The Downside of Superpowers by Jennifer Carole Lewis
For those writing in the paranormal, science-fiction and fantasy genres, exploring multiple facets of a character’s extraordinary abilities can add layers of depth to our stories. Punching out bad guys with a single strike is impressive, but now imagine that same character alone in his or her apartment, lowering their aching hands into a bowl of hot water to loosen the joints enough to sign a birthday card for their child.
There are a number of common abilities bestowed on characters: enhanced senses, enhanced physicality, shapeshifting and animal attributes. Each of these carries limitations as well as opportunities.
Enhanced senses are the most common paranormal ability. A character might be able to see in the dark or visualize heat, hear a conversation from five hundred feet away, track someone by scent or find minute cracks in equipment with a quick finger swipe. A wealth of information is open to them which is normally inaccessible to ordinary people.
But that very wealth can bring penalties. Any character with an enhanced sense risks being overwhelmed by typical environments. Sensitive eyes can be blinded by a 40 watt bulb, enhanced hearing can make an ordinary office sound like a video arcade hosting a children’s party, picking up scent like a dog could leave a character choking on artificial perfumes, and tactile enhancement could leave a character unable to tolerate anything but the softest of textures.
There are also trade-offs for any enhancement. Animals who see in the dark trade off color and detail for the ability to pick up minute light levels. Their vision would look washed out compared to ours, even in sunlight. People with hyperosmia (enhanced sense of smell) have a self-reported increase in migraines.
The next most common group of paranormal abilities are enhanced physicality, usually divided into superstrength, superspeed and superagility. Characters with superstrength can use SUVs as baseballs. Those with superspeed can accomplish tasks in seconds as a blur of motion. Superagility allows a character to leap, bend and roll in ways only CGI can duplicate.
There are some obvious downsides to enhanced physicality. Superstrength means that a character must be constantly on guard against crushing or destroying objects or people around them. (One of my favorite Buffy scenes involved Giles accidentally crushing a telephone after being transformed into a demon.) Speed creates friction, which is why most superfast comic characters wear special fabrics which won’t burst into flames. And they need to be careful when rescuing others, being grabbed by a character running two hundred miles per hour would be like getting hit by a car.
The real world analogues to those with superstrength and superagility are martial artists and gymnasts. The fancy board and concrete block breaking which delights us on YouTube often causes stiffness and loss of sensation in the hands, making it difficult to do simple tasks like holding a pen or fastening a button. Gymnasts often develop severe joint and back problems as they get older.
Shapeshifting usually comes in one of two options. Either the character can change his or her appearance to mimic other humans or he or she is capable of transforming into something else, usually an animal. There is precedent in the natural world for changing one’s features to resemble someone else. Octopi are able to alter their skin’s color and texture to pretend to be other animals or to blend into the seafloor. But this requires muscle tension, which would prevent a character from using it while asleep or otherwise relaxed.
Transforming from a human to an animal is well outside the realm of nature and thus has more flexibility in the rules. But one aspect which a writer should consider is that animals and humans perceive the world very differently. Territorial instincts, mating drives and biological imperatives such as hibernation or stocking food for the winter are all issues which an animal-human character should confront when switching between forms.
The final common type of superpower are animal attributes, i.e., adding a feature such as claws, wings or animalistic ears and eyes. Researching the animal being used as inspiration can provide a great deal of realism to an author’s work. For example, if a character has wings, are they structured like a bat’s, a bird’s or an insect’s? Each of these is built on different lines, which will affect how the character is able to use them. Similarly claws come in a wide variety of formats. Most claws grow constantly, requiring trimming or frequent use to keep them manageable. If the claws retract, the fingers must be thicker to accommodate the sheaths.
It can be easy to be swept up in the imaginative glory of characters with superpowers. All of the usual limits seem to fall away, which is one of the reasons they are so popular. But readers love characters for their flaws and vulnerabilities as much as for their larger-than-life attributes. By bringing limits back into the story, the author can create a poignant and powerful impact.
About the Author
Jennifer Carole Lewis is a full-time mom, a full-time administrator and a full-time writer of paranormal romance, which means she is very much interested in speaking to anyone who comes up with any form of functional time-travel devices or practical cloning methods. Meanwhile, she spends her most of her time alternating between organizing and typing.
She is a member of the Ottawa Romance Writers’ Association and the Romance Writers of America. Without them, she would still be dreaming about being a writer rather than sharing her books with readers. She believes in conspiracy theories and happily-ever-afters, which makes for some interesting dinner time conversations.
She is a devoted comic book geek and Marvel movie enthusiast. She spends far too much of her precious free time watching TV, especially police procedural dramas. Her enthusiasm outstrips her talent in karaoke, cross-stitch and jigsaw puzzles. She is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction and always enjoys seeking out new suggestions.
For more information about her lalassu series, you can go to www.jclewis.ca or find Jennifer on Facebook or Goodreads. You can also follow her on Twitter at @jclewisupdate or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jennifer’s Work
Dani has spent years fighting against her family’s urges to take on the mantle of High Priestess for the lalassu. Stronger and faster than any ordinary human, she has no interest in being a guide for her people. She likes being independent and enjoys her night-job as a burlesque dancer. But a darker secret lurks inside of her, one which threatens everyone around her.
Isolated and idealistic, Michael works as a developmental therapist for children, using his psychometric gifts to discover the secrets they can’t share with anyone else. When one of his clients is kidnapped, he will do almost anything to rescue her. The investigation leads him to a seedy little performance club where he is shocked and thrilled to discover a genuine live superhero.
Michael and Dani must join forces to save those they care about from becoming the latest victims of a decades-long hunt. But the fiery chemistry between them threatens to unlock a millennia-old secret which could devour them both.
The clock is ticking and they will be faced with the ultimate hero’s choice: save the world or save each other?