Monday, November 26, 2007

Managing Power in Fantasy and Romance

This Thanksgiving weekend, I listened to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass on tape while driving back from a visit with family. I've read this book several times--it's one of my favorites. I love re-reading my favorite books; I always notice things I missed on the first go-round. This time, however, I noticed something I wish I hadn't.

In The Golden Compass, the heroine comes to possess an alethiometer--a device that always tells the truth about any situation, if you know how to read it. It's a device of immense power. And at several points in the story, particularly when tensions were high and the heroine was getting worried, I wondered why she simply didn't check in with the alethiometer to see how things would turn out. I sure would have, if I were facing a life-and-death crisis. There were several points in the story where it seemed odd that the heroine didn't simply ask the alethiometer how things would work out--and what could be done to fix the problems she faced.

Like many fantasy and romance lovers, I'm fascinated with power. Objects and people with mysterious powers captivate me and draw me in, and I'm always interested to observe how special powers affect the personalities and relationships of the characters. But too much power is a bad thing for your plot. The more power a character has access to, the more difficult it is to keep up the plot tension. If your character is all-powerful, why can't he simply wrap up the problems he faces in the plot in a few minutes? If he's all-knowing, what does he have to worry about?

If you're dealing with supernatural powers in your plot, here are a few ways to put limits on them without rendering them insignificant.

Limit knowledge. In The Golden Compass, the heroine can read the alethiometer instinctively. This may have been a mistake. If Lyra had more trouble reading the device, it may have made more sense that she'd be worried about problems she encountered in the plot. I'm writing a psychic heroine into my current story, and I realized early on that her powers couldn't be consistent--otherwise she'd know too much and the plot would lose tension. Her psychic powers are unpredictable and sometimes fail her when she needs them most--making her world much more dangerous.

Make magic more difficult. You can give your hero or heroine fairly modest powers, but still make them seem impressive by limiting the amount of magic available in your world. If your world is a place where magical powers are extremely rare, a little magical gift is a big-time miracle--and an extremely powerful magical person is an almost impossible villain. A little magic goes a long way--and making it more rarified may up the tension in your story.

Make some things off limits. In Karen Marie Moning's paranormal romances, it's extremely difficult to see the future. She deals with some extremely powerful characters, from magicians and druids to the otherworldly Fae--but she does put limits on their abilities. Consider the limits of your world carefully, and make sure there are some things known to be beyond everyone's ability.

Watch out for weird inconsistencies. When I was a teenager, I loved David Eddings' endless series novels. His characters were witty, well-drawn (if a little stereotypical), and extremely powerful. Re-reading them years later, I realized they were too powerful. Eddings had trouble limiting them. Because they were so powerful, he had to force them to follow the complicated and meaningless dictates of a cliched prophecy--or there wouldn't be much of a story; the characters could simply blast apart everything and everyone in their way. An all-powerful goddess couldn't heal a character's heart injury because "hearts jump around too much." Characters inexplicably went to great lengths to hide from enemies much weaker than they were.

This is the problem with making your characters too powerful--it becomes more and more unlikely that these all-powerful people would have any serious problems. So set limits that make sense.

Balance strengths with weaknesses. My boyfriend is a Batman guy--but I love Superman. He's a fan of the tortured, dark-horse style hero, while I'm a sucker for pure, unadulterated power. Batman and Superman are two very different heroes, and each has a balance of strengths and weaknesses that works.

Batman is a principled guy, but he's not hung up on his morals. He's a dark horse. He won't hesitate to kill a bad guy just because killing is wrong in general. But he's not extremely powerful; his powers are mainly in technology and cleverness. His ruthlessness gives him a helpful edge in his struggles to protect Gotham.

Superman is much more powerful. He's got the super strength, the X-ray and heat vision, the power of flight, and much more. His main limit is his sense of ethics--he absolutely will not hurt an innocent, and he won't kill anyone he doesn't have to--even if it's a bad guy. He could do just about anything--but he won't do a lot of things. Many people criticize Superman for what they see as his "boy-scout" personality. But he needs that. If he had the ruthlessness of a dark-horse kind of hero, he'd be too powerful to plot around.

Power is fascinating in all genres. But the more power your characters have, the harder it will be for you to put them in believable danger. Limit their powers in a way that makes sense, and you're less likely to twist your plot into tortured elaborations just to give them a problem they can't deal with.

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