Known by different names, teleportation is the ability to instantly transport oneself from one location to another. Through the years and across mediums, characters have wielded this magnificent power and filled us with envy at the convenience it provides. In particular, it makes for a great deus ex machina when you need your protagonist to dodge an otherwise deadly attack. That being said, the presence of such an ability comes with its own buttload of questions, which can hinder the plot and the structure of the world you’ve built.
The Problems With Teleportation
When stories include a character who can teleport, readers often wonder why the ability isn’t used more often. The protagonist faces a situation that would absolutely benefit from teleportation, but instead they sit there like a chump.
Charmed, a show riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies, offers a good example of this blunder. In the episode Hyde School Reunion (season 6, episode 17), one of the protagonists, Phoebe, is held at gunpoint by someone who possesses no magical powers whatsoever. Her teleporting sister, Paige, witnesses the encounter. Logically speaking, Paige would have simply chosen one of these courses of action:
- Teleport the gun out of his hands
- Teleport her sister away from him
- Teleport him out of the house altogether
However, she goes for secret option 4, where she casts a spell on him that changes his appearance and in turn transforms him into demon-bait. As soon as his appearance changes, the demons appear and melt him using their acidic saliva. I repeat, a good witch, who possesses amazing teleportation abilities, knowingly uses her powers on a human being in order to murder him in the most horrific way possible. WTF?!
Another example can be seen in Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, where Harry, Hermione, and Ron are hiding out in the woods before a bunch of Snatchers find them. Though it was established throughout the book and both parts of the movie that the trio are able to Apparate, they decide that running is the best method for this instance. This convenient turn of events does propel the plot a bit, but it also ends up having everyone’s favorite house elf murdered. This situation could have been avoided had the trio used any of the various teleportation methods available: Apparition, a Portkey, etc. So why didn’t they? It is never explained.
In addition to the issues teleportation creates within the plot, it also tends to raise questions from nitpickers like me regarding the world you’ve built. You always run the risk of shifting focus away from the main plot when there is a glaring hole in your worldbuilding. Unless your plot is specifically about the issue with having individuals with teleportation powers (e.g. Jumper), then it’s important to ensure that you’ve covered all of your bases.
“Why don’t Muggle-born wizards just Apparate into London banks and clear out the vaults?” is probably the first thought I had when I read Goblet of Fire. While Rowling did end up placing rules on Apparition in an attempt to limit its use, or merely as a way to hide the fact that she hadn’t thought it through,* she still failed to see its impact on the world as a whole.
Introducing supernatural abilities as a part of worldbuilding is always a fun exercise. However, the impact that these powers have must be explored thoroughly, taking into account politics, social life, security, etc. This is especially true when the author creates a world that utilizes the masquerade. Whenever this is the case, specifically within the urban fantasy genre, one can’t help but wonder about the security issues created by teleportation.
- Can anyone just pop into someone’s house and commit a crime undetected?
- Can someone Apparate into the White House and abduct the president?*
- How about robbing a bank? Stealing national secrets?
- Peeping toms?
- Would airlines and public transport systems be affected?
- Would it solve the energy consumption crisis? Will we save the polar bears?!
Fixing Teleportation in Your Story
If you’re still considering introducing teleportation within your work, here are a few things you could include in order to avoid having someone like me nitpick the hell out of your book.
Putting Limits on Teleportation
You can start by limiting teleportation to a certain range. For instance, Nightcrawler from X-Men must either be able to see where he’s teleporting to or envision the location in his mind’s eye, because his power relies on his visual sense. Rowling also attempted to place a range-based limit on her version of the ability by stating that intercontinental Apparition is extremely difficult and can only be accomplished by highly skilled wizards. Otherwise, wizards could end up being splinched.
You can also put personal limitations on a character’s ability. Start by explaining the effect the power has on its user. Teleporting could take a toll on the person and affect their ability to tap into it whenever they want to. This can be in the form of physical pain, mental distress, etc. The limitation can also be related to the circumstances. For example, the user might need to concentrate in order to teleport, so they are unable to in a highly stressful situation, such as in the midst of a battle.
These character limitations don’t need to be stated as part of the exposition. They can be alluded to via the character’s behavior throughout the narrative. Just stay consistent. You can’t introduce a teleportation power that is used like a reflex whenever a character is threatened, but then abandon that premise when your protagonist is getting their ass handed to them by the antagonist. If it has already been established that the hero just teleports whenever they sense danger, then they should never be in a situation where they can no longer teleport. The only way out of this is by introducing external factors that limit their abilities.
For instance, if you aren’t employing the masquerade trope, then you could establish a system that is controlled by a strict magical government of some sort. This has been established within Rowling’s world.
- The Floo Network requires permission to use, and it is regulated by the Ministry of Magic.
- Apparition requires a license. (This didn’t really hold up, since both Harry and Ron were able to Apparate in Deathly Hollows.)
That being said, this technique doesn’t account for the use of the ability outside the magical world where the Ministry of Magic doesn’t have much control. Rowling did have the chance to elaborate on the use of Apparition within the muggle world when she revealed the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Magic in Half-Blood Prince.
By establishing a muggle-magic relationship, even a secretive one, you can easily allude to restrictions in teleportation within the muggle world. However, the restriction can’t be solely due to the existence of a law against it; that law would be mostly unenforceable. Imagine: “Promise you won’t Apparate into the White House. There’s no way we could catch you if you did, but you should know that it’s against the law.”
Creating Countermeasures Against Teleportation
Wards, protective charms, amulets, salt circles…take your pick. By introducing certain magical tools, you can create situations where teleportation doesn’t work.
For example, Supernatural loves salt circles, Enochian sigils, goofer dust…and just about anything that the writers can pull out of their asses. This practice wasn’t heavily used until the later seasons, when they realized that they wrote themselves into a corner by introducing demons and angels who can jump-cut everywhere. To keep demons from jump-cutting into motel rooms where the Winchesters were sleeping and slashing their throats, the writers introduced a crapload of sigils that can keep out even God.*
The problem with introducing these sigils is how easy it is to draw them. I’m all for using geometric magic; it looks cool, you can make it glow, and it’s very mystical. However, this type of magic also needs to be limited; otherwise nitpickers will wonder why the Men of Letters haven’t covered the White House in Enochian sigils. Here are some ways to limit that oh-so-convenient plot device: make protective devices rare to find, make sigils difficult to draw because they require specific measurements, or make an expensive material required for protection.
Charmed is probably the worst offender when it comes to over-powered countermeasures. While I can excuse the Winchesters for not casting protective charms around themselves all the time, I am infuriated that the supposedly most powerful witches ever known are too incompetent to have protective crystals around the house all the time. They have demons shimmering in around the clock, tossing fire and energy balls, destroying their home, and endangering two toddlers! How did Piper not end did up in prison for negligence?
The witches do occasionally use protective crystals, which means that they know of their existence and how to use them. It isn’t even a matter of difficulty. They seem to be able to whip up a convenient couplet on the spot. Luckily for them, demons only seem to be interested in attacking them when they’re fully awake and able to defend themselves.
The lesson here is to establish a well-defined protective lore in advance. You don’t need to reveal it all at once, but you should be aware of it. You can start by compiling a list of protective items like amulets, crystals, sigils, protective spells or potions. You can make your world more interesting by assigning different defenses to different magic users. For instance, wizards might use crystals to keep out enemies, while Wiccan witches use protective charms, and faeries are known for utilizing runes.
Whatever tool you end up using to keep teleportation in check, you should always include exceptions to keep things interesting. In the case of a magic system, this can be done by stating that the protective system must be as powerful as the magic user. In this case, a more powerful villain would be able to break through the defenses. Additionally, like any lock, there’s should always be a way for someone with the right tools to get through them.
Finally, it should go without saying that consistency is key. For example, if a warding tool was used in one part of the story to keep out the Big Bad but then suddenly goes missing during the climax, then a logical explanation should be provided.
Introducing teleportation in your work can be risky, so establishing a detailed and logical system is vital. As with any worldbuilding scenario, the fantasy elements introduced will always have an effect on their realistic surroundings. By establishing the physical limits of the power or the external factors affecting its use, you’ll be able to tell a story where teleportation will add to the plot rather than hinder it.
Ayman Jaber is a digital strategist and copywriter with a passion for storytelling. You can read more of his work on his blog, FantasyWarrior.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?