Tag Archives: writing superpowers

Q&A: The Drawbacks of Teleportation

bakahimesama said to howtofightwrite:

I’m trying to write battle scenes in a war with an overpowered MC. The main character is 1 of only 5 mages in the whole world (she gained the favor of a God). Her power is the ability to teleport herself, and up to 2 other people, anywhere she can see. She has been knighted, and is currently being used as a “secret weapon” against to weaken and confuse the enemy. Would guerrilla style tactics be the best method? And how would the enemy effectively counter her, without a mage on their side?

When you call a character overpowered, it’s because you’ve already decided in your mind that they’re unbeatable. This is bad for your tension, and your combat sequences, and your story in general.

If you don’t know how a character can be beaten, then it’s because you haven’t given them, their powers, their strengths, and their weaknesses enough thought.

Your character is only one of five mages in the world who can do magic, but if all she can do is teleport and is limited to being able to see where she’s going then that’s not really overpowered. You just need to acknowledge the power’s weaknesses. She’s also not going to be a “secret weapon” for very long, extended encounters with enemies will solve that problem. (If you’re justification is, “no one will believe that!” then you may want to re-think it. First time? Yes. The next five or six? No.) If she’s actively using her powers and lacking in mental modification powers like telepathy, she’ll never kill enough of them to keep the secret safe. At some point, the secret will be blown. Likely sooner than later. Also, just in general, people talk. If your character was a nobody who got knighted after they received their powers, people (not just the enemy) are going to want to know why.

Don’t underestimate the characters without powers and their ability to both acknowledge and adapt to new situations. Don’t underestimate intellectual curiosity, or curiosity in general from side characters. Many writers do to their detriment. Remember, your main character isn’t the only one who can affect the world around them or the narrative.

Now, let’s talk about teleportation.


By itself, teleportation isn’t actually an OP superpower. Like all superpowers, it can feel overpowered in the right hands with a character who can use the skill effectively and creatively. Teleportation can have devastating results, but, by itself, with a character who can teleport themselves (and two friends) rather than teleporting other people at range, they’re already limited in what they can do. If their reaction times are human (rather than supernaturally enhanced), if they don’t have the ability to read the situation before they jump then they’re going blind, and they’re even more limited. They’re also not that difficult to counter.

A character who can’t teleport an opponent at range, can’t teleport their opponent into space, into the sun, into the Marianas Trench, or kill them with fall damage (and the added psychological horror of dropping them on their comrades) without significant risk to themselves. They also can’t teleport themselves to total safety if things go wrong. If they have to look and see where they’re going as opposed to seeing where they want to be in their mind (like say five miles in the air or on a mountain peak), then their ability to use teleportation in combat will be significantly slowed.

If they can only teleport places they can see, then they can’t get to someone who’s outside their line of sight. They can’t conveniently get to high priority targets like commanders and generals who may not be on the front lines, and are unable to surgically disrupt the enemy’s ability to plan their battle without significant effort prior. There’s no casual, “your general’s encampment is way over there, right? Imma gonna go kill him. Peace.”

The teleportation/telepathy/precognition combo is brutal if the character is an assassin. Rip the secret location from your enemy’s brain, check what trouble you’d get into if you went there, and then go there.

If the teleportation is a conscious decision which requires focus rather than a reflexive ability, allowing for movement without thinking, then it’s combat advantage is also more limited.

Martial combat, for reference, is reflexive. The goal of training is for you to be able to decide what to do and do it without needing to think about the mechanics. You’ve trained your body to react to specific stimulus, meaning you can react and even attack before your conscious mind has time to catch up. When the focus is in your conscious mind, requiring concentration, you can only perform one action at a time. This means your MC would be at her most vulnerable in the moments before and after her jump, and that would be the point an enemy would exploit.

This translates into: teleport then attack versus teleport and attack.

One way to get around this issue is to have some physical component to the teleportation which allows for the port to also become an attack by itself. There’s lots of singular teleportation powers/gap closers in games which do this, but it’s something to consider for your mage character.

Personal Transport versus Ranged:

The problem with singular teleportation versus ranged teleportation is your only real advantage is surprise. It’s a great power for someone who specializes in ambush tactics, but can quickly turn into a one trick pony if the writer and character aren’t careful.

The key to understanding any power is grasping both it’s strengths, and it’s limitations. Most characters you see in fiction that have OP teleportation skills like Ciri from The Witcher or Nightcrawler from X-men either have a subset of secondary powers they can utilize to enhance those powers or the teleportation itself is a secondary to their greater abilities. 

For example: if you want a character who can appear multiple places and attack the same enemy in the same moment like Ciri does in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, then you also need a character who can control time and space. In Ciri’s case, her teleportation abilities are a byproduct of her true powers, which are primarily instantaneous dimensional travel and the ability to control the flow of time. 

Teleportation does not allow you to appear in multiple places at the same time, unless you’re also breaking dimensional physics, have the ability to spawn clones, or speed up the flow of time so it’s actually your after image someone else is seeing as you complete multiple attacks (seemingly) in a single moment.

The problem with ambush tactics are they’re not built for prolonged conflict, if the MC’s reflexes aren’t better than the individual they’re attacking then it’s possible they and their teleportation could be defeated or driven off by an unpowered human opponent of superior combat ability.

Combat teleportation can come with a lot of issues: 

  • Visual Tells —  when the character is moving in and out. 
  • Audible Cues — sound of the air they’ve taken with them disappearing and reappearing, or similar disruptions. 
  • Timing – time delays for them in the moment they disappear and reappear. If they’re not actually carving holes and moving through a different dimension for travel, they may not be able to completely control the timing of their re-entry. So, they have to mentally calculate it. This means if their opponent figures out their attack patterns and strategies, they can predict where they’ll reappear and be waiting with a surprise of their own.
  • Reflexes – a character who is gifted with powers, rather than having them naturally occur, is going to need to train their reflexes even more thoroughly for combat teleportation than the one who came by it naturally. While regular teleportation isn’t going to be much of an issue, short burst teleportation in a high stress environment where you could be coming out into an opponent’s weapon, or getting shot at range is a different beast. If teleporting isn’t a reflexive action to protect from danger that doesn’t require concentration, this is easier.

Remember, a character can only protect themselves from dangers they’re aware of. This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to weaponry, tactics, and ambushes outside their perceptions. They are limited by what they know, what they see, what they hear, and their own strategic and tactical abilities.

Don’t get so caught up in your character that you give them access to everything you know about the world they live in. You need to keep them separate from you and let them make their own mistakes. When you’ve got a character who is supposed to be hyper-competent, your first instinct might be to cheat for them. If they’re your protagonist, do yourself a favor. Don’t.

Countering Superpowers: Target the person, not the powers.

This one may seem counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be. Counters are about your techniques, yes, but long term strategy is also about sussing out the habits and preferences of your opponent. Their strengths and their weaknesses. An army is not one person, it’s a lot of people working together toward a common goal. They have an advantage your MC doesn’t: multiple creative minds working to solve a problem. More importantly, the combat strategists and tacticians are also usually backed up a solid network of spies and informants about all the strategies/advantages their opponent has.

The longer a technique is in the wild, the more opportunity the enemy has to see it and develop counters around it. The clever enemy general will use battlefield observation and your MC as their guinea pig for developing a means to kill them.

The problem of the teleporter is you don’t know where they’re going to show up. This is true if you don’t know who the teleporter is, but familiarity breeds contempt. The more your MC participates in battles, the more familiar their enemies are going to become with their style, their strategy, their preferences, how their morals and personality quirks affect their battlefield choices. They can move quickly, yes, but they can’t take an army with them.

There are some easy counters like ranged weapons. (Can they escape a bullet, an arrow, or a cannon barrage if they don’t know it’s coming?) Martial combat is predictive by nature, put the blade where they’re going to appear and let them impale themselves (less difficult than it sounds.) Bait and bodyguards, wherein you set a rather nice trap and put everything you’ve learned about them to use. 

If teleportation relies on concentration — disrupt it. 

If the teleportation is reflexive — exploit it.

You don’t attack the powers, you attack the person wielding them. If you don’t need to kill them to achieve victory then this is even easier, all you have to do is distract them away from the battlefield. Distract them. Delay them. Feed them poor information. Lead them away from the fight so that by the time they realized they’ve taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, the battle is over.

Your MC is both empowered by and held back by human emotion. Their feelings like fear, rage, embarrassment, hatred, overconfidence, etc, can be used against them. You need to figure out their personality flaws, and then craft enemies who can use those against them.

Don’t just think about your MC as the only target for these villains. If they’re fighting an enemy army, then that army will be interested in more than just them. Your MC is an impediment.

Your villains also need to stand on their own as strong characters. Find the internal and external antagonists for the narrative. Your villains should get just as much love, if not more love, and care as your hero. Antagonists are the backbone of the novel. Without a strong one, you’re dead in the water.

– Michi

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Q&A: Prescience

Would there really be an advantage for a character who is precognitive and knows your moves ahead of time so they can prepare to counter and avoid them? They actually done something similar in Agents of Shield where one character read the minds of opponents and thus knew what moves they were thinking of.

You’re describing two very different things.

A psychic combatant that can read their opponent’s intentions could, potentially, have a significant advantage in hand-to-hand. It’s not insurmountable, and they’d probably be vulnerable to whatever your setting’s counter-psi training permits.

Of course, if your setting has psychics, it seems a little unlikely they’d need to resort to hand-to-hand if they have the ability to broadcast. Why, punch someone, when you can just overload their senses with simulated pain?

If they can’t broadcast, and it’s receive only, then it might be helpful, but that’s determined by how easy it is to process the information they’re getting. At worst, it could be a detriment, as the telepath would need to filter through more information. At best, they may be able to streamline that information in the moment, to the point that they could react before their opponent strikes. Though, the issue here is the idea that your foe will be thinking about their tactics mid fight; that’s not happening.

Hand-to-hand combat by trained fighters is extremely fast. We’ve talked about how this stuff starts running up against your brain’s ability to process information. In a fight, you’ll never think, “I’m going to hit them there, then follow up with that.” Hand-to-hand training is about revising your reflexes. No conscious thought necessary, which is good, because you don’t have time for that. This can bite someone with practical training in the ass, because they’ll respond to a perceived threat when the cause was benign. What’s a psychic going to do about this? Well, you can’t really read what your opponent is thinking, and then plan ahead in the fray.

Telepathy can help in a gunfight. The combat tempo is slower, and you have time to read their intentions and adjust your tactics accordingly. That’s not true in hand-to-hand.

In both cases, telepathy can grant a significant advantage before the fight starts, adjusting your tactics to specifically counter your foes. But, it does nothing for melee combat.

Clairvoyance, prescience, precognition, whatever you want to call it, is fundamentally different. You’re not reading their mind, you know what they’re going to do. This is, in a lot of ways, the exact opposite of telepathy, depending on how far out you can see.

Again, there’s a real risk that your oracle will be overwhelmed and distracted by the information they have. If they see too much, that’s more things they need to filter through, and it can impair them.

A character with even one second of foresight will have a huge advantage in hand-to-hand. They really will have time to see what their opponent will do, and counter it. The advantage is defensive, they know what to defend against.

It’s also possible they may have the ability to see multiple outcomes, which would make this an offensive ability, picking the most devastating attack, while leaving them less certain what their opponent will do. I’m thinking of Midnighter (from The Authority) here, but there are other examples.

It, probably, wouldn’t be viable to switch between modes mid-melee. I’m basing this on how the human brain processes information. That said, seeing the future isn’t exactly normal, so, maybe they could switch on the fly. It depends on how your setting’s superpowers work.

When you step back and look at something like ranged combat, prescience becomes far less useful. You’re not reacting to what your opponent does, you’re reacting to their tactics, and those won’t be apparent until they’re in position and executing them. Though, prescience may let your character “dodge” the occasional bullet.

There’s an edge case here where you might have a character who is borderline omniscient. Paul Atreides comes to mind. But, that’s a special case, the character is, nearly, all knowing, and can see their opponent’s plots and strategies before they’ve even devised them.

It’s also possible you have a character who does both. Star Wars‘ Jedi are an example. Technically, The Force grants them a limited degree of prescience, but this comes with a degree of extrasensory awareness that allows them to counter tactics on a slightly larger scale. That said, the same limitations also apply; they’re blind to larger plots and strategies. Anything that specifically works around, or excludes The Force tends to slip past them. It’s a reasonable limitation from a character perspective. The Force grants a very potent set of superpowers, so it makes sense that Force Users are prone to overlooking anything that doesn’t pop up on their radar.

So, yeah, this can be useful, you can make this work. But, as with a lot of power sets, it’s limited, and as a writer, you need to be aware of those limits when you’re working.


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Q&A: Powers and Limits

How would you suggest subduing (not accidentally killing) a super villain with fire powers?

So, the villain has flame based powers, or you want your characters to subdue them without accidentally cooking them?

If your characters are going up against someone who has fire-based powers, then they’re going to need to understand the limits of those powers. This is something I feel we’ve said many times before. The entire idea of taking down a super villain (or superhero, for that matter) needs to start with getting accurate intelligence on what they can do, and (more importantly) what they cannot. In many cases, that means they’d need to find ways to test that character’s limits, though if this is a hero or villain who’s been active for decades (or longer), that information may already be out there.

Also, the overall power of a character is vitally important. A character with minor pyrokinetic abilities could be pretty easily subdued with mundane methods. A character who is a living avatar of flame, and no recognizable physiology, would require a significantly more specialized approach. What options are available is entirely dependent on your world building. So, at that point, “best,” is very flexible.

Now, let’s flip this, because dangling modifiers are awkward. If your character has flame based superpowers and they’re going after a villain, the answer is probably to incorporate more options into their toolset.

This might not be immediately apparent, but having the ability to set things on fire with your mind isn’t an incredibly useful ability. Sure, it makes caramelizing creme brulee a snap, but outside of bar tricks and setting people on fire, there’s not a lot of utility that doesn’t end in death, suffering, or BBQ. This creates the odd situation where you have a superhero who really needs to supplement their superpowers with abilities that won’t result in catastrophic property damage.

For your superhero that means they’re going to need to train in mundane skills. They may be able to subdue a foe using a tazer or tactical baton. They may need to know when to point someone else at their target, or when to walk in and draw attention while someone else subdues their errant supervillain. 

Social skills are another legitimate option. A character may be very persuasive, even ignoring their abilities, so it’s not entirely impossible that your superhero’s plan is to talk the villain into surrendering.

Talking a character down operates off the same process as above. It requires your characters learn about their opponent, discover what’s causing them to act, understand the reasoning behind it, and formulate arguments to convince them to take another path. Even then, your characters are probably going to need some good followup points. Dialog like this is as much of a fight as combat, it’s just the structure and outcomes are different.

Even if it doesn’t work out, trying to talk the villain down is a very “superhero” behavior. It is the best recourse before things get messy, and people get hurt. This is especially true for a character where their innate powers are inherently destructive.


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Q&A: Invisible Enemies

My antagonist can turn invisible. Is it possible to fight/kill him?

Yes. Invisibility is not the same as invulnerability. It’s a significant combat advantage, but like all advantages, it’s something your characters need to plan around.

Off hand, two approaches come to mind. You can either come up with a plan that negates the invisibility, as much as possible, or find ways to deal with your antagonist that completely sidestep direct combat.

Negating invisibility depends, in part on how the power functions. If it’s technological, there may be systemic limitations.

Someone cloaking themselves from the visual wavelength may still be visible in the infrared spectrum, or ultraviolet. Meaning you might be able to find them using thermal goggles, or with blacklights. You may be able to disrupt their cloak using a rapidly changing environment, for example with dance club lighting and strobes. If you’ve watched the Predator films, there’s also the possibility that their adaptive camouflage can’t handle exposure to water. Even failing that, it might not be able to conceal foreign objects striking them. Meaning dust, sand, snow, or of course, blood may cling to their body, partially exposing their location.

If they’re only invisible, they will interact with their environment. This means things like leaving footprints, brushing aside cobwebs or foliage. If they’re moving through smoke, dust clouds, or any other airborne particulate matter, they probably can’t conceal that either, so you’d likely see some hints at their movement if you paid enough attention. That same particulate matter may cling to them, meaning they wouldn’t be fully invisible for long. You may not be able to see them, but if you’re looking for something moving around, you should see some traces. Of course, all of this requires that your characters know what they’re dealing with.

Another fun possibility with technology is that they may still cast a shadow. Their cloak may be able to replicate the image behind them, but it probably can’t emit light at the same intensity of the sun, or even a streetlamp without resulting in some seriously strange lighting behavior.

Another possible approach is that light actually lenses around the character. This is, in theory, the technology behind the cloaking devices in Star Trek. So, they wouldn’t be emitting light, directly, just passing it around them without leaving a shadow. There is one problem with this, your eyes function by being struck by incoming light. If you lens the light around an object, it is invisible, because the light you’re seeing will never actually contact the object and bounce off, but it will also render the user blind (while the field is active.) There are ways around this, but the short version is, their eyes (or goggle lenses) need to be visible, or they can’t see. I’m not saying that a pair of disembodied, glowing, red eyes is better, but it is a functional limitation based on physics, depending on how the technology they’re using works. Somewhat obviously, this isn’t a problem if they’re using some kind of chameleon style equipment.

So, this is all technological, but there are harder to pin down options. Magic is open ended and sets its own rules. It may follow physics, or it may not give a damn. So, let’s look at another easy to manage example, your antagonist isn’t actually invisible, instead, like The Shadow, they have the ability to prevent others from seeing them. In this case, most of the things I just described wouldn’t work. They could pass through fog without betraying their presence because your characters are psychically prevented from realizing they’re there.

This comes with a host of different considerations. For one, your antagonist’s ability to remain invisible is directly tied to their mental state and control. If they’re taunting from the shadows, it may be possible (though difficult) to work their nerves in return. There may be other factors they can’t control. This is also far more strictly dependent on your antagonist having full control over their environment. For example: They can’t mask themselves from someone they don’t know exists or a security camera.

That’s the hard way. The easy way is if you have a vague idea of where they are, simply lock them in, or set the building on fire. Sure, they might be able to escape. But, that’s why you lock the doors first.

Invisibility is a strong advantage, but you can work around it. It’ll just take some advanced planning, and some idea of what their limitations are. So, that’s your characters’ first goal, find those limitations, and then operationalizing a way to use those against them.

I cited Predator earlier. It’s not a great film (though, you’re welcome to disagree with me on that point), but it is about an invisible alien hunting film’s most improbably armed search and rescue team. In your case, I’d also recommend the sequel, Predator 2. Set a decade after the first, it includes characters who are specifically looking for ways to circumvent the Predator’s cloaking system. It’s also got a lot of visual fodder to play with for how a personal cloaking device might look in an urban environment.

If you can look past the uncomfortable Orientalism, 1994’s The Shadow is probably one of the most easily accessible versions of a character who masks their presence psychically. It’s also a better film than it has any right to be, even if the CGI is very dated now. If you’re going the psychic or magical route, this one may be worth looking at. To be fair, this is a character that’s been in print for almost 90 years, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of material to choose from. However, the ’94 incarnation just happens to be a very good, period, superhero film.

Invisibility is one of those superpowers that demand a little more creativity. That’s all. You can kill ’em.


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Q&A: Bullies and Superpowers

I was hoping you could help me with a problem my story. It complicated but the base of it is a boy who is a part of a superpower race. He was separated from his family as an Infant and adopted by human parents. They don’t notice his abilities (which in short is super strength) but still they raise him and let him attend a school. His powers are dormant and he gets bullied. I’m trying to find a way for him to accidentally activate his powers and harm the bullies but not kill them.

You know the answer to this one in your heart.

He kills them. Or, at least, he kills one of them.

That’s the situation you’ve created for yourself, and, you know, it is a great one for angst. This is a classic superhero setup, there are a certain number of power-types and power levels that won’t automatically result in accidental death when put under a stress test but the kind of punch through a wall/punch a bus super strength isn’t one of them. (Much less Superman or Hulk levels of super strength.) The only get out of jail free cards are against government agents, assassins, and other soldiers-types so far beyond the level of what a normal child can deal with that it’s obviously self-defense.

Physical damage to another person is path of least resistance, which means this boy could easily end up hitting back and putting his fist through the bully’s chest.  When you’ve got enough force behind you, you don’t hit people and they fly backwards. At a certain level of force, you just go through them. If he can crush a human skull with his hands when he’s controlling himself, then whatever he does when his powers activate is going to be 100x worse. If he’s powerful enough to stop a bus in its tracks, they’re dead.

This is the Uncle Ben setup from Spiderman. “With great power come great responsibility.” If you don’t figure out how to control yourself, then bad shit happens. Death is a great lesson about the necessity for control. Most superheroes have some secret shame or someone they accidentally killed when they’re powers activated, especially bullied teenagers.

Beyond that, bullying doesn’t play with superheroes and super-powered individuals the same way it would in a situation between two humans.  The problem is power dynamics.

Bullying is not about violence. Bullying is about power and control.

A bully attacks when there’s no fear of repercussions, no fear of consequences. This is why having consequences for violence in your fiction is so important, when you’re characters are making choices and taking action without fear of the consequences for those actions (and the follow through) they are bullies. They may be bullies we sympathize with, but they’re still bullies.

A character with superpowers versus the average human not only has the ability to act, but the ability to act without repercussions. If you imagined that their superpowers opened up a whole new venue for their fight against injustice against non-powered humans then that’s exactly what I mean. Their powers give them the freedom to act without fear and control others through the threat of violence when they are at no risk themselves. That is a bully and that is the logic behind how a bully operates.

Bullies act when they are entirely safe, when they know their opponent can’t fight back. Superpowers upend the scales, even when the character doesn’t know, a superpowered individual standing up to a bully who can’t actually hurt them is just another bully. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the accomplishment, nothing to bond the reader to them. There is nothing impressive about a character standing up or inflicting violence on another individual when the individual in question is powerless to stop them.

Violence in fiction is built on balance. Balance creates tension, two people of similar ability balance each other out and we as the audience know there’ll be some consequences to the scuffle. Audience expectation is not necessarily based in reality, but this is why weigh ins at prize fights are so important. The weight is supposed to show that they’re at least equal in this very narrow respect, regardless of any other aspect.

When you set the scales out of balance, you want your hero to be the underdog. Not secretly empowered, just an underdog. The odds are weighted against them, they’ll have to work harder in order to win. When the scales are weighted in the protagonist’s favor, they have the responsibility to act accordingly. This is where a surprise death can be so effective. An example is when a soldier character is in a recently conquered village and killed by a subdued villager. The situation was safe and then boom: death.

There are certain traits that will ensure the scales are permanently weighted in a character’s favor against certain opponents. Combat training, for example. Superpowers are another. Both require restraint and responsible use against specific opponents for the character to be perceived as a good person.

Remember, you’re never just balancing how reality works in your fiction. You’re also balancing audience expectation, genre conventions, pacing, and narrative tension. For obvious reasons, fictional fights and entertainment work differently than they do in real life. Fiction has a hierarchy of power that dictates expected behavior based on the skills one possesses. Working off generic assumptions rather than situational specifics based on your characters will only lead to a bad fight scene.

There is no narrative tension in a situation where the character was never actually in any danger. If you have no narrative tension, you have no scene. You’re just mashing puppets together.

Whenever you set out to write a fight scene, there’s one question you need to ask first: is my character in danger? If they’re not, then the tension’s got to come from somewhere else.

It’s got to be more than just an excuse to get your character to show their powers. That’s a narrative inevitability, not tension. Is my character going to kill this guy? That’s tension when the question jives with the character’s personal state and mentality. If not, then it’s a false question. The question has to be real and relate to the character as a genuine possibility.

Stories are built on the pervading question of: what happens? Answering that question creates the scenes which move the story along. Those questions create other questions, all of which should have a myriad of possible outcomes. Or, at the very least, a tick and a tock. Both the tick and the tock should have an equal chance of happening with the narrative consequences hanging on the outcome. Yes, or no. Life, or death. Kill, or be killed. However, these questions must be genuine, honest, representative of who your characters are, and relevant to their circumstances. If they’re not, you have no tension.

Narrative tension shifts as your characters make decisions, and moves based on desired outcomes versus the negative outcomes while weighted by audience expectation. There’s no tension in a character who wants to die dying, but there is if they realize they want to live and dying is still on the table. If they still plan on dying, and roll with “I’m taking you with me” as a heroic sacrifice then the tension lies in whether they succeed or fail. If they do die, but succeed then we get a cathartic release. The tension then shifts and lands on the surviving heroes, who realize they just lost one of their most valuable warriors on whom they can now no longer rely. Or, they live, and are cut off from helping our heroes anyway. Or, they get murdered by the Big Bad and the stakes have been tripled.

See, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re looking for that little part of you that goes, No! whenever some terrible event is about to happen.

Take Jedi Knight Ganner Rhysode’s heroic last stand in Matthew Stover’s Traitor to cover Jacen Solo and Vergere’s escapes from the Yuuzhan Vong seed world. A lackluster and generic Jedi formerly interested only in personal glory and recognition, fighting an alien warrior race from outside the galaxy who’ve already killed countless better Jedi.  A joke of a Jedi now the only one standing between Jacen Solo’s freedom, the galaxy, and conquest by the Vong. He’s framed in a gate, unlikely to defeat even one Vong warrior instead of the hundreds coming. Wielding Anakin Solo’s lightsaber, he battles until he’s standing on a pile of bodies, until the pile is a mountain, until… finally… he’s cut down.  Alone, in the dark, where there’s no one to witness or remember his heroism except his sworn enemies.

That’s tension.

Let’s get back to bullying.

Combat is 90% mind games and 10% actual physical harm. The bully lives in the 90% more than the 10%. They have a finely tuned understanding of risk assessment, and a need to establish control over their environment. They are frightened individuals whose lives are out of control, and they regain control by inflicting their fear on someone else. They’re taking out their insecurities on their victim. Ultimately, the bully is punishing their victim for the bully’s inability to control their own life. The bully builds their self-identity off their ability to take power from their victims, and that’s what makes them dangerous. From the bully’s perspective, a bully’s bullying is always about the bully’s self-esteem and self-identity. Their victim is a tool whose pain and powerlessness they utilize in order to make them feel good about themselves.

There’s a fantasy in conventional wisdom that lies with the idea that if you just stand up to the bully they’ll go away. They won’t. Often, the bullying will escalate and get worse. If a bully’s identity and self-esteem relies on their victim’s powerlessness then they must exert control over their victim. When their victim challenges that control, challenges their authority, they double down. You can have a character with superpowers retaliate against bullies but, unless they’ve got the perspective of Eleven from Stranger Things, all they’ll manage to do is get them to retreat for a short period. Then, they return with a new plan and new ways to bait their victim.

Say you’ve got a character with super strength who is trying to hide their powers from the public. The bullies discovered this character has powers because the character used those powers against them. However, they lived and said character wasn’t in control. Which means… they now move the bullying into a public sphere with other people present. Minor stuff in the hall, during PE, in class, all to get said other child to lash out. Bullies do this. If private doesn’t work anymore, they’ll move over to public. Slightly more risk but they’ll use social order and the victim’s own fears of discovery to enforce their control. After all, the stakes for the character with superpowers are much higher than they are for the bully.

A bully doesn’t care about what their victim can do. They only care about what they will do. A bully is making and taking calculated risks based on the knowledge of their environment and the power they wield. They almost always have some sort of safety net behind them, a powerful protector who lets them get away with their behavior.  Like most humans, the bully will revert to their first impression and work off that. You can have superpowers, but that doesn’t mean those superpowers will protect you from a bully.

Duncan versus Scott Summers in X-men: Evolution is a great example of the bullying continuing even after Duncan learns Scott is a mutant. He knows what Scott is willing to do, what Scott won’t do, and that the cost of the outcome is much higher for Scott than Duncan. By baiting Scott, Duncan potentially gets what he wants which is Scott kicked out of school. If Scott opens his eyes after Duncan steals his glasses, bye, bye Bayfield.

The kids on the bus bullying the school bus driver are usually the ones with influential parents. Or, they know that the stakes for the adult if the adult retaliates are higher. Maybe the kid gets a dressing down, but the adult loses their job.

Another great example of bullying in fiction is the first season of Stranger Things with Mike and his friends. Where when Eleven shames the bully by forcing him to pee his pants in front of the whole class, the bully just waits for an opportunity where she’s not there. He escalates, comes back with a knife and threatens to cut out Dustin’s teeth if Mike doesn’t jump into the quarry. (And kill himself.) Eleven saves Mike, but what ultimately drives the bully off for good isn’t just Eleven breaking bones. It’s the knowledge that she will kill him, mercilessly, quickly, and without remorse because this child is no different to her than the Federal agents who abused her. It isn’t the broken arm, or the superpowers, it’s the fact that Eleven is goddamn terrifying. It all happens at a speed too quickly for the bully to comprehend.

Bullying is about who can escalate further faster, bullies live in the comfortable state of knowing they can get there first, and they can go higher than you can. Whatever they’re showing in their hand, they’ve got a lot more lined up. Bullies are all about calculated risk. They wouldn’t be bullying if they didn’t have a firm grasp of social politics and an ability to manipulate the surrounding power structure to their own benefit. They’re sharp, and they pick their victims. They’re going after a personality-type, someone who is socially isolated and easy to intimidate. Someone without connections, someone whom when they’re both dragged up in front of an authority figure they can point at the victim and the authority will believe its the victim’s fault. Or, at best, equally to blame.

You can’t beat bullying with violence and you can’t stop a bully with violence, not as a long term solution. I don’t mean this as advocating for pacifism. Bullying is about power and power dynamics, it’s about control. I wish punching a bully was enough to make them go away. I wish having superpowers and punching a bully would be enough to make the bully go away. I honestly wish the catharsis of this entire setup was more than just an exercise in catharsis and Feel Good Violence. However, none of these states are true. In point of fact, violent bullying itself is Feel Good Violence. That’s why bullies engage in bullying. Controlling another human being is cathartic, it feels good and it makes them feel good. This why you authors who’ve never personally experienced violence or engaged with violence beyond the schoolyard should be careful with your characters. The first step on the path your imagination will lead you when it comes to violence is bullies, because bullying feels good. It is easier to simulate abuse and abusers as violence in fiction than it is any other form of personality, especially when you’re trying to exert some measure of control over your environment through your art.

When a bully is beat up, the bully only ever learns the same lesson that the bully already understands. For a character with superpowers, by beating up a bully they become a bully.

Superman can’t beat up bullies because the bullies can’t actually hurt him. They can hurt his feelings, but when they shove him into the locker he can’t feel it. In fact, he doesn’t have to move if he doesn’t want to. He could stop being bullied at any point in time, but he doesn’t. The reason why Superman doesn’t stop bullies from bullying him isn’t just about keeping up appearances. The truth is that when you deflect a bully off yourself, you don’t stop them from bullying. They just find a new target. This is why you can’t save someone from being bullied, you can make the bully afraid of you but that does a fat lot of good when you’re not there. With Superman, or Peter Parker, or Scott Summers, the bullies bullying them is safer than it would be if they were bullying the average human being. In some ways, these superpowered characters save those vulnerable characters around them by taking up the bully’s attention. (This is not a method you should be replicating in real life, these are rules for characters who can survive being tossed off a fifty foot cliff.)

The problem in fiction with human bullies versus superpowered characters is power dynamics. A character with superpowers inherently has more power than a human being, therefore the rules are different for them.


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How would someone who could teleport like in jumper fight? What kind of fighting style would they have. And when I say teleport they don’t hop in a portal or turn into smoke, their whole body disappears and then reappears.

It really depends three things:

1) The strengths and limitations of the powers aka how many times they can teleport, the places they can teleport to (does it have to be somewhere they’ve been, somewhere they’ve visually seen like on television or in a magazine, wherever they want, or just wherever?), the range of their teleportation, the physical/mental strain of teleporting, and what they can take with them (if anything).

2) Their personality, their values, their personal beliefs and how they interact with the belief systems of those around them, their worldview, their morals, etc.

3) Their skills and experience.

Superpowers are only one aspect of a person’s fighting style. The way we fight is dictated by knowledge (what we know) combined with our personality (how we see and interact with the world) and what we can do (our physical/mental capabilities in conjunction with learned skills). The ability to teleport comes in on top of that and opens up a new set of available options, though the character’s ability to use said options is heavily dependent on whether or not they know those options are available.

For example, your teleporter could have a tragic accident in their past where they were having an argument with a friend or family member and accidentally took their arm with them in an unintentional jump which resulted in the family member’s death.

This is different from the character who intentionally begins fights this way. Where if someone is pursuing them, they appear behind them and take a limb (or several) while en route to another part of the globe. This is a particularly brutal methodology for a character, but some characters might be comfortable with it.

You have the ones who know how to fight and use their teleportation abilities sparingly/strategically. Always holding onto an ace in the hole, hiding their greater abilities, and never giving up their more specialized secrets unless it becomes necessary.

The ones who don’t teleport at all, choosing to fight like a normal human because they’re in it for a fair fight.

The ones who essentially use their teleport abilities to control the turf. They use their abilities to keep their enemies disoriented and off balance. They always stay moving, jumping around or behind enemies with enough room for one strike before they vanish again. (Think Kurt Wagner, specifically the White House fight in X-Men 2, you’ll notice that Nightcrawler’s fighting style is influenced by his history as a circus performer and his other mutations).

The ones who never learned to fight because why would they? They can always teleport themselves out of trouble. There are the cautious ones, the ones who run first. Then, the cocky/playful ones who like to play games with their pursuers.

When Writing Superpowers:

Because superpowers work outside the range of what reality allows, it’s important to set limits for yourself. It’s much easier to get creative within a self-assigned box than it is when your character can suddenly do everything. One of the major complaints about Superman is that nothing can threaten him outside of a select few narratively assigned weaknesses like kryptonite. However, that doesn’t stop Superman from being an interesting character or a distinctively memorable one in the right hands. He’s part of our cultural consciousness for a reason.

Don’t get too caught up in determining physical threats to your characters, but also psychological and emotional ones. One of the core themes about Superman is his ability to inspire hope contrasted by humanity consistently letting him down. His struggle between letting the people choose for themselves and becoming an authoritarian dictator. He has all the powers of a god and the threat is that he could become one. Then we have Clark Kent, whose story is that of an immigrant struggling to fit in a world that doesn’t really understand him.

It’s easy for superpowers to get away from us or focus on them over other aspects of our characters, and the sky’s the limit there. Your character can be as powerful as you like, but always ensure you build in points of tension somewhere in your narrative.

Weaknesses and limits are key to defining how any character chooses to fight. By working our way down through what they can do versus what they can’t do, we get a better picture of what they’re capable of. Once we know where the baseline is for the character’s normal, we then work outwards to establish what is a threat to them and how they creatively work within or push their limits.

If you have a difficult time with that, work from the perspective of your villain or antagonist. I often discover the weaknesses of my more powerful characters by using another character to theorize solutions on how to stop them. Sometimes it’s technical, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s psychological, and sometimes it’s all of the above.

Lex Luthor can’t stop Superman directly, so he starts a PR campaign to discredit him. Luthor tricks Superman into destroying public property in order to turn national opinion against him and uses him as part of his platform when he runs for president.

Lex Luthor builds a robotic suit powered by kryptonite to give himself super strength so he can go toe to toe with Superman.

Lex Luthor kidnaps Lois Lane to distract Superman while another villain destroys downtown Metropolis.

The weakness can be a physical one a la Superman is weak to kryptonite, much like how in Jumper the humans use an array of weapons built from special materials to stop the teleporters from using their powers.

Superman can’t fight public opinion conventionally with his powers, being rejected by the people is damaging both to his psyche, his belief in his own ideals, and his desire to fit in.

Superman cares about Lois, she’s an emotional weak spot, but he also cares about Metropolis. By threatening her and the city at the same time, it forces Superman to make hard choices about which matters more to him: a single person or the people of a city he’s sworn to protect. He can’t be everywhere.

Think About This:

At the end of the day, powers both open up new options and create limitations. You can’t open up one door without closing another.

Where does this character fit into the world you’ve built?

Where do they want to fit?

What has been denied to them because of their powers?

What has been denied to them because of their social position?

What has been denied to them by their personality?

What has been denied to them because of their morals?

What have they denied themselves?

What have they gotten in return?

Do they think it’s worth it?

Once you know who your character is, how their abilities work, their skills, and their limits then you will start figuring out how they fight.

What they can do versus what they will do.

We all make choices and those choices are ultimately what define us. Just because your character can take someone’s arm or dump them in the middle of the arctic ocean or leave them on the moon, doesn’t mean they will. Just because they can steal public property or another person’s car in order to take it back and ram it into a pursuer doesn’t mean they will. Just because they can teleport doesn’t mean they will.

Start with what they can do then work out the consequences of those decisions to find out what they will do and what they personally find repugnant. Then, you can balance what they will do with the temptation of what could be. You also have a basis for how other characters with similar powers might behave.


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I write short stories about characters in a D&D style, high-fantasy setting. I was wondering if you have any tips about writing people with multiple abilities, and how they would use them in a fight? For instance, say a character were to “Transform into a dangerous beast, command a fearsome flow of magical energy, then use combat techniques natural to the beast”, how would I do that without it becoming too much of a mouthful?

This single sentence suffering from a serious problem of “Show, Don’t Tell”. You want to try not to cram all information into one line. The more someone needs to know about a character (such as they use multiple skills) then the more time you take introducing the audience to it. “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those much debated pieces of writing advice and my opinion on the subject is that we do both. We show and we tell. You show the reader what is happening while also telling them why this is occurring, along with character motivations. Combine your description with your exposition. The second problem is that sentence is not only a mouthful, but too general. Specifics and description of the powers will better help the character come alive in the minds of your audience.

If you feel a sentence has gotten too long, the best thing to do is break it up. Don’t try to quickly jam all the important information into one, instead stretch it out. Show the transformation into the form they take, describe them drawing on their powers and casting, and show them fighting in their beast form. This will make the scene play out faster, while also leading to less confusion on the part of the reader as to what you’ve intended.

Specify the transformation: what are they actually transforming into? A bear? A wolf? A tiger? A golem? They could be a master of many forms, in which case they might use different strategies and tactics for dealing with their foes.

Specify the spells: what magic are they using, what is its effect on the battlefield?

Specify the beast powers: what are they attacking with? Biting? Claws? Do they leap? Do they swipe? What’s going on?

I really like watching Matt Mercer on Critical Role for this exact reason because his storytelling with the different RPers abilities is so vivid. The episodes are three hours long, though, so take breaks.

If you want to skip the hours then here’s an example of what I mean:

Drawing on the power of the forest, Liza slid into the sleek body of a gray wolf. She shook her head, lips curving into sneer, and dove into the brush. Come too close to the sacred druid sanctum, the human travelers would pay for their intrusion.

Claws itched at warm dirt as she circled their camp, counting the number of wagons and guards. Four wagons paired with oxen and fourteen guards, if she trusted her eyes and the wolf’s sensitive nose. The oxen could be frightened, but the guards were too many for a single wolf alone. And they most assuredly have a mage, Liza thought. These days no caravan dared travel through the Wending Woods without one. They’d be whatever the merchant could scrounge for the trip, but no wizard or sorcerer worth their salt would be fooled by the simple illusions Liza might conjure. This dropped her odds of driving them off significantly. It’ll be a fight then. Her best chance lay with taking them in the night while they slept.

Don’t worry too much about length in the beginning
(harder in practice, I know), just figure out your characters, their
powers, and their story. Define those and everything will become easier
with your story, but marrying description to exposition is a skill that
takes practice. So, don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come across the
way you want right away.

If you need a quick description, try inserting some personality.

Merril was a druid from the Wending Wilds, combining fierce forms of nature’s animals with lightning storms and floods. And, on off evenings, she entertained the group with a real good tune on her banjo.


Annalise could be anyone. Josie sometimes wished it was a joke, but her friend could take the form of anyone she saw. It made mornings terrifying when Anna acted as a personal alarm and Josie woke to her own face staring back at her.


George snarled and snapped as the large man drew closer, baring large German Shepard teeth. He took a step back, summoning an electric surge. Concrete warmed under his paws and his ruff stood on end.

Make it personal and unique to the character and their specific personality traits, how they choose to use their powers and abilities. Tell me what she is and then explain what it means. Assume your reader doesn’t know much as you establish who the character is and what they do. Translate the knowledge in your head onto the page itself, bringing in the character will bring it to life.

Think about it, it’ll come to you.


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What could happen if a normal person wake up with a superpower? What do you think they will feel, or will do? Thank you.

That is your story.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but this question is really too broad to address directly. The real question is, “what do you want to do with this event?”

  • What kind of a story do you want to tell?
  • What kind of a person are you telling your story about?
  • How do superpowers change your character’s daily life?
  • In the short term?
  • Is your character okay with the short term?
  • In the long term?
  • Are they okay with the long term?
  • Are these powers a blessing or a curse? (Figuratively or literally.)
  • How do these powers change your character? (What is their character arc?)
  • How do their powers affect the people around them?
  • How do the people in their life react to their powers? (If they know about them at all.)

Once you start combining the answers for these questions together you should have a much better picture of what you’re wanting to do with your story. This will also tell you things like, “what powers did they receive?” Because their powers need to be in service to the story you’re wanting to tell.

Once you know your character, you should have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do, and what they’ll experience. But, this is your story. I wouldn’t dream of taking that from you.


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Suppose someone has superhuman strength (specifics: capable of lifting a stone statue 15 feet tall with both hands and minor strain) and they land a punch. What kind of damage would be plausible for the head/jaw, chest, belly, and limbs, assuming the aforementioned body parts are uncovered? I’m initially thinking of outright pulverization and shattered bone, essentially a car smashing into them, but is that too far/little of a stretch?

Well, bone pulverization is a real risk for your character.

There’s a simple solution, but first, let’s talk about strength, and what
that means when your character is inhumanly strong.

Even without a superpower, your body is strong enough to tear itself apart.
The classic examples are improperly tensed punches, which can do all kinds of
horrible things to your hands, and improperly lifting heavy objects, which can
tear up your back.

Personal experience has seen both of us do pretty horrific things to our own
bodies without needing super strength.

Adding superhuman strength to the mix just exacerbates this. Your character
can lift a statue, but it will do horrific things to the weakest structural
point on their body. This is not a function of lacking the strength to lift it;
it’s the result of their spine being strained beyond its breaking point.

One really good example is, if you have a character with cybernetic arms,
you need to anchor those to their spine, reinforce that and their legs, or
they’ll be able to rip their own arms off by picking up a car.

If you can throw a punch with sufficient force to send a midsize sedan
flying, you will break every bone in your hand, (and possibly shatter
your arm.) Even using proper techniques. Your body simply isn’t built to handle
that kind of force. Also, it’s not going to send the car flying, I’ll come back
to that in a minute.

The simple solution is to also make your character inhumanly resilient to
damage. This has some other considerations. The same resilience that allows
them to actually punch someone at full force will protect them (to some extent)
from the people they’re fighting.

This isn’t the only possible solution. For example: a character who can
reassemble their body on the spot, no matter how mangled it becomes could use
super-strength, with the understanding that they’d need to spend a few minutes
putting their arm back together after they reduced their foe to goulash.

Without any additional powers, super strength becomes a very tricky thing to
use. Your character could still have it, but need to be very careful with how
they use it, and pull their punches. Not because they’re concerned about their
opponent’s well being, but because they don’t want to destroy their own body.

That said, a character with super strength can literally tear their foes to pieces, if they choose to. Using the
statue example, you’re already talking about a character that exceeds the
tolerances of the human body to a comedic degree.

So, the simple answer to, “how much damage” is probably, “chunky salsa.”

I mentioned that the car wouldn’t go flying a minute ago, so let’s explain
the problem. Your average car weighs around 3000 to 4000 lbs. Your average super
hero weighs between 100 and 250 lbs. When your character tries to punch that
car, the force will go both ways, and the relative masses become far more
important than how strong your character is to determining who will win. With
proper bracing, they can probably kick the car a few feet, but without
something to brace against that extra strength doesn’t translate into airtime
when you’re tossing around improbably large objects.

This doesn’t mean your character would throw a punch at a car, and go flying
in the opposite direction (they’re far more likely to find their hand embedded halfway into it, because the force has to go somewhere), but it does mean they’re not going to be
able to use a ’57 Chevy as an improvised club.

Again, this is something that characters who can flat out violate the laws
of physics can get away with. A character who can rechannel kinetic energy, or lock
themselves into their environment, can start to fundamentally mess with how
mass behaves. They’re not a 150lb guy grabbing a car; they are a 150lb guy who is
functionally fused into the city street, tossing around a car. Also a character
who can alter their own effective mass on the fly could lead to some really absurd
Berserk like combat sequences.

Alternately, you can have characters that pick up the car, try to throw it,
and send themselves flying in the opposite direction. It’s not exactly realistic, but there’s comedic merit
to the approach.

So, the basic advice for this is, study some basic physics, and have fun
with the absolutely insane things you never thought of before.


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What would be a fighting style for Hawkgirl/any human with actual wings on their back? They’re mostly shown just mowing down their enemies from above, I get that, but I’m talking like, in a fist fight or where they’re fighting on the ground and having to dodge blows and jump around, how maneuverable would they be with wings folded behind them?

Well, you have to consider that they have wings. Any creature with wings gives up a certain measure of maneuverability on the ground. Depending on the type of wings, they’re going to be more vulnerable there. Think about it like attaching a fairly heavy contraption to both your shoulder blades that’s also pretty delicate. Organic wings with hollow bones are very fragile.

If we’re talking about Archangel from X-men, who has had his wings ripped out and replaced with metal ones then it’s a different story.

So, depending on the rules you’ve decided to use in your story, it could be fairly maneuverable to ground equals death. Or, at least, no flying for six months if ever. They’d be giving up a lot of their maneuverability on the ground as the wings will get in the way even when folded. There’s also the extra weight to account for which will unbalance them. It’s important to remember that the martial combat techniques we have are designed for humans and human bodies. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t be modified for someone with a different body type or concerns, but adding wings will throw off the body’s equilibrium. In nature, some creatures have wings for a reason and their behavior is built around that. They trade aerial movement for the ability to move well on the ground. The wings are going to get in the way when you’re fighting, especially if you’re trying to use any sort of human combat techniques. This is because combat actually relies more heavily on power or force generated through momentum than it does strength.

You need rotation, balance, and the ability to turn the body. If the elbow is getting caught in the wings, or the extra weight tips them when they pull their arm back, turn their hips, or what have you then it could be very dangerous.

The only thing I can think of the wings being helpful for is sending multiple enemies stumbling back when they open or buffeting.

The character could fight on the ground if they really want to, but it won’t be the place where they have the advantage.


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