Monday, March 7, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Superpowers

Yes, I'm a day late. Still convalescing (just a cold; I'm being a wimp), so let's go with something simple and obvious.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

That was easy. Now, the hard part - what would its limitation be?

You can't have a superpower without limitations, or everything gets too easy and there's no story, which is the important thing here.

In traditional storytelling, the limitation on the superpower is generally so stringent that the power becomes a disadvantage, as in Midas's touch - the fact that he had no control over whether or not what he touched turned to gold transformed his wish gratification into tragedy. People who get three wishes always live to regret it, or at least waste them. Superpowers (i.e. magic) that are useful generally abide in items, which are vulnerable to being stolen or lost, and this provides a good bit of the plot in stories like "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp."

All comic book readers and players of roleplaying games are familiar with the problems inherent in providing a protagonist with useful wish-fulfilling powers. Many games, and runs of comic books, become an arm's race between the heroes and villains, or the players and the game master, with the former constantly acquiring new powers and the latter constantly finding ways to work around them, turn them off, or transcend them. Sooner or later, unless this trend is checked, the end is always the same - epic stories divorced from the core concerns of everyday life, which will be thrilling escapes or tedious wastes of time depending partly on skill in their execution and partly on the taste of the audience.

This applies to classic literature, too - Paradise Lost bores me as much as James Bond and the Kree-Skrull Wars do. I'm a lot more interested in getting Dorothy home to Aunt Em than I am in saving the universe. A universe small enough to need me to save it is hardly worth saving, don't you think?

Agh, I'm being drugged, general, and disjointed. The trouble is that the superpower Damon and I have agreed on as the one to pick should we get the opportunity doesn't have any obvious story attached. That's partly why we want it - we want to read stories, not live them. Our chosen superpower is teleportation, and the limitation is that we can only teleport between places with the same name. So we can jump from our home on Magnolia Avenue in San Antonio to the Magnolia Cafe in Austin (but probably can't control which one we go to), and not have to worry about parking. We can walk over to Main Avenue and go to any Main Street in America, and can go all over town using locations named Mission and Alamo. When visiting Atlanta, we can navigate from one Peachtree location to another. I would have to lose some of my aversion to chain businesses if I had this ability, because they'd be such handy navigation hubs.

Still, if I tried, and had less cough syrup in my system, I could come up with a story in which the confusion of place names, or a small error in navigation, got us into an interesting pickle.

So what's yours?


  1. My own power would be a healing touch, with the obvious limitation of exhaustion. In other words, what I have now, only more of it.

    As for your teleportation power, I would say the story value would lie in errors of destination: Main Street in the wrong city (or state), or aboard the submarine USS Maine (I'm too lazy to see if there is a modern vessel with that name, but if there were, it would be a sub), or at the home of Miss Louisa Mayne, or at the Main Street Bar (which is still called that even though it has moved over to Johnson Boulevard).

  2. Ah, but would you do it as farce or suspense? What is at stake when you miss your destination?

    The idea of accidentally materializing inside a nuclear submarine is intriguing. There's no place to hide in those things.