Thursday, 19 January 2012

I Got The Power! - Charley's Guide to Creating Gifted Characters

Powerful characters are a pain. It's a bald truth, but one I dare any author to try and deny. How many times have we read a book and thought, "Heck, is there anything you can't do?" or maybe "Why don't you just use those powers of yours and solve the situation, you dingbat!" I might mention Eragon and Name of the Wind as two perpetrators of such activity.

However, this last month, I have discovered a lot more sympathy for authors with such characters. You may laugh at me when I say that characters who are capable of things way beyond normality are a lot harder to work with than ones who can't. And it's not just because you have no idea if what they do would actually work.

You'd think there wouldn't be much difference between a character who earns or discovers their power during the course of the story and one who has them to start with. But there is, and it's huge. Characters who have grown up with their abilities simply have it - like you or I grow up with a stomach or a pair of ears. They know what they can do, and if they can't use their powers freely, then they're probably more than used to the strategies of hiding them. But it's different for "breakthrough" characters. They have to adapt to a whole new lifestyle, and a whole new list of dangers and perils, both personal and on a grand scale. And it's these guys that are the hard ones. Keeping them from turning into Super Sue or Whingeinator 5000 is difficult, and even once they've got to grip with their new state, keeping them sympathetic is a whole new kettle of fish for the author.

So, here's my strategy for keeping your uber-powered pet on its leash. And not dying painfully in the process.


Before you even start, it's highly advisable to get to know your character very well before they obtain their new gifts. This way, you have a strong foundation from which you can ascertain their reaction to the change, and how they will behave in the early stages. For example, my own breakthrough, Talisien, is fundamentally a cautious, slightly timid character. Bearing this in mind, I can be very sure that he will avoid using his gifts where he can, because by nature he will worry about causing damage and/or making a fool of himself. However, if your character is bolder and more sure of what they were doing, they might experiment a little, fling about a few ideas, and possibly cause some hilarious carnage in the process. 

On a similar note, if you know the character well enough, you can keep an eye out for tell-tale signs that they are not behaving as they ought to do. For example, if Talisien suddenly started strutting about with enough confidence to take up a Boeing 737, I'd know I'd gone wrong somewhere. Powers can change a person's perception of themselves, but I doubt very much that, unless it is in the specific nature of the gift to do so, they would change quite that fast.

Be very specific with the gift itself, and exactly what it entails. As a person who likes planning, I found it very helpful to create a spider diagram where I could pin down the particulars. Finding the limits and shortcomings of each gift - for example, as Talisien's power is intrinsic and is operated by sheer willpower, I doubt he would be very much inclined to unleash enough to do damage to himself. The fact that it is also very much a self-regulated gift would also lead to it exhausting him, as it would require a vast amount of mental discipline to keep it in line. He'll have fun learning to sit on his temper to keep his gift from making use of the outlet, I can tell you!

On a more practical note, keying-up on the gift's entailments also prevents the author from straying into the temptation of simply chucking out a new ability for the character in every tight spot, and subsequently over-powering them. While, sometimes, it is fun to have the character discover something new at a key moment, overusing this plot device will thoroughly frustrate your reader, and horribly undermine the credibility of the danger and struggle in your plot.

The "transition scene" of the book - where the character discovers / is given / somehow gets hold of their new talents, is exceedingly important, but also very hard to get right. However, with the preparation done in Steps One and Two, it is, really, a matter of sticking the two together and then, bit by bit, working out the logistics of what happens next. Here are a few key questions you might like to run by, as examples:
- Is it a painful experience? 
- Is the character really prepared for what they are about to do? 
- Will there be some sort of post-event trauma that may knock them out or exhaust them in some way? 
- Will their lack of experience result in some sort of accident? What will the effects of that be?
- Is there anyone there (a mentor, a friend, a foe, a passing hedgehog) who will help or hinder them before, during or after the event?

Of course, you can add your own questions depending on the specifics of your scene. But, remember, it is VERY IMPORTANT that the scene can continue to let the reader suspend their disbelief. It's a brilliant opportunity to wow the readers, and they might feel a little let down without a little whizzbang and excitement, but be careful not to overdo it. Be sure what you want to happen, and keep an eye out for anything erroneous. 

Something that I've noticed among highly powered characters is that their gift doesn't seem to have much of a long-term effect on them. I've always thought this was slightly odd - surely living with something as monumental as a supernatural gift, no matter how large or small, would change the way someone behaved or acted over time? Some may do this more than others, but I think it's important to remember that, essentially, your character is a person (maybe not human, but the idea stands) too. Especially if your character is young - teenagers especially are going through a massive period of change, both in their bodies and in their minds, and the addition of a gift to that is bound to have some effect on what happens to them. Also, think about the repercussions of the past:
- The results of their immediate experience with their gift.
- Changes they have to make to their lives or general practices to learn to control and handle their gift safely.
- Any accidents or traumas that may have occurred in the "teething" stage - i.e. the period when they were still adjusting to the gift, and perhaps being taught or teaching themselves its limits and dangers.
- Do other people perceive them any differently than they did before the change? What effect has this had on their view of themselves and others?

I found this stage particularly helpful working with Talisien. His story spans several hundred years (the lifespan of his people is whacked out, long story), and he obtains his powers while he is still relatively young. However, as he was born with weak muscles in his legs, unhealthy lungs and a distinct lack of any form of male aggression, the transition from being the weakling to suddenly having massive amounts of power at his fingertips was a hard one for him - especially when it came to avoiding the temptation to teach a painful lesson to those who had derided him. He didn't always succeed, with some rather messy results. Also, as his power is almost a sentient force in itself, he's hardened and honed his mind in order to keep it in check. This has had a very drastic effect on his behaviour around others - he's not so empathetic as he was, and he finds it hard to relate to people due to the drastic changes he's had to make to keep himself under control. He's a changed person, and it's had both good and bad effects: he's the terror of his enemies, and he's managed to avert his kingdom from disaster, but he fears losing himself to the "mind" of his gift, and being abandoned by those he cares for.


But what about you guys? Is there anything you think I've missed, or a tip you think it might help people to know? And what about your gifted characters? Is there anything about them that you would especially like to mention about them? How are they using their gifts? Is it working, or has everything gone down the metaphorical drain?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and persuade Talisien that I'm not actually trying to kill him ... yet.


  1. Thanks for this! I've recently been trying to find articles on creating characters. This is probably the best I've found so far!

    I especially love the questions.

    I'm great at working with plots but my character building sucks.

    1. Haha, I'm the other way around. I'm glad this was helpful for you, and happy writing! :)

  2. I'd lilke to hear your take on how well we did develping Morgan's talents. Of course I should probably wait we've finished writing to get to that though... but I'd still be interested.

    I think I'll have to keep a lot of this in mind with Lori, when I get to writing Trabia (someday I'll get there) and also with Litte Ryan of Vervell.

    He won't have powers per say, but the Gods will grant him liberties he'll have to learn how to use. Belive it or not he will eventually be able to guide his own Willow travel... And now I see him sneeking out in his teen years to Willow port to woo some girl half a world away... *facepalm* Time to start taking notes I suppose. *sigh*

    Defiantely a very good artical Charley.

    :} Cathryn

    1. Well, a mon avis, Morgan could use a little work, but overall I think we've got her down alright. It's different as she's a faerie, and therefore designed to house her power, and the fact it's more symbiotic than intrinsic helps ... but there's always room for improvement. I don't think we're terribly good on the limitations of everyone's various gifts - Shanahan, Morgan and Gloria all included there. But, as you said, our edits will sort that out :)

      As for Ryan, I look forward to seeing how that pans out. He'll certainly be in an interesting situation ... as for Lori, she can join Mirka in going through my treadmill up there, lol. Hakel are so hard to fit in there though - too bloody big! *giggles at own pathetic joke*

    2. Well I do believe that one of our co-writers suffers from a 'Me Too!' complex. I'm hoping we can work through that.

      As for your Hykal - I think Rachael would like to help make the box bigger... I"m not going to let her though. :}

    3. (Spook dives behind someone large and imposing) No Rach ... I think Erulastiel and Sephirax want to eat you already. Don't upset anyone else. Especially not Talisien o_O

  3. Great post. I may or may not have drawn Mark's attention to it as being a very good post that he may possible want to steal (preferably with your permission, unlike my Sherlock post which had only retrospective permissions).

    My main gifted character was Jennie, of course. She obviously only has her powers for about three days, but they've been dormant inside her for ages. Because of this, I didn't have to think much about the long term consequences, since she was going to die anyway!

    Alys, however, got her powers too early, and they nearly killed her. So that was cool. I had a whole book to make her not allowed to use them at all before I was allowed to play around with them - it was rather annoying. I had fun with Bronwyn's, though... ;)

    1. Haha, I bet you did. Jennie was a sad case, it has to be said - cut off before she could have any fun. I hugely respect your decision to strip Alys of hers for a while - not only realistic, but pretty sympathy-generating if done right. And it's all the sweeter when you get to play with them afterwards, isn't it? ;)

      Glad you like this post :)

  4. Great post! You have some wonderful insight here into those marvelously gifted characters. I'd honestly never thought about the Step 4 - the Long Haul. Makes sense though. :)

    1. Hehe, no worries, I hadn't even thought of it myself until I had to do battle with Tali up there, who has to live for a stupidly long period with a sentient firestorm living in his head, haha! But that's why we write, eh? Finding new things in the process is just part of the fun :)

  5. Thank you guys! I'm glad you found the post helpful - that's what I do it for!