Often in books—fantasy and science-fiction mostly—supernatural powers are involved. This could be powers bestowed by a deity (shadowhunters from The Mortal Instruments), by a science experiment (Captain America from Marvel), by magic (magic itself, or powers bestowed by a magical being), or simply through biology (aliens). Whether it be by any of these methods or something else entirely, “powers” refer to abilities that are beyond the average human spectrum. Super strength, speed, endurance, telekinesis, the ability to shoot lightning out of one’s hands—the possibilities are endless. However, therein lies the problem.
Some books I’ve read simply throw in powers for the sake of having them, but they’re not handled well. It’s entirely unexplained how these powers came to be, or the range of abilities is inconsistent (rises and falls based on what the plot needs), etc. This can all be very frustrating for a reader who just wants to enjoy the book they’re reading.
Of course, powers, like magic systems, can come on a spectrum from Hard Magic to Soft Magic (Magic in Fiction), which basically runs on a scale of Avatar: The Last Airbender to The Hobbit in the sense that powers are either confined by very specific limits, or the powers are free flowing. (Note that having a soft magic system does not excuse powers ex machina; if that is the case, you must instead introduce problems that these powers cannot solve.)
Case Study: Avatar: The Last Airbender
In this series, people all over the world are separated into four peoples: the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. Each of these peoples, subsequently, are gifted with the ability to manipulate their respective elements. These powers came from creatures known as lion turtles, who manipulated humans’ chi (life energy) to give them these abilities so they may survive in the world among spirits.
Whether or not a human can bend these elements depends somewhat on genetics, but also on spirituality. It is shown in Season 1 episode 14 “The Fortune-teller”, that in a pair of identical twins, only one is a bender. Also, the Earth Kingdom (a much more grounded people, pardon the pun) is the largest of the four, yet has the smallest concentration of benders, whereas every single member of the highly spiritual Air Nomads has the ability to bend air.
These are the hard rules.
There are limits to what each element is able to do, with few exceptions such as waterbenders bending plants by using the water within them, or earthbenders bending mud because it contains dirt.
Furthermore, even if one has the powers to bend the elements, they are not inherently masters. The different forms of bending are based on various martial arts forms, and certain practices and mindsets are necessary for focusing this control of will. It takes hours upon hours of drilling, repetition, and learning to use these powers, much like how athletes must hone their skills to be good at their craft. Some are more naturally gifted, and this is also realistic.
Powers Handled Well
It is my opinion that the powers in Avatar: The Last Airbender were handled spectacularly well. In other fiction, it may be harder, especially when a character is dangerously close to being overpowered. DC superheroes, I’ve noticed, often have this issue. The Flash, for example, is a speedster, meaning he can run at great speeds, but also moves so fast that everything else seems to move in slow motion around him. Because of this, he is nearly unbeatable for the average criminal, metahuman or not, so his main enemies are always those who share his abilities of super speed: Reverse Flash, Zoom, Godspeed, etc. They are always faster than him, or they use their powers better, or they’re uninhibited by innocent bystanders. To combat this big flaw in making battles interesting, one must come up with problems that the Flash can’t simply solve with speed. Sometimes, the answer is intelligence and planning. Gorilla Grodd is a super intelligent telepath who is always planning several steps ahead; Captain Cold plans his heists to the second and has a gun with the ability to slow the Flash down; Mirror Master is able to trap the Flash in a mirror dimension and move between reflective surfaces, thus making him highly evasive.
Superman is another hero with powers that might become problematic. His only known weakness is kryptonite, along with his unwillingness to let people die. His main enemies are Lex Luthor, Brainiac, General Zod, Bizarro, and Doomsday, two of which are geniuses with access to kryptonite, and the other three which are on par with Superman in terms of powers. Otherwise, not many can compare to his level, so most of the time he must face problems such as natural disasters, or things he can’t punch his way out of.
Knowing when and how to counter this dead end is a godsend to readers because no one wants to read a story where the good guy wins every time.
However, the next problem to overcome is Mounting Powers. This happens when your hero begins at a low level, and the first enemy they face is slightly above them. They defeat the enemy, and a newer, more powerful enemy shows their face, only to be defeated. The continuation of this cycle annoys me to no end, which of course, mostly shows up in television shows that never know when they’ll be renewed for another season. This happened in The Vampire Diaries, as their enemies progressed from a 500-year-old vampire to a 1000-year-old-vampire, to a 2000-year-old immortal witch, to a 4000-year-old psychic. The level of danger just kept mounting, almost like the characters were moving through a series of levels in a game. That system just gets boring after a while, especially when the newer, more dangerous character was only introduced after the previous enemy was defeated. Having one Greater-Scope Villain (someone who is more dangerous and affects more people than the previous Big Bad) is fine, but to continue this pattern several times is unoriginal.
Be unique when creating villains. What makes them dangerous, and what about that danger is different from other villains? It is actually my belief that writing good villains means making sure there is no clear winner between them. One villain should have an advantage over another, but that same villain would lose against a third villain who could defeat the first. In simple terms, they have strengths and weaknesses like in Pokémon, in which Fire beats Grass, Grass beats Water, and Water beats Fire. Each new danger should prove to be a new challenge to the hero(es), but just making the next villain Bigger and Badder than before discredits the challenge they just faced. Its disrespectful—like how it would be disrespectful to create an even more powerful enemy for Merlin to face after Arthur’s death and Morgana’s defeat in the BBC’s Merlin. It would simply be a slight against Merlin and Arthur’s partnership and the way the entire series built up to Morgana being the main villain.
Case Study: How Mounting Powers is Handled in Harry Potter
Year by year, Harry and his friends are becoming better witches and wizards as they learn more magic, so it’s a given that they are becoming steadily more powerful as the series continues. However, most of their enemies (Voldemort and his followers) are already fully realized in their magical prowess, so how does J.K. Rowling avoid just throwing more and more powerful bad guys at Harry each year?
Quick answer: she doesn’t. The most powerful enemy has and always will be Voldemort, and though he’s not at his full power until the fifth book, he is still the main bad guy throughout the series, even in book one.
In the order of the books, Harry faces quite a few unique enemies, all of whom are dangerous in their own right, but none more so than Voldemort at full power. First, he faces a single man in the form of Voldemort’s host body, who isn’t any more than other wizards. Add to that, he cannot physically touch Harry without repercussions.
In the second book, Harry faces the monster in the Chamber of Secrets, and again, Voldemort.
Third, he faces a multitude of creatures called Dementors by facing the torments of his past and pushing through it, as well as fighting himself and the need for revenge.
In the fourth book, instead of facing Voldemort throughout, he faces other students of magic in a contest-like fashion, then finally Voldemort at the end as he returns. This is Harry’s first battle with a fully realized Voldemort, and he is only saved by a unique connection his wand core has with Voldemort’s. This allows the souls of those Voldemort killed back into the land of the living, who help Harry escape. Escape, not defeat—ergo, fully realized Voldemort has not been defeated.
The fifth book has Harry facing a different sort of enemy: an enemy of authority in the form of Umbridge. She is nowhere near Voldemort’s level of power, but she acts with a measure of control that Harry on his own cannot face head on; he must face it with subtlety. Voldemort’s minions are still sort of in the picture, but they are limited because the return of Voldemort is being kept secret. Thus, they are only acting as a retrieval party. At the same time, the side of good is reforming their own force called the Order of the Phoenix, and at the end, there is a mini battle of these two forces, which is a precursor to the final battle in book seven.
In the sixth book, everyone is finally aware of Voldemort’s forces, allowing them to come out in the open to spread fear. Harry and his friends are nearly finished their schooling, but the main enemy comes in the form of Harry’s own rival, Draco Malfoy, who has always been his opposite in everything and is now his enemy for real. However, since they’re both students and Harry can’t prove anything beyond his own suspicions and bias, he again cannot fight this enemy head on.
Finally, everything wraps up in book seven. Harry and his friends haven’t returned to Hogwarts and are thus acting as an adult witch and wizards, facing the full dangers of the world without the protection of the school. Everything is at its lowest point with the great loss from the end of the sixth book, and this is the time when Harry must face Voldemort all on his own, and win.
As you can see, everything in the series was building up to Harry facing Voldemort one-on-one. While Mounting Powers takes place here, the main enemy is identified right away, and it is handled quite differently in each book. First a single man, then a monster, then Harry facing himself, then Voldemort but with help, then Umbridge and a mini battle of good vs evil, then his own peer, then Voldemort all on his own while two armies fight one another. As you can see, the enemies fought are all battled in unique ways. There are no two books in which it all comes down to a massive battle, or just enemy after enemy for Harry to face alone. That’s what I don’t like about Mounting Power—when even though the battles are building up to a main enemy, it’s the same repeated storyline. It doesn’t appear here.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re plotting a series, and good luck.