Characters with Cosmic Powers

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Characters with Cosmic Powers

1LShelby
mar 27, 9:28am

So I recently read a couple fantasy stories in which the young protagonists are descended from powerful mages and so they inherited a natural aptitude for magic.

In the one story this set up didn't bother me in the least, but in the other story it irked me. So I'm trying to figure out why the difference.

Do any of you have insights into this. Are you okay with characters who just happen to be super powerful or does it bother you? Are there times when its okay, and other times when it isn't?

2paradoxosalpha
Redigeret: mar 27, 10:29am

"Natural aptitude for magic" seems like something different than "super powerful" let alone "Cosmic Powers."

I enjoyed Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time, where the casual omnipotence of the characters made all of the challenges matters of style and affection.

More recently, I read The Urth of the New Sun, which definitely hits the "Cosmic Powers" note, and does so in a way that I found congenial. Wolfe doesn't give anyone superpowers without real justification--although the rationales may be a little difficult to perceive.

I do write about characters who use magic, but my magicians tend to be characterized by non-ordinary experiences rather than extraordinary powers.

3reading_fox
mar 27, 1:42pm

Super-powers are very tricky - they need carefully explained limits as to why the character isn't solving all the problems with them. It also generally requires antagonists with similar levels of power otherwise they'd just be overwhelmed in short order. Very quickly you end up with ridiculous amounts of energy/force/power being used and have to ask why the building/world is still standing. By the end of the series the character have generally increased in strength requiring ever stronger enemies, and the whole thing gets even more ridiculous. Harry Dresden for all the butcher does try to limit them, has rapidly reached this point.

4MHThaung
mar 28, 7:35am

A few random thoughts:

If the world is such that superpowers are regular-type abilities but simply scaled up (eg strength or speed), I'm not sure it makes for a more compelling story. Though it might work better in film.

I always like to see some disadvantage/cost/limitation to the superpower *that impacts on the story*. An exception might be a world where that power serves to handwave away some logistical issue that doesn't contribute to the plot. Eg, characters can breathe underwater or in space. Though that might come under regular worldbuilding rather than superpowers.

If it's humour/parody, I guess the above might not apply.

5Cecrow
mar 28, 5:16pm

This was Superman's downfall, writers and readers began to find him dull because he was too perfect. Since then every superhero has been more flawed, some significantly.

6slarken
mar 28, 7:47pm

>5 Cecrow:

That's true. But... Superman is still pretty popular, though.

7paradoxosalpha
mar 29, 9:56am

Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman put the icing on the cake for me. I don't feel like I ever need to read another Superman story.

8LShelby
Redigeret: maj 8, 11:06am

>2 paradoxosalpha: ' "Natural aptitude for magic" seems like something different than "super powerful" let alone "Cosmic Powers." '

Okay, point taken. But in both cases the characters were far more powerful than any character I've come up with since I was 16. (Sixteen was the year I had the revelation that characters who were 'the best' at too many things made the rest of the cast seem pointless.)

It sounds like in Dancers at the End of Time everyone is equally over-powered. Does that mean they all have the exact same abilities?

Equal opportunity cosmic powers does seem to be one way of making them seem acceptable. The only trick then is figuring out what kind of story to tell. :)

I am also interested in hearing more on the subject of non-ordinary experiences rather than extraordinary powers. Are you saying that in your stories magic is a different way of doing things, rather than a more powerful way of doing things?

>3 reading_fox:
I have figured out a way around the "why is the building still standing" issue. Just go ahead and destroy the building. Then you have your characters rebuild it afterward. I mean, if they are as powerful as all that, they should be able to do that much, right?

Which... now that I'm thinking about it, is probably a key to making the powers feel more right: Consequences.

If throwing all those powers around leads to realistic consequences, the reader will have an easier time accepting that the powers exist in the first place.

>4 MHThaung: "Eg, characters can breathe underwater or in space. Though that might come under regular worldbuilding rather than superpowers."

Maybe it comes under worldbuilding, but it really bugs me when I see happen without some kind of explanation. It's a "rules of the world" thing. If they are using real-world rules, then they need to use real world rules, and not just handwave stuff. And if they aren't using real-world rules, then they need to establish those rules and stick to them.

But I can't think of any book examples, only the anime, Captain Harlock. Which takes place in a "world" where people stand on the back of space trains with their clothing whipping about in the wind. Instead of making everything simpler for me by fudging the rules, it constantly distracts me.

Cost, or weakness...

I think that is one of the things that was bothering me in the example I mentioned in my first post. The mage in that book was just handed too many things: three magical artifacts just "found" in the first chapters of the book, powerful magic coming into being because she was throwing a temper-tantrum.

The powers didn't feel like they were earned.

Whereas in the other example, he was given lessons to give him his very basic starter spells that every other mage in the setting also knew, and after that every spell he added to his repertoire came after a significant and dangerous encounter.

>6 slarken:
I liked Superman because he was nice guy.

But it gets hard to tell action stories about someone who can defeat any obstacle. Thus the need for kryptonite-- so he'd have physical obstacles to overcome.

But, at the same time, giving everyone a very specific "weakness" gets old really fast. There has got to a better way.

...
It has suddenly occurred to me that if one is writing intrigue, rather than action, being all-knowing is more of a problem than being all-powerful. All that must be done to tie the hands of the most powerful being, is have him not realize what is going on.

9paradoxosalpha
apr 1, 1:04pm

>8 LShelby: Does that mean they all have the exact same abilities?

Yeah, my description "casual omnipotence" is not any sort of euphemism about those characters. They are pretty literally all-powerful with respect to control of proximate/contemporary matter and energy. They have some limitations based on the flow of time and constraints of universal entropy, but within those, they are whatever people they want to be with whatever properties, possessions, etc.

>8 LShelby: Are you saying that in your stories magic is a different way of doing things, rather than a more powerful way of doing things?

I don't write supernatural magic of the Bewitched or Harry Potter variety. I'm less interested in thaumaturgy than aspiration and initiation to hidden wisdom.

The Book of Lies 27: THE SORCERER
A Sorcerer by the power of his magick had subdued all things to himself.
Would he travel? He could fly through space more swiftly than the stars.
Would he eat, drink, and take his pleasure? There was none that did not instantly obey his bidding.
In the whole system of ten million times ten million spheres upon the two and twenty million planes he had his desire.
And with all this he was but himself.
Alas!

10LShelby
apr 5, 10:20am

>9 paradoxosalpha:

So if you are all omnipotent, and you say "I want this to happen" and the person standing next to you is also omnipotent and they say "Oh no it won't!" Then what?

I think I would assume that the lower energy state would prevail.

The fact that I would assume that the lower energy state would prevail, probably shows why I have such a hard time about even contemplating this situation. When I decided to make a "high powered magic world" one of the first things I started doing was creating underlying rules that would impose consistent limits on what people could actually do.

>9 paradoxosalpha: "I'm less interested in thaumaturgy than aspiration and initiation to hidden wisdom."

Frankly, that sounds way more important, but also less pertinent to the creation of adventurous fiction. :)
(Although my own belief structure holds that very little wisdom is actually hidden, most of it is sitting quietly out in plain sight, hoping that people will notice it, and take it home.)

"And with all this he was but himself"
So true.

11paradoxosalpha
Redigeret: apr 5, 11:12am

>10 LShelby: So if you are all omnipotent, and you say "I want this to happen" and the person standing next to you is also omnipotent and they say "Oh no it won't!" Then what?

Since everyone is very used to this state of affairs and the possibility for such an impasse, there's a lot more psychology and anticipation of what other characters actually want, as well as etiquette intended to avoid such conflicts. But since the consequences are highly reversible, it is merely etiquette rather than law.

>10 LShelby: sitting quietly out in plain sight

That's a kind of "hidden" that might need a sort of magic to reveal.

12LShelby
apr 8, 12:11pm

>11 paradoxosalpha: "But since the consequences are highly reversible, it is merely etiquette rather than law."

So reality is like a wiki edit war between omnipotent editors?

"That's a kind of "hidden" that might need a sort of magic to reveal."
That is a very valid point. :)

Some things, you can't see until you are ready to see, and can't understand until you are ready to understand.

Learning to write is like this. (But probably everything else under the sun also.)

I remember listening to an author telling a story about how he had a student and he kept trying to tell the student some truth about writing in general and that student's writing in particular, and the student nodded his head, but didn't really seem to get what he was saying. Then a year or two later, the student came back and excitedly told that author about a revelation he had just had -- and it was exactly the same thing the author had been trying to tell him earlier.

The author blamed the student for "not listening". But in my experience, it is possible to be trying hard to listen, and just not ready to grasp that which is being laid out in front of you. In math, this is considered obvious. Nobody tries to teach algerbra to someone who hasn't learned multiplication, and so forth. But it seems to be true for many, many other things as well, where the "pre-requisites" are much less obvious -- quite mysterious, actually.

13paradoxosalpha
Redigeret: apr 8, 12:41pm

>12 LShelby: So reality is like a wiki edit war between omnipotent editors?

Well, there's an intimacy of longstanding coexistence that doesn't typically obtain among wiki editors. So disagreements are predisposed not to culminate in either literal or metaphorical war. (Unless the disagreement is really a pretext and war itself is what is desired.)

14LShelby
apr 11, 5:22pm

>13 paradoxosalpha: "Well, there's an intimacy of longstanding coexistence that doesn't typically obtain among wiki editors."

Wiki editors who are all members of the same household.

I think I am finally starting to get my brain around this one. :)

15vegetarianveggie
Redigeret: maj 2, 6:12pm

what about powers that appear through stress, how could that be handled.
what i mean is a stressfull situation teaches the character they have these powers.

16LShelby
maj 2, 10:54pm

>15 vegetarianveggie:
I actually just recently read a book in which magic is fueled by emotion, so the main character managed to achieve a powerful and oddly specific effect by essentially throwing a temper-tantrum.

I have to confess that as a reader, I did not find that particularly satisfying. When the character is just handed amazing powers (beyond what is normal for their world) without having done anything to earn them, to me as a reader, that's unfun and boring. I want to see them achieving great things, but it has to feel like they overcame stuff, and worked hard, or it doesn't seem all that great to me. I don't want to read about people who accomplish great things because they are super angsty.

(Maybe if I imagined myself to be the character as I read, I would respond differently?)

On the other hand, it seems totally reasonable that someone should discover that they have powers because they are stressed. In that situation the body is doing whatever it can to output extreme energy/force.

But a person who is stressed tends to be less focussed and more easily flustered. So I would imagine that they wouldn't have a lot of control over these newly manifested powers. Whatever the powers do, they should probably be doing too much of it and in all directions at once, (or something like that), and creating a huge mess.

At least, that's my take.

Do you know what the character is supposed to achieve with these powers yet, or do you just know that they have them?

17vegetarianveggie
Redigeret: maj 4, 3:32pm

i see what you are saying and i know what they will accomplish already

18LShelby
maj 5, 10:03pm

If you know where you are headed, then it is usually fairly easy to figure out what the power timeline should be. To create a nice shape to the story, the powers should either start small and build, or start crazy out of control and gain precision.

If neither of those options work with your worldbuilding, then the clever idea technique works too... where the powers stay the same, but the character has to keep coming up with new ways to apply them in order to overcome bigger and badder challenges. Save the biggest, cleverest idea for the climax, and you're good. :)

19paradoxosalpha
maj 7, 2:48pm

I just finished reading Paul Park's Roumania recently. The arc there was for the powers to get bigger, and the problems to get bigger, and the protagonist to get more control over the powers, with the upshot being that the powers couldn't solve the most worthwhile problems and were probably creating others.

20LShelby
Redigeret: maj 12, 9:46pm

>19 paradoxosalpha:

That sounds interesting. Powers that have become too powerful to use.
Did it make you feel that the problems were somehow less fraught at that point?

They warn fantasy authors to be careful about power escalation. In the typical fantasy epic, the protag starts out relatively powerless, but by the end they may have gained world transforming powers, and are able to battle gods -- and once one gets to that point, it is said that the series is doomed, because there is nowhere to go up from there.

I never took this warning too seriously in regards to myself, because my stories tend to favor clever solutions to problems. (In my in-progress fantasy epic, the protagonist picks up a major magical item in book one, and gives it away in book two. He then picks up an even more major magical item in book three... and he will spend most of his next book trying to give that one away too. He clevers his way through everything, rather than using his non-existant powers.) Also, I don't really want to write a series that goes on for forever -- it sounds boring.

Recently I did come up with an idea for a "high powered" story where nearly everyone has magical powers -- and perhaps more to the point, nobody can be killed, or even really seriously injured. My daughter after hearing the plot outline said, "You've got umpteen zillion people being captured, Mom." I explained that if one couldn't kill anyone, cause them pain, or damage them beyond recovery, constraining them seemed one of the few remaining ways to take advantage of them or prevent them from opposing other characters goals.

Maybe I overlooked some possibilities, though.

21reading_fox
maj 10, 5:29am

>18 LShelby: >19 paradoxosalpha: >20 LShelby:

As a reader power escalation is a real problem. Harry Dresden is a prime example here. I don't mind a bit of growth and refinement, but anything at destroying building level scales you have to be so extremely careful of the consequences to remain even vaguely believable, and where's the fun in that. If someone is so powerful they're fighting gods etc now in book 7 why did't they gods have them killed in book1? etc... I prefer clever use of small powers any day.

>19 paradoxosalpha: - sounds lots of fun, but it's got a lot of poor reviews?

22paradoxosalpha
maj 10, 11:05am

>21 reading_fox:

I haven't read the poor reviews, but I don't find them surprising. Park really undercuts genre expectations in a huge way--he is not pandering to a mass readership. Even the reviewers who praise him tend to observe that he is a writer's writer.

23LShelby
maj 12, 9:54pm

>22 paradoxosalpha:
I was curious so I ordered the first in the series via InterLibrary Loan. The place I ordered it from only had the first two books though, so if I actually like the series, I might be in trouble.

24paradoxosalpha
maj 13, 10:29am

>23 LShelby:

I was turned on to Park and Roumania by John Crowley, another "writer's writer." Crowley wrote Little, Big, the best this-world fantasy I've ever read, and that book totally nails magic without superpowers.

25LShelby
maj 16, 10:59pm

>24 paradoxosalpha:
I would say that I consider magic without superpowers practically a necessity for this-world fantasy, because I have trouble believing that our world would remain recognizable in the presence of super-powered magic...

...but then there was Dianna Wynne Jones, who had this amazing way of presenting something that looked like this world, but then later revealing that it was actually part of something much larger and stranger, and some of that "much stranger" probably counts as superpowers. When she did it, I usually seemed to buy into it without a problem, so I know it can be done.

What I never could really buy into was Harry Potter. I think if you want characters with cosmic powers to coexist with the world as we know it, you need to spend some time thinking long and hard about why they aren't in the news. With current satellite technology, google maps ought to have no trouble giving you directions to Hogwarts. You can't just say "it's hidden with magic". How exactly is magic managing to hide it, when we have eyes in the sky mapping out every tree on the planet? A small department of wizards occasionally going out and casting forget spells doesn't seem to me to even approach a reasonable solution.

Magic that exists so that the writer doesn't have to think too hard, doesn't do it for me as a reader.

But maybe I'm taking a different lazy way out...
... I just never set anything in this world. :D