Saturday, April 11, 2009

Educational Backstory: avoiding arbitrary superpowers

Have you ever noticed how characters in science fiction and fantasy seem to have superpowers? I'm not even talking about the superhero type. I mean special skills - things that nobody else can do, that usually make these people indispensable to the plot. To pull from David Eddings, maybe one guy can steal anything and speak a secret sign language, maybe another can turn into a bear, maybe another never gets scared, etc. The nice thing about Eddings' characters is that he usually has a personal history for the character which explains their terrific strengths (and peculiar weaknesses).

This is really important.

A character who can do unusual things is really great, even if it's something as subtle as being graceful in movement. But without grounding, those special skills can seem arbitrary. When you look at actual superheroes, one of the coolest things about them is that they have special origin stories. Even the X-men's relatively arbitrary powers are grounded in a general tendency for human mutation.

So think through how your character got to be this way. Does she fight well because she was trained in kung fu? Does he have strong arms because he was apprenticed to the blacksmith? Does he know about lightspeed physics because he's a professor, or the ship's engineer? Does he know about linguistics in spite of his young age because he's the son of a famous linguist?

One of the things I always enjoyed about the character Pazu from Miyazaki's film, Castle in the Sky, was that he was a miner. As the movie starts, you see him hefting heavy weights and crawling all over (and repairing) these massive steam engines that bring the miners up from the tunnels below. You also see him being comfortable in dark tunnels - and all this seems perfectly natural. Then later when he's volunteering to repair the engine of a pirate's airship, climbing like crazy over the outside of the actual castle in the sky, and running through the dark tunnels inside it, you have no problem with any of it. You've seen him do it before, and it all works.

This is one of those instances where you can make your world personal. Think about your character's educational background. Is it based in experience? What kind? Is it based in institutionalized education? What kind of people does your character admire as mentors or teachers, and why?

You can even take it a little further - ask yourself what ideologies might come along with your character's experience or education. Was the master abusive, inadvertently teaching hatred of his social group? Did the teacher rescue the student from poverty or some other social situation, leading the student to adopt similar social views? Did the institution teach larger social values, or the values of the particular social group it serves?

Explore the possibilities.


  1. On the subject of skills that can be learned, I agree with you, but with supernatural powers, origin stories can so easily just become corny. Using superheroes as an example, so many superheroes gained their powers from radiation--radioactive spiders, being caught in a gamma bomb explosion, and being barraged with cosmic rays. When was the last time you heard of someone having positive effects from radiation exposure? I think the likelihood of that is pretty much zero. Even if you didn't die from the initial event you would probably die a slow and very unpleasant death as your teeth and hair fell out and your cells degenerated.

    X-Men is better than most, suggesting a jump in evolution. It has its flaws too, of course--how does the entire race know that it's time to evolve? It's not like there's inter-organism cellular communication (that is biological cells, not cell phones). But at least if you buy that basic premise, it explains why there are so many mutants running around, instead of assuming that all these people have survived radioactive accidents.

    Some stories at least verge on the believable. The new Spiderman movies explain it with a genetically engineered spider instead of a radioactive spider. That I can at least find plausible on some level if the spider's DNA has been altered with an engineered retrovirus, the virus could theoretically be transferred to another organism to cause alterations there.

    For supernatural powers, I think it can be perfectly acceptable to have no origin explanation of a power. For instance, I have a story where a man can talk to machines. It's never explained because he's just always been like that as long as he can remember. His ability has shaped his character but the origin of the ability remains a mystery. Maybe he could have an origin story someday to find out where his ability came from, but that's not what this particular story is about.

  2. David, I have to say I agree with you, but not to be contrary, I believe the difference is that you're bringing up the explanation of arbitrary powers versus making them seem natural within the story. The difference, at least to me, is that instead of having a character in the story pull out something extremely usefull at the most opportune time (like being able to see through a wall just when they need to see what's on the other side) that power has always been there, and the reader knows it. It might not be reasonable to think that someone can do whatever the character is doing, but that's what makes it fantasy or scifi. Of course, it always helps to have a reasonable explanation for said power.

  3. Ah, so it's a matter of establishing abilities before they're needed at crucial moments? I can't argue with that. :)

  4. The superhero stuff is by necessity a bit far-fetched. I think it's interesting that they go to the trouble to explain it at all. With characters in other stories, especially non-superheroes, it's particularly important to establish which skills are part of basic self-knowledge ( I was born with it), which are learned, and which are unexpected for the character - and what those differences mean.