So, this topic is an interesting one. In a way, it’s sort of the inverse of a prior Being a Better Writer post on Overpowered and Underpowered characters. Or perhaps an extension of that same post. I’ll let you be the judge, though both probably work depending on what part of that post stood out to you.
In any case, today’s topic comes via a request from a reader, who was wondering how one could write characters that were bonafide reality warpers, like the imfamous Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, without breaking their story. A valid question, considering that such characters are typically powerful enough to solve a story’s problems with a snap of their fingers … or at the very least usually a similarly light level of exertion. How can one have a story while still playing around with a character that’s capable of solving everything with a flick of their near-omnipotent wrist? How do you have any sort of tension with a character like that around?
Well, the answer is at once both simpler and more complex than you might expect. The first, because there are some pretty common workarounds to the “problem” a reality-warper character presents for your narrative. And complicated because, well, while the solution sounds simple, pulling it off poorly leaves the reader with a bad taste in their mouth. A case of “simple solution, tough execution” if you will.
We’ll start with the simple bit: Give them limits. Yes, reality-warpers and nigh-omnipotent beings. Limits. It may seem like a contradiction, but if you recall the post on overpowered and underpowered characters linked at the beginning of this blog, having characters with limits, and then exploring how that character overcomes them, create some of the best narrative experiences.
Now, I can already see some of you younger readers shaking your head and saying “Limits? But an all-powerful character can’t have limits. That’s the point!”
Well, you’re not wrong, but you’re not right either. All-powerful characters can be all-powerful … or close to it anyway … but still have limitations either of choice, character, other all-powerful beings … or any number of other reasons.
For example, let’s look at Q. He’s a nigh-omnipotent being in the Star Trek canon who can do pretty much anything he pleases … in theory. Sure, he can snap his fingers and solve every single problem the Enterprise faces … but only in the same way you or I could steal a car. Is it within our power? Yes. Would we face consequences? Also yes, and in Q’s case, he’s merely one of an entire race of similarly powered beings with their own culture and government. Government that has rules and laws about interfering with “lessor beings.” Rules and laws that come with a penalty attached, such as getting your near omnipotent abilities removed.
Which is, in part, what makes Q such a good rule-breaking, reality-warping character. Compared to the main cast he’s easily capable of solving their problems with a wink … but doing so would see him losing said powers, so he’s not at all in a hurry to do that. he’s weighing the amount of good he can do in the long term by just ever so slightly giving the cast roundabout hints to nudge the cast on the proper path against simply solving things and losing his powers outright. Every problem he could solve that the main cast cannot becomes a question of finding loopholes and hints that won’t see him punished … or breaking his laws to save them but then never being able to do so again.
Which in turn leads to clever writing and solutions. Again, going back to my post on over-and-underpowered characters, character limits force our characters to be clever. To find out of the way solutions and creative answers to problems.
Right, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Sure, Q is constrained by others of his species, but what about some of the other limits I mentioned above. What about limitations of choice?
There are a number of examples I could use here, but I think a good one for our purposes would be the character of The Outsider from Dishonored. For those of you who haven’t played the game, The Outsider is a near-omnipotent, reality-warping being who’s presence drives a good chunk of the plot in Arkane Studio’s stealth-assassin game. Right up until you realize that he only drives a chunk of it.
See, The Outsider is ridiculously powerful, capable of reducing the entire world the game takes place in to ruin (at least, if you believe his claims, and he certainly seems capable of it). But he doesn’t, instead preferring to hand out tiny figments of his power to various characters in the setting and then ‘see what they do.’
That’s right, despite being capable of wrecking the world, resolving the plot, etc etc etc, he doesn’t because it would be boring. He’s far more interested in handing a few people slivers of his power either because they ask or he simply feels like causing a little trouble, and then just sitting back and watching stuff happen. He holds himself as an amoral observer, dispensing powers and abilities to those in the world and then seeing what kind of mess/solutions they create with the abilities he’s given them.
This can be taken another direction as well. What’s to stop an omnipotent character from putting limits on their own powers to prevent themselves from becoming a tyrant? Take a being that has all-power using that power to write rules that they must follow, such as “I must never take away a being’s freedom of choice or I will forfeit my own powers?”
It’s not unthinkable that a character that can warp reality a whim would create such limitations for themselves, either out of pursuit of entertainment or as a check on their own capabilities. Stories with gods, for example, often have them ‘playing the world’ by a set of rules that have been agreed upon between them, allowing them to give aid and guidance, but not outright interfere with things unless under explicit circumstances (the generally accepted logic being that if there were no rules, the gods at odds with one another would battle it out and wreck the whole place, which they’d rather not. Sort of like a dysfunctional family agreeing to put their differences mostly aside for a Thanksgiving dinner).
Now, I’m sure you can think of more ways to limit your characters, from the logical to the macguffin, but I’d rather move onto the second part of this post. As I mentioned earlier, limiting an overpowered character is simple in theory, but difficult in execution. I want to talk about that later point, and I want to do so by asking you this question:
What is the point of a reality warping character?
Think on it for a second. Why would you write one? What’s the draw? Why have them in your story?
Do you have an answer? Got it fixed in your mind? Okay, here goes …
If your answer was “Because they have cool powers” then you have the wrong answer. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Your answer might be correct from some sort of structural viewpoint, but outside of that?
Simply put, if you’re putting a character with nigh-omnipotent powers into your story simply for the nigh-omnipotent powers, you’re doing it wrong. It’s as baseless a reason as creating a main character whose only feature is “Awesome and kicks butt!” It’s a one-note design, a two, well, almost one-dimensional character.
No, your answer to why you’re bringing a reality warper into your story shouldn’t just be “because they have cool powers.” As with any other character it should be “because of their character.” Powers or no powers, our audience should be invested in a character because of who they are, not just what they can do.
This doesn’t mean they don’t need their powers, though some authors have gone that route. Ever seen a story where an omnipotent being has their powers removed for reasons of plot and has to learn some lesson to get them back? An old standard, and because, I think, it’s the easiest way of getting around this mental “powerful character” block in some minds.
But … you don’t have to do that to make them interesting. You can leave a character with their powers and still make them compelling and interesting. You can still limit them while having them use their powers in service of their character as well. And you can have those limits be part of their character, such as with Q, or The Outsider. Which, in turn, gives you lots of application for growth, clever character concepts, or just building someone with a lot of depth.
Let me offer another example, this one that I actually wrote about a reality warper (and which, in turn, led to this topic being asked). I won’t go into too many details, but the entire point of the story, the conflict, revolved around the reality warping protagonist trying not to misuse their reality-warping powers in order to try and make amends for exactly doing that. The result revolved more around the warper’s character and what he’d done with his powers than what he did or could do. It was a story about them trying to find their place in the world with or without their capabilities.
Were they a reality warper? Sure, and their abilities played a part in what they did and how they interacted with the world. But there was far more to their character than simply being a reality warper. It was a story about them trying to live within limits, both imposed by themselves and by others, in order to turn over a new leaf. Reality warper or not, that kind of story is going to, when written well, be full of character. And it was!
Really, at the end of the day, that’s what matters, too: Giving your character, be they a reality warper or a weakling, character. Fleshing them out. Granted, as I said this can be a bit trickier with a cosmic-level powerset, but it’s still doeable. Don’t focus on their powers, focus on their character. Give them limits, limits that, if possible, will draw their character and personality to the forefront. Let those shine, rather than their powers. The powers can still be there, of course, but it’s not all of who they are. Just a part.
So. Remember limits. Be clever with them, and think about how you can use them to build up the character, not their powers. Consider your reality warper from the perspective of the character, not their powers.
And, well … have fun! They are a reality warper, after all. We couldn’t have gotten Robin Hood episode of Star Trek: TNG without a little fun in the mix.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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