Five Superpowers That Will Break Your Story

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.

3. Precognition

I predict that in the future, there will be colors! I predict that in the future, there will be colors!

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

...What is even happening here? …What is even happening here?

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.

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  1. Cay Reet

    I can think of two more ways to limit precognition.

    a) Make the power uncontrollable for the character. He or she has flashes of precognition, but they never know when it will happen and what they will see. It might give them an edge when you need it, but leave them exposed to danger at other times. (An interesting example of that one is in “Too Many Magicians” by Randall Garrett, where a murderer has enough precognition to know when to stab someone throught the keyhole of a door, but can’t use it to, for instance, win a card game.)

    b) Make clear the visions become more and more unreliable the further the event is away on the timeline. Something happening in a minute or ten can be seen clearly and will reliably happen, something happening in a day or a week might never occur like it was foreseen.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    Problems like this are one reason I like Captain America as a superhero. He is just powerful enough to justify his role as an action hero that should have been killed were he not enhanced. But he is not so powerful that there is no drama in terms of whether or not he would succeed. Despite the other problems, as you note, this is also why Iron Man is an appealing superhero. Because his armor is a finite resource, it frequently puts him in a position in which he is running low on power in combat and thus has a sense of vulnerability.

    On the issue of technology, one reason why it is justified somewhat is the simple fact that developing new technology to replace the old is extremely time consuming. Right now, we already have the technology to stop relying on fossil fuels and have a much greater degree of equality in the world as well. It is just that we could not afford to change because it would require completely remaking all of civilization. This idea is refereed to as technological lock in, with the QWERTY keyboard being an oft cited example.

    Black Widow might actually be less effective wearing a suit. Because she trained to fight using her normal body, fighting inside a suit would be extremely unnatural and thus harder for her. Playing to her strengths of being the silent assassin has its uses.

    This is also another reason why I think it would have been more interesting if Stark started off with little in the way of resources. Going by the Marvel cinematic universe, he could have started in the first film as a mid level employee of Stane’s company, with the suit as his wonderful invention out of a place of desperation after he was trapped in a cave with a box of scraps. After destroying the first suit in his escape, he began using what resources he could skim off the company to create a second. His second suit would thus be illegal and cause him to be fired, especially as he also simultaneously realizes what Stane was doing. It would thus make sense that he isn’t even remotely in a position to deal with producing new technology until several films into the franchise as he would not have sufficient resources to really make it work on his terms.

    Though I suspect that arc reactors are also far more easily weaponized than nuclear power. Look at how easily Pepper overloads it in the first movie, or how easily Vanko does the same in the second. A nuclear reactor may produce a great deal of radiation if there is a problem, but an arc reactor would explode.

    Telepaths are an idea that could easily have as many flaws as they do strengths. One obvious one is that whatever means telepaths use should logically be jammable. This is something that is almost always ignored in science fiction, with no logic behind it. All signals can be interfered with in various ways and something that produced high powered white noise would easily overcome a human telepath. It could also be used as a telepath detector by cranking up the power to a painful range. Such a technology would actually make it quite difficult to use a telepath’s abilities to the fullest. It would require something like sabotaging said jammers.

    Another possible weakness would be a telepath being utterly overwhelmed by the world around them in a fashion that leads to them not being very effective. Buffy is one of the only examples of this that comes to mind. I could see a telepath being the one to wear a Magneto helmet as the only means to get a sense of peace, which would also likely be required in a world with jammers. Another possibility, as used on Heroes, is that of delibrately thinking about irrelevant things as a means of avoiding detection. In that case it featured a character deliberately thinking in a foreign language.

    As for precognition, another solution is that used by Star Wars, that it is only a possible future. Especially if there is something that gets in the way of said powers. Despite the fact that the overall movie wasn’t all that great, the film Push(which also stared pre Cap Chris Evans) had an interesting idea in terms of dealing with precogs. The antagonistic precog could see intentions, and so Evans’ characters came up with the idea of giving his allies sealed orders to be opened at specific times before wiping his own memory of creating them. He was thus able to get the drop on his enemy as she only saw the events as they were already happening.

    As an alternative to the above, the heroes could just intentionally go into the situation without a plan. It would thus serve as an interesting solution to the Unspoken Plan Guarantee trope. One could also argue that this was the case in the Battle of Endor in Star Wars. All of the factors that led to the Rebel Alliance success were unplanned.

    • Alex

      You are amazing! You just mentioned my favorite male super hero, Captain America, and female, Black Widow!

  3. Tyson Adams

    Sookie Stackhouse is another example of a mindreader whose powers are a massive problem, both in the show and the books. The number of times she would have known all sorts of things and solved crimes but it wasn’t convenient for her to know that just yet.

    It is mostly explained away as her having trained herself to block out the thoughts because they are omnipresent noise. But that’s like saying you walk through a crowded room and don’t hear conversations. Someone talking about bumping off the local citizenry is going to be noticed.

    In fairness, Sookie is probably one of the better handled mindreaders in fiction.

  4. Siderite

    Oh, you forgot the worst one, the one that when used lets you know that the show is in trouble or that the writer doesn’t know how to solve things in the book: time travel! Once you get time travel, you can fix any problem retroactively, can compute anything (just go back in the past and let yourself know what you computed), can do any amount of physical work if you are patient enough, can multiply yourself. The worst sin is when someone uses it as a ‘reboot’ mechanism and suddenly all the people and stories you loved are insignificant and there are a lot more special effects. Oh, thanks a bunch!

    • Adam Reynolds

      I absolutely agree, but then superheroes don’t usually use time travel. Time travel is more of a general plot device, similar to FTL travel in science fiction. I would even go as far to say that any possible story that involves time travel can use something else instead.

      The only real example of time travel I feel is both dramatically interesting and hard to replicate is that of Groundhog Day(and the variations on it like Edge of Tomorrow). Though my favorite variation on that was from Person of Interest, which used the extraordinarily fast processing of an artificial superintelligence to allow various scenarios to play out in a handful of seconds rather than having them all play out real time with a person remembering what had occurred. One amusing version even had the characters act out their dialog as summaries rather than actual lines. It was explained as the AI being in a hurry and not taking the time to come up with actual dialog.

      Person of Interest also had a variation on the classic Star Trek time travel plot, the Edith Keiler dilemma. That was the dilemma of allowing a good person to die in order to insure a better course of events for the world, relying on the accuracy of predictions by an ASI. For a version without any supernatural elements Castle(with Nathan Fillion) also featured this idea. What is nice about realistic versions of the scenario is that they present a context in which there actually should be a debate rather than one of simply accepting fate as it is.

      Even Terminator, the classic time travel story, is really more about an out of context baddie than about time travel itself. The old Star Wars EU featured the novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter that was largely a retelling of Terminator featuring the titular Sith Lord. It also featured a gender reversed Sarah and Reese, with the Sarah as a young female Jedi with little experience and the Reese as a scoundrel that discovers some secret involving the Sith machinations. In that story, the out of context was that it was a Sith Lord that no one could have predicted was back. The Winter Soldier also largely features the same concept with the titular antagonist. Person of Interest also featured the same concept with assassins receiving targeting information from an AI and thus massively outclassing normal characters. It also featured characters believing they were in a government procedural rather than a work of science fiction.

      In a more general fashion, non-linear storytelling allows many of the same issues as time travel, dealing with questions of inevitability and destiny as well as past actions and their consequences. True Detective and How I Met Your Mother both extensively featured elements of this concept through use of that structure. As a roleplaying game, Microscope largely does the same thing, even pointing out the problems with time travel in gameplay.

      • Brigitta M.

        I’ve found that the best way to use time travel in a story is to make it so the character in question has little to no control over it. “The Butterfly Effect” (the original, I’m denying the existence of the crappy sequel) is a great example of this. I’ve also heard that “12 Monkeys” which makes time travel a “one-way trip” type of deal worked just as well.

        It goes back to the basic rule listed in this article “place limitations.” A lot of the plot holes caused by fixing a problem using time travel could have been repaired using the “it takes a lot of energy to do so, so we have to get it right during the first try,” (like an enormous group of spellcasters and it drains all of them or like 99% of a ship’s energy crystals so only life-support and basic movement forward remains– time travel as desperation move iow) but not the “you have to be back by a certain time” as that makes no sense when there’s unlimited access to a time travel device. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is the most recent example of this but “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” also suffered from this problem.

  5. Tamara Reuveni

    The power stealing issue comes up in Brandon Sanderson’s new Mistborn sequel, “Shadows of Self”. The villain uses the art of hemalurgy to steal powers from other magic users, killing them in the process. She has the power as long as she keeps the metal spike she used to kill them inside her own body. Here’s the catch. If she has more than one spike in her at a time, she can be controlled by the deity known as Harmony. Since her goal is to overthrow Harmony as ruler of the universe and set humanity free, that would be a serious problem. Thus she can only have one power at a time.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s an excellent balancing factor. Sanderson is good at creating balanced magic systems.

  6. Alex

    The online novel Worm has a nice solution to the super tech problem. The heroes in the story who create and use fantastic technology, along the lines of Batman or Ironman, are another class of parahumans called Tinkers, their powers no less supernatural than those of the shape-shifters, telekinetics, flyers, etc. (and all sharing a common origin).

    The machines a Tinker builds require frequent maintenance by the specific Tinker who created them, and soon malfunction or fail altogether if given to others. You’ll occasionally see close associates of a Tinker using one or two of that Tinker’s creations, but no mass production, because a Tinker can only maintain so many items at a time.

    Parahuman powers are roughly divided into twelve types, organized in a mnemonic rhyme:

    Mover, Shaker
    Brute and Breaker,
    Blaster, Tinker,
    Master, Thinker,
    Striker, Changer,
    Trump and Stranger.

    However, a lot of them have powers in more than one category. If Superman were in that universe, for example, he would have extremely high Mover, Brute, and Blaster ratings, and a moderate Thinker rating as well due to his enhanced senses and ability to process the information received from those senses more efficiently than a human could. Virtually all Tinkers are rated in other categories as well based on what powers their equipment gives them (Tony Stark’s suite would make him another Mover/Brute/Blaster combination).

    It’s a terrific story, but has large helpings of all six of the “dark” narrative elements discussed in the Mythcreant article How to Talk About Dark Stories — tragedy, gloom, grittiness, creepiness, threat, and explicitness — thanks mainly to one of the major antagonist groups, a demented gang of parahuman serial killers known as the Slaughterhouse Nine. Some of that crew would give the Heath Ledger version of The Joker nightmares.

  7. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    Definitely agreed with you on these, awesome insights!

    For one story I am working on two things limit the super tech, the first is simply resources, its a post apocalypse so while people could make mechs or robot arms actually getting the resources let alone the people is super hard as the world is a wreck & most people are dead.

    Secondly, what stops the tech from overtaking the heroes with psychic or ki based powers is that tech can only take the energy production and processing so far before it basically hits a wall. After that it needs a conscious mind who need to basically do the equivalent level of training to the other characters so they can’t overtake them that easily.

    IE, Iron Man could not get in one of the battle suits and fight at the same level as the top heroes despite the battle suit theoretically being able to reach that level cos he has to know how the energy works, how the machine works, how to interlock with it and mesh with the machine and so on and it requires high level of focus and training to use at the higher levels, even for the robots.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Limiting resources is a good solution, and a post apocalyptic setting has that built in, so it sounds like you’re on the right track.

      • Tumblingxelian/Vazak

        Thanks I am glad you think so!

        I’m definitely going to need to keep aspects like scarce resources in mind for more story elements like repairing damage and such as well.

        I also think it can be used for some good drama, like the MC would be wondering why one person has four robotic limbs when there’s plenty of other people missing limbs as well & basically get told that said character is too useful to not be given preference Of course this can create bitterness amongst the survivors, made worse by this character in particular hating having prosthetic limbs over biological ones on a philosophical level.

        Add in that there’s a group that does have a lot of resources but it notoriously immoral and people have to start weighing their options creating more issues. (Of course even their resources are more limited than they’ll admit.)

        Thanks for the response & article!

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