Costume-clad or not, many speculative fiction characters have a superpower of some kind. Maybe they can levitate, shoot lightning out of their hands, or read long blog posts in a single glance. Whenever you give your character an ability that people in real life don’t have, it creates a potential plot hole. That is, your real-life brain may not consider all the ways a power could be used, leaving audiences to wonder, “If Superman can fly fast enough to make time go backward, why didn’t he just fly fast enough to stop the missiles?”
Some powers create a bigger risk of plot holes than others. If you’re planning to include powers in your story, keep a close eye on these troublemakers.
1. Super Tech
Who doesn’t love a nice suit of powered armor to wear on a Saturday night? While technology isn’t strictly a power, it’s used the same way. Iron Man, Batman, even Spider-Man with his web shooters: all rely on their gear to get the job done. That’s great, except why doesn’t everyone have access to that gear?
Unlike inborn abilities, technology is shareable. That’s what makes it so useful. And yet, gadget heroes have almost exclusive access to their particular brand of tech. If someone else gets their hands on it, they’re probably a nemesis, as we saw with Obadiah Stane in Iron Man.
So why don’t heroes share their gadgets? Tony Stark, a man with little to no skill in combat, is nearly unstoppable when wearing his suit. Imagine what Black Widow could do with one. It’s clearly not a production problem, as Stark makes dozens of suits in Iron Man 3. It could be his paranoia and fear that others will misuse his inventions, but that excuse doesn’t hold up so well in the face of repeated threats to Earth’s existence.
Beyond the suit itself, Stark’s technology could have completely reshaped the world. In order to make his suit work, Stark had to perfect the arc reactor technology, which is described in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as being something akin to nuclear fusion. That is, a way to produce massive amounts of energy without any harmful by-products like carbon dioxide or radioactive waste.
So why is the MCU dependent on fossil fuels the same way we are? Stark could single-handedly solve the global energy crisis by licensing his design or just making it open source.* The only downside is that someone with nefarious intentions might make an Iron Man suit, but so what? Stark’s suit is a lot less dangerous than a nuclear bomb, and we already have plenty of those floating around.
Spider-Man’s web shooters are a smaller example of this problem. The web material itself would be incredibly valuable for its strength to weight ratio, and it can’t be that expensive to make because he’s always able to get more of it. At the very least, it’s a ticket out of the poverty that Peter Parker perpetually struggles with, to say nothing of the vast benefits to society.
How to Fix It
Since super tech’s big problem is reproducibility, the fix is to make it unreproducible. However the technology works, some part of it must be difficult or impossible to replicate. Power sources are a good bet. If a character in your story gets around via teleportation gauntlets, make the gauntlets’ fuel an exotic element completely unknown to human science. Parts salvaged from an alien spacecraft are another solution, especially in a science-fiction setting.
Or, if you’re really ambitious, tell a story about a character who must continually invent new super tech because last week’s invention has become old hat. Impact-stopping cotton was a great idea, but now the criminals and police alike have access to bulletproof long johns, so your character will have to think of something else!
2. Mind Reading
Did your friend really miss lunch because of car trouble, or are they just avoiding you? Wouldn’t you like to reach out and pluck the answer from their brain? No, you wouldn’t, because mind reading your friends would be creepy and wrong, but it’s still a cool superpower!
Unfortunately, mind reading is also very difficult for writers to manage because it destroys mystery. You’d be surprised how many stories rely on mystery, even when that’s not ostensibly what they’re about. For example, look at Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). She can’t even read thoughts, just emotions, and the writers still didn’t know what to do with her. If her power actually worked like the show says it does, aliens wouldn’t be able to pull one over on the Enterprise, and half of TNG depends on aliens pulling one over on the Enterprise.
That’s why Troi only stated the obvious or was so vague that she wasn’t helpful. She either told Picard that the shifty Romulan was hiding something or mentioned a “presence” that she could give no details on. Occasionally she did have useful information to offer, but no one listened to her. In the episode Samaritan Snare, she warns the other characters that Geordi is in danger when he beams over to assist an alien ship, and they ignore her.
Not only is this unsatisfying, but it also doesn’t make any sense. Why have her stationed on the bridge if her abilities are never any help? And if they’re as useful as the show claims, why don’t the characters listen to her when she says something is wrong? Because if her powers had worked as advertised, it would destroy the drama.
The Martian Manhunter faced a similar conundrum on the Justice League animated series. In addition to his suite of other powers,* the green man from Mars could supposedly read minds so well that he could locate people on Earth from the League’s orbiting space station. Naturally, they forgot about that whenever finding someone became part of the drama.
How to Fix It
Step one is to make your character’s power require active intent. They must focus in order to use it, rather than an “always on” passive ability like Troi has. This means they can still be surprised, which is essential. Next, limit the information they can get from reading someone’s mind. Maybe they can only read surface thoughts. That way, when they first tune in on someone, they’ll get a confusing jumble of semi-random images. Only by engaging the target in conversation and specifically bringing up the topic they’re after can they draw out the desired information. “So, hear any good jokes about missile codes recently?”
Another good limit is to require some kind of ritual behavior in order to read someone’s mind. The Vulcan mind meld is a great example. Spock has to touch the other person’s face then go through a fairly lengthy chant before he can get anything. That’s not something you can easily deploy over a negotiation table, but it’s still useful.
What’s going to happen next in this article? If you had precognition, you would already know! Also you can probably guess from the section title. Precognition is the ability to predict or see the future. Some characters get it via actual visions; others are just so smart that they know all possible outcomes for all possible events.
In either case, you have the same problem. If a character can see what’s coming, they’ll always be prepared for it. Ambush up ahead? Just go around. Plane going to crash? Don’t get on board! If the character is a protagonist, then there’s no tension because they’re never in danger. If it’s a villain, the heroes can’t credibly defeat them.
This happened in Alphas, with the one-off antagonist Marcus Ayers who is so smart that he can predict tossing a penny into a drain will knock over a rusty nail, which will scare a sewer rat, which will then chew through some cables, knocking out electricity to the block. That’s right, his ability is the power of Rube Goldberg.
Because Ayers is so smart, he predicts every trap the good guys set for him, until suddenly he doesn’t. At the episode’s end, one of the heroes’ plans works, even though it’s not notably different than the others. It just had to work because the episode was over. And then of course Ayers escapes because he even saw his own defeat coming. Fortunately he never showed up again, because then the writers would have faced the same problem.
Fred, from the show Angel, used to do this too. When she was still unstable from her long years trapped in a demon dimension, she would do things like prepare traps for enemies who hadn’t arrived yet. Of course, she lost that ability once she recovered enough to be rational about it, because otherwise she’d have broken the story.
How to Fix It
The solution is similar to that of mind reading. First, make a character’s precognition something they must focus on to use. They can try to predict the outcome of taking a left turn, for example, but not automatically know when an enemy is sneaking up on them. Second, give them only short glimpses forward. They can judge the immediate effect of their actions, but the long-term consequences are much harder to know.
Finally, build in an inherent risk. The character might get lost in their visions of the future if they use it too often. Instead of making a choice, they could be paralyzed by the sheer number of potential outcomes.
4. Super Speed
If only you had super speed, you’d already be done reading this article! Super speed usually comes in one of two flavors. A character like the Flash is actually moving really fast, while Hiro from Heroes achieves the same effect by slowing down time.* In fiction, the effect is the same: a character who can cover distance and perform actions at a far greater rate than normal people.
What plot holes does this power create? Better to ask what plot holes it doesn’t create. First, there are the simple physics issues. Speed requires energy. If the Flash is actually moving at twice the speed of sound as the show claims, he would possess so much kinetic force that any impact would shatter his bones. Then there’s the question of atmospheric friction that would burn him up like a cinder. This did actually come up in the Flash, but only as a super creepy way to get one of the female characters to take her now smoldering shirt off.*
Physics would also make the Flash a living gun. If he just carried a bag of rocks, he could throw them so fast they’d be deadly projectiles. For the non-lethal option, he could carry a bunch of the ubiquitous tranquilizer darts every super hero show has.
Hiro’s ability creates fewer physics problems because it’s more blatantly magical, but both he and the Flash share the issue of being extremely overpowered. They can dodge any attack, outrun any fleeing foe, and run away from any fight they can’t win. On the Flash, the character seems to constantly forget his own powers. In one episode, the Trickster* slowly reaches over and attaches a bomb to the Flash’s wrist. Even a normal person could have flinched out of the way. Hiro and the Flash’s fights both feel anticlimactic and pointless, because they’re both effectively invulnerable unless they make a mistake.
How to Fix It
The most important fix to super speed is introduce limited durations. The Flash wouldn’t be nearly so overpowered if he could only maintain his speed for a few seconds. Running that fast must be exhausting! This also introduces a tactical element. Your character has to decide if now is the time to use their reserve or if they should save it.
Another option is to enforce the physical consequences of moving at high speed. Your character’s limit isn’t how fast they can go, but how much punishment their body can withstand. Every step they take puts enormous pressure on their joints. Air friction burns them, possibly to the point of serious injury. Can they even breathe while moving that fast?
5. Power Stealing
Why settle for just one power? What if you could have all the powers? You’d have all the plot holes, that’s what. Any character who can take other character’s powers will become unmanageable given enough time. Imagine all the other problems on this list, plus a bunch of others I haven’t thought of yet. That’s a character who steals powers.
Exhibit A is Peter from Heroes. All he needs to do is stand near another person, and suddenly their abilities are his to command. Forever. I wonder how the writers thought that was going to work. Peter avoids any serious problems in season one because he doesn’t know how to use these abilities. But that couldn’t last forever, so they gave him amnesia to make him learn how to use his powers again. You may be noticing a pattern.
One superpower is a challenge to deal with. Two or three is down right difficult. Superman, with his never-ending suite, is near unmanageable. Characters like Peter are far worse than Superman, because there isn’t even a theoretical limit to what they can do. Soon they’ll acquire so many abilities that creating a challenge for them is impossible.
Sylar, the show’s most memorable villain, had the same problem–though at least he had to murder someone to get their ability. Even so, he quickly grew so powerful that defeating him in a credible manner was impossible. That’s why his arcs are so strange later in the show. The writers literally did not know what to do with him.
How to Fix It
Making your characters work like Rogue in the X-Men films is a good place to start. Her ability stealing is temporary, so there’s no risk of a cascade effect. It also means that she often steals a power she has no idea how to use, which further complicates the situation. Finally, the fact that her ability is debilitating to whoever she takes the power from further limits its use. She can’t just get the powers of all her teammates before a fight, because doing so puts them all out of commission.
You may have noticed that limits are always the solution to story-breaking powers. That’s no coincidence. Problems arise from these powers because someone who thought they were cool included them without the proper limitations. In the same way, while you might have a knowledgeable character in your story, you wouldn’t have them know absolutely everything. Characters must have limits, or else it’s impossible to construct meaningful conflict.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.