit his/her hero’s powers or availability?
However you do this, that limitation needs to be shown to the reader fairly early on in the story. You can’t wait until your 3/4 of the way through the story to suddenly “announce” that the hero can’t fight in the rain or some other lame rationale that hasn’t been foreshadowed and isn’t believable because (as a lawyer often states in court) there’s no foundation for it prior to the climax of the story.
Of course, heroic characters often begin with little or no awareness of their powers. That’s how Harry Potter started out in Rowling’s series. So, his powers are limited from the beginning by lack of knowledge, lack of skill and lack of confidence in himself. That hero’s journey pattern has worked for a lot of authors.
Jim Butcher’s wizard Harry Dresden knows at the beginning of the first book that he’s a wizard. One of his challenges is not the ability to do spells, but proving to those who doubt the existence of the supernatural that he isn’t a fraud.
In my latest work in progress about a conjure woman in a town with a lot of bad people in it, I wanted my character’s abilities to generally coincide with what real conjure women can do–or, depending on your view point–are said to be able to do. So, she isn’t Dumbledore or Harry Dresden.
I remember becoming exasperated with a trilogy written highly popular author who usually writes books without paranormal characters when she suddenly gave witches powers that far exceed (in scope, tone and style) the powers of those who practice either Witchcraft or Wicca. Yes, a bit of artistic license is fine to add the the drama.
But, if a book is using witches as they are typically seen, those witches can’t suddenly have the powers of the wizards out of Lord of the Rings. Why not? It’s not believable if they have been portrayed in the way that real witches portray themselves. If you want Hollywood-style witches, then they need to start out the book as Hollywood-style witches.
Heroes without limits don’t work in fiction. If Dumbledore and Harry Dresden–each in their own environments–said a magic spell on the first page of the first book that got rid of evil, there wouldn’t be any more pages, much less any more books. Likewise, if they say a spell on the last page of the book that hasn’t been foreshadowed as possible for them to do–or to learn to do–there will be a lot of angry readers.
Figuring out how to limit your hero is just as vital as figuring out your story’s theme, location setting, villains and supporting characters and plot. Doing this can feel counter-intuitive because as human authors we like to give out super-human characters all the skills and powers they need to right the world’s wrongs.
Limiting our characters doesn’t mean limiting our imagination because a flawed, unskilled or non-all-powerful hero requires a lot more skill to write about than a hero who has more powers than the story can handle. And, when the last word has been written, such a protagonist makes for a wonderful story.