It’s one thing if your protagonist has magic, but what if everyone else has magic too? That won’t make your precious hero nearly cool enough! What you need is an ability that’s special, a “special ability,” you might say. It could be something only the hero can do, or it might be a power that they’re unusually proficient with. Whatever the specifics, you’ll need to make sure the ability is useful, in theme, and not overpowered. In this episode, we tell you how to do that!
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is-
Oren: Now, anyone can record a podcast. That’s just a common ability. But only some people have the special ability of the “Mythcreants Saddle of Soulless Commentary”, coming from the greatest review we have ever received. [laughter]
That sets us apart, it makes us unique, which is important. That’s what special abilities are for. And so that’s what we’re talking about this week. And this isn’t just giving your characters magic, it’s more specific. This is about giving them something that makes them stand out. And it could be a signature ability, which is something that only they have, or it could be just something that’s rare that they have, that they stand out for using. The point is just to make them seem novel and cool as opposed to like, having the same abilities that everyone else has.
Chris: And it doesn’t have to be magical, right?
Oren: Well, that’s the thing. It doesn’t technically, but it almost always is. In order to really stand out, it’s not just a skill, right? Legolas being really good at archery isn’t a special ability. You could argue that Legolas being able to shoot people in the face with a longbow at point blank range is a special ability. Is that magical? I don’t know, but any example I can think of that might qualify and isn’t magic or some kind of special tech, it tends to be on the silly side. Just because it usually involves the character doing something kind of weird or extreme.
Chris: I’m just thinking about all the characters that have their signature weapon.
Oren: Well, a signature weapon is certainly similar. I wouldn’t rate it as the same thing. There could be some overlap. Sometimes a signature ability comes from a signature weapon. If I have a special ancient fire sword, that is what allows me to breathe fire and that no one else can do that, then is that a weapon or an ability? Uh, is it a sandwich? Who knows? [laughter]
Chris: I think it gets a little more complicated because in a lot of popular franchises, the abilities that set characters apart in the original work then are given to more characters, which makes sense, that there are more people in the world that can do those things. But then if you look back on them, they don’t really feel so special anymore. But they did actually set the character apart when they were first introduced.
Oren: The obvious example would be Avatar. So in the Avatar setting, Toph has metalbending. That’s her special ability. No one else can metalbend, only her. And now before that, she was just a really good Earthbender, so she already stood out. I guess you could argue that her earth-sight was another special ability. But by the time of Korra, lots of people have learned metalbending. So it’s not really a special ability anymore. At least not in Korra’s context. Now, it could technically still be if we were in a part of the world where there weren’t a lot of metalbenders and we were focusing on a small group of characters, and one of them was a metalbender, that could still be their special ability that would make them stand out. But that’s not how Korra works, right? Korra is a bigger show with characters from all over the place.
Wes: I have a lot of disappointments from the Korra show. One of the biggest ones on this topic was season one, Mako goes to pick up an extra shift by shooting lightning into a battery. After everything from Last Airbender, we learned about lightning, then Mako’s just like, “Putting in a couple hours for a few bucks by blasting lightning into a battery.” I am still mad about this. [laughs]
Oren: You could tell that somebody was like, “Hey, I’m gonna do an Eberron and have benders using their powers to create electricity” basically, which I actually think would’ve worked fine, I would’ve just had him firebend into a boiler to boil the water and make steam, because then you could have your industrialized magic vibe that they clearly wanted, but without contradicting the idea that lightning is hard and not something just anyone can do. It just didn’t seem like Mako was a prodigy who could use lightning, especially since there was a whole row of people doing it. [all three laugh]
Wes: Yes, exactly. Iroh makes such a big deal with Zuko about what you have to do to achieve lightning and like how hard it is. As good as Zuko is, he didn’t get it. And that made it stand out even more when other people could.
Oren: You could argue that maybe in that later amount of time, they figured out a better way to teach lightning so that more people could do it. Who knows? 80 years have passed. Lots of things are possible, but it just makes the lightning less cool as opposed to something like metalbending, which was never established to be something that only Toph could do, it was just something that she figured out. It wasn’t like there’s something special and unique about Toph that lets her metalbend, it was a specific, Toph happened to be in the situation where she noticed that she could do this and then she taught it to other people.
Chris: I mean, any special ability that isn’t just “You’re the Chosen One” or something that has a very individual reason, if you keep making more stories in that world, it’s gonna reoccur generally at some point. Also, a lot of special abilities are really iconic. So reusing them is a way of making the audience feel like they’re still in that world.
Oren: If you have a character who is the only one in a Star Wars story who can do force ghosts, it’s like, well, we’re gonna want more characters who can do force ghosts later, right? Cause people like force ghosts.
Chris: And we didn’t say that Obi-Wan was the only person who could ever do that. So…why not more people?
Oren: Although later we do establish that apparently Qui-Gon Jinn invented it, which is like, alright. I mean, I’ve played Knights of the Old Republic, I had lots of force ghost friends in that game, but you do you, prequels.
Chris: If you ever do a prequel, Star Wars, you can’t have any force ghosts! I’m sure you will definitely obey that rule. Definitely not carve out an exception, then say everybody’s memory was lost. [laughs]
Oren: I had that problem when I ran an Avatar game, actually. It was supposed to be set before the show, but the Avatar system that we were using just had metalbending as like, a default ability that Earthbenders got. And I couldn’t just take it out cuz then the Earthbender class would be underpowered. So I was like, “Eh, yeah, okay, whatever, I guess you have metalbending. Let’s just not pay too much close attention to that.”
Chris: “Knowledge is lost later, I guess somehow.”
Oren: “Yeah, everyone forgets, don’t worry about it.”
Wes: What do you do in a story where everybody has signature abilities? Like are they still special? I’m specifically thinking about the X-Men.
Oren: Yeah, no, absolutely!
Wes: It’s not really a system cuz they could have any kind of signature abilities, so how do you balance stuff?
Chris: I do actually have a post on making a superpowered magic system.
Wes: Do share!
Chris: It is kind of miscellaneous, but it’s mostly about trying to make it feel like it fits together and distinctive by giving it some kind of theme. The thing that happens right now is that everybody watches the Marvel movies or Justice League or whatever, and then when they dream up their story, they give the same set of powers that all the superhero stories are used to have, and that’s a little boring. Not that those stories can’t be fun in other ways, but the magic does not stand out as unique.
What I’d recommend is choose a theme that makes it so the superpowers in your story are distinctive and stand out and are memorable, and then look at your variations within that theme. For instance, everybody has animalistic powers of some kind. This is almost what Teen Wolf does. They have werewolves and then they start with the Kanima, which has like a lizard tail, but everybody has powers that are kind of derived from, at least what we think about animals, not necessarily real animals [laughs]. That gives that a distinctive feel that’s not just another X-Men or another Marvel.
Oren: Being out of theme is a serious concern for special abilities, and that’s actually something I have on my list of things to consider is whether or not the ability is in-theme.
Chris: Do you have an example of an out-of-theme special ability that bugs you?
Oren: I do!
Chris: Yeah, let’s hear it!
Oren: For example, if you had a story that was based on martial arts magic and everything is martial arts based, and then suddenly you had, for example, a character who could just put a hand on somebody and now they’re magically healed. It’s like that, “What? Hmm, where did that come from?” And I’m talking about the healing from Avatar, the Last Airbender!
Chris: You just served a hot cup of holistic depression to all of our listeners, Oren! [laughter] People love Avatar, they’re not gonna like that.
Oren: You can clearly tell that healing was given to waterbending because the waterbender is the girl on their team. And they were like, “well, obviously the girl is gonna have the healing power.” They got better about that as the show went on, but the show had some of those issues earlier. Cause there’s not really any reason for water to have healing in particular?
Chris: No, there’s not. They even made it gendered enough where Katara, instead of learning the cool waterbending abilities, she was like, “Oh no. I have to learn healing with the women.” And it’s like, oh, this is just doubly uncomfortable because we’re having the women do something that is stereotyped as a women’s thing, but we’re also kind of like, degrading it and saying it’s not as good?
Oren: That episode is supposed to be empowering, but it has some problems.
Chris: (agreeing) We have discussed the problems with that episode. [laughter]
Oren: And this happens again in a different way later in Korra, where they were like, “We want a special ability for Amon to have.” And then they started just piling things on as, “Alright, so he can bloodbend not during the full moon, and he can also use it to take bending away. and he can do it without doing any martial arts moves.” And it’s like, alright, this is just, what are you doing, what is happening here?
Wes: Let’s not forget also with Korra that we’ve got the fartbender as a signature ability. [all three laugh]
Chris: Oh no!
Wes: Which I know how much Oren loves the fartbender. The most martial of arts!
Chris: Wes, how could you? I’d like, blocked that out of my mind.
Wes: I’m here to depress you two. [laughter]
Oren: So, breaking theme is a pretty big problem with special abilities, but it’s only one. You also need to consider whether the special ability is useful, and weirdly, you wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but I’ve seen a number of stories where it is.
Oren: Yeah! [laughter]
Chris: Translation in a galaxy like Star Wars would be so useful. But he’s only ever allowed to actually translate when it’s not really necessary for a job or something. Like, whatever. If Jabba wants to communicate his message, he’s gonna do it. It’s not a special service that C-3PO is providing.
Oren: C-3PO in particular almost never has any agency. The one time when he actually does something and isn’t just like there giving commentary is in the Ewok Village. In fairness, there his translation ability is actually useful and he sort of helps, although it’s still Luke who mainly saves the day. But I was actually thinking Edward’s ability from Fullmetal Alchemist, cuz supposedly he can do alchemy without an alchemy circle, which sounds like it would be really useful, but in practice isn’t because everyone else just makes their alchemy circles ahead of time and puts them on clothes, or tattoos them or something.
Chris: Right, because it would be annoying for the writers to, in every episode, have to like, “Okay, wait. Before we fight, gotta draw the alchemy circle.”
Oren: It’s possible that maybe the idea is that Ed is supposed to be able to do more stuff because maybe they have to create specific alchemy circles ahead of time. But in practice, all Ed ever does in combat, which is when this matters, is do metal shaping. He’ll turn his arm into different stuff and occasionally do some rocks. As a result, he doesn’t really seem any different than any of the other alchemists because this is an anime magic fight show, not a show about chemists who are carefully mixing the elixir of life in a crucible.
That’s step one, is it useful? A surprising number of abilities aren’t. And then step two is, is it not overpowered? Is it balanced?
Chris: Like the entirety of Data, for instance.
Oren: Data is way OP, Data can just take over the ship whenever he wants to, it’s canon. This is particularly difficult in stories where magic or powers of some kind exist for everybody because then you have to give your character an extra thing on top of those, and that can get really overpowered really fast. For example, Chris and I were just reading the first Wings of Fire book, which is a middle grade book about dragons, surprisingly violent for a middle grade book. And one of the characters, we discover that her special ability is that she can breathe face melting acid. And it’s like, alright. Well, any fight with her and it is now an auto win unless we come up with a contrived reason for her acid to miss or to just not work.
Chris: I think in this particular situation, yes, if you want a character that’s super powerful and you already have magic, that definitely escalates things. But I think there was a plot reason, in which case the writer was tempted to make it super powerful because we had a whole scenario where this character was standing on the sidelines pretending to be asleep, but then had to change the outcome of a fight that was actually kind of far away. And if you need a character to sneakily, without anybody knowing, suddenly kill somebody from a distance of 20 feet, you know that’s gonna be an ability that’s probably too powerful. And at that point, we needed a plot solution to that one.
Oren: You also need to think about, to what extent is your character going to be able to use this ability, because that’s a really common limiter that people put on special abilities is like, “Well, the character doesn’t know how to use it properly.” And you see that in the Golden Compass with Lyra and the Alethiometer, and you see it in Avatar with the Avatar state. Both abilities are basically plot-destroying if the characters can actually use them on command, so we have two characters who don’t know how to use them very well. And that works okay, until you spend enough time in that world where you can no longer explain why the characters don’t know how to use their powers.
Chris: I also think with Legend of Korra, once we’d watched Aang go through the struggle with the Avatar state, it would’ve just been repetitive to do the same thing for Korra.
Oren: Exactly. With Korra, it was like, well, we can’t do the same thing cuz we already did that with Aang and with Lyra it’s, alright, well, she spends the first book learning how to use the Compass, and by the end of the first book, she knows how and now she can just find out any information she wants at any time, and is basically only limited by what the author decides she’ll think of to ask.
Chris: That’s a really common problem with powerful magical abilities.
Wes: Do you think it’s just not common or not desirable to make these abilities have a cost to them? For example, in the Chronicles of Prydain, Dolly gets the ability to turn invisible. He can become invisible by holding his breath, but during the time while he’s invisible, he describes it as having like, hornets in his ears. So, being invisible is extremely powerful, but he can’t abuse it because there’s a cost.
Chris: I think the important thing there is honestly how long he can hold his breath for, cuz that puts a time limit on it.
Wes: You could go behind a wall and breathe, and then hold his breath again and go.
Chris: There could still be logistical challenges.
Wes: There’s still just the pain component, I think.
Chris: The problem with those kinds of consequences is that a lot of stories have pretty high stakes. You have hornet in your ears cuz that’s the consequence of going invisible, but you gotta do that or somebody will die. You’re gonna choose the hornets in your ears. So with a lower stakes story, that could make sense. But a lot of stories, you know, it’s a lot of combat. People are dying left and right. Maybe the whole world is gonna be destroyed. In which case most consequences, characters are just going to choose them. They can add more conflict to your story in other ways and more drama, just by having the characters go through those consequences, but they’re not necessarily an actual limit on the magic.
Wes: That makes sense. That’s probably why Wolverine isn’t eating all the time, because his metabolism is probably out of control. [laughter]
Oren: Assigning costs to abilities is tricky for a number of reasons. One is simply that a lot of costs aren’t real costs because they’re too abstract. Now, holding their breath, that’s a real cost. We know how long a person can hold their breath for, it’s not very long. You have a pretty instinctive understanding of that. But take something like Dresden Files, for example. The cost for Dresden to use magic is that it makes him tired. But so does everything. [Wes and Chris laugh] Which means that Dresden basically has magic until Butcher (the author, Jim Butcher) doesn’t want him to anymore. Because we have no way of knowing, like, okay, he just cast a big fireball, does that mean he’s down for the count, or does that mean he’s a little winded? And it’s like, eh, it could be either one.
Chris: That’s the real trick in a lot of conflicts, especially when they’re magical, is they’re always better if the audience has an understanding of what the character can actually do and what they can’t do. What are the logistics of the situation? And if they can’t tell what is possible for the character to do in the situation and what their actual limits are, it really does, after a while, just feel like the writer’s just kind of inventing what they want for any situation regardless of what rules they’ve set up. And so if you have come up with something very fuzzy, like they get tired, every conflict in which the writer wants the character to do something, they’re just like, “Okay, no. They’re gonna push harder! They’re gonna push past their tiredness!” Right, after a while, it’s like, okay, that didn’t really constrain your storytelling choices, and we can kind of tell. Can kinda tell you’re just doing what you feel like.
Oren: That applies to other things like, uh, spell components in most stories. I actually had a client who I worked with on this, and that was her idea, was that she would limit magic by spell components, which is not a terrible idea, but at the beginning she had so many spell components that it was basically impossible for the reader to have any concept of how many spell components the character had. So it was like, yeah, I mean, I guess maybe the character has spell components, maybe they don’t. It’s a big question mark. So if you’re gonna do something like that, it needs to be a very specific component that you have a really limited number of, that the audience can actually keep track of. Otherwise, it’s basically the same as no limit.
Chris: If you’re gonna use it for solving important conflicts as opposed to just flavor.
Oren: The other problem is it’s actually possible to limit your powers too much. That can also happen, I’ve worked with some clients who had powers that they had very strict limits on early in the story because they didn’t want the protagonist to use them to solve the problem too early. But then later, they want their character to get into big epic fights with their powers, but with the rules we established earlier, there are too many limits. There’s no way to have a big epic fight. For example, if you only have one Magic Missile spell per day, you can’t get into a wizard duel. It’s just one spell and then I’m done. That’s not a wizard’s duel, that’s a wizard’s mild annoyance.
You also just want to pay close attention to what extent you are just forcing your villains to have a counter to the thing that they have. This is one of the surest signs of a overpowered ability. I’ve talked about this on the blog, the character Miroku from the Inuyasha anime. He has a black hole in his hand, or a wind tunnel, they call it sometimes, depending on what translation you’re using, and it could pull anything into it, and it’s super overpowered. There’s no real way to avoid it except for evil magic beeees!
Wes: Bees, nooo! [all three laugh]
Oren: Because they get in there and they make it not work for some reason cuz they’re poisoning him. And it’s like, why does their poison stop it and not all the other things he pulls in there. Who knows? But it does, and suddenly every bad guy they meet has magic bees! [laughter] Otherwise every fight would be over with him just going, “Get in the wind tunnel, everybody get in it.”
Chris: I would say as much as that Fullmetal Alchemist special ability didn’t actually work out, I do think in a lot of magic systems, allowing a character to break one limitation is often a good way to go. It keeps things in theme and escalates it just a little bit.
Oren: I would say that it does, and the reason why it doesn’t work in Fullmetal Alchemist is that that limitation isn’t a real limitation.
Chris: Not if the writers are tempted to make it meaningless so that fights are more convenient in the story, which I think is what’s happening there.
Oren: Whereas if you have an actual limitation on having to draw magic circles, then not having to do it would be, probably too powerful to be honest. You might wanna scale that back a little bit.
Chris: Another good one for special abilities is instead of making a character super powerful, try to give them the right ability that’s just very needed in the plot. Instead, it’s like, okay, we have a unique menace or a problem, and the other characters are plenty powerful, but they don’t have a power that can specifically help them with this. And your character just happens to have the right ability for the right situation. It can make them feel real special without them being super powerful.
Wes: There’s a good story, I think I’ve talked about it on here before, it’s called The Last Ringbearer, and it’s written by a Russian that kind of reimagined The Lord of the Rings, but from Mordor’s POV. The TLDR is, they’re not monstrous orcs, they’re people, they just, “history is written by the victors” kind of situation. But it takes effect immediately after the events where the main character’s signature ability is that he is immune to magic. And what they’re doing is they’re ensuring that the elves do not take over all of Middle Earth, that their magic is just far too powerful.
And so it’s a very interesting story where they get everything to this point where some chief mage ends up using the Palantir to go straight to this other magical source, but he like, interrupts it and takes it all out. He doesn’t have any powers other than just being kind of a nerdy scientist, he has to have his orc friend do all the actual fighting. But I thought that was a cool thing because he wasn’t strong, but he had what was needed. And that was a cool element of that story for sure.
Oren: I mean, ironically, that’s basically what Frodo has, with his ability to carry the ring longer than anybody else.
Chris: Carry the McGuffin!
Wes: Carry the McGuffin.
Chris: Another example of the right ability for the right plot situation that I like is actually Danerys’s ability to withstand fire because that ties into her family history with dragons and allows her to do a really cool thing. It’s not there all the time, it’s not like she’s constantly walking through fire, but it still definitely matters, both for her waking up baby dragons and then later when she gets captured, she just gets free by setting the whole place on fire and then like, walking out.
Wes: That was such a cool scene, that was so cool! [laughter] If you’re immune to fire, do you get hot?
Oren: I wanna know if she’s immune to smoke inhalation.
Chris: That’s a neat one, I don’t think being immune to fire as a person in a medieval fantasy is usually OP, but it just very much fits her character and her family history. And she used it in an inventive way, which is the important thing is you have smaller abilities that are used in inventive ways instead of a really powerful ability that people have to forget it exists for the plot to work.
Wes: It’s fun too when it’s a defensive ability that you have to get creative with, cuz she doesn’t blast fire, but she made it work for her.
Chris: But also shows you can use defensive abilities offensively, if she can set the whole tent on fire, honestly an attack on her captors, because she’s immune.
Oren: One of my favorites as far as just a very minor seeming thing, but in the context of the story is really important, is from A Fire Upon the Deep, when Joanna, one of the two human kids captured by the Tines, she has hands. And the Tines don’t have those, and so to the Tines, that’s like a superpower. They are psychic alien dogs and they have little dog packs that make up a person. And so they can manipulate things, but they have to use their mouths for everything. So you’ll have five hive mind dogs doing the job that one person can do with their hands. One human, I should say, can do with their hands. To the Tines when they first encounter Joanna, her hands are pretty interesting to them in that context. That was a very cool special ability that she had. Now, of course, that goes away once other humans joined the plot. For a while, it’s just her. Just her and her hands.
Wes: One of the most obscure signature abilities that I always love is from Labyrinth, where Ludo can talk to rocks. I would love to just meet whoever thought that up. It’s like, well, we need something, Ludo has to have something. What if…rocks? Yes, what if you could talk to rocks. Are the rocks sentient in this world? I don’t know like, what any of it means, but it sure is fun and weird.
Oren: This raises a lot of questions.
Wes: So many.
Oren: This reminds me of like, a mage game where every mage who has a rank of spirit magic is just going around being like, “I wake up the spirit of that random object and talk to it. Now that one. That one.”
Chris: My personal experience, players love that. Keep remembering in our game how Wes was always like, “What does that plant say? What does that one say?”
Wes: (laughing) You gave me plant talking powers!
Chris: “I wanna listen to the grass!”
Wes: Oh my gosh. The best moment was when I was like, “What are they saying?” You were just like, “they’re saying ‘So thirsty!” So sad!
Oren: At least plants have like, a distinct form, whereas when you’re talking to objects, it’s like, okay, hang on. Does the house have a spirit or do all of the objects inside the house have spirits?
Chris: What about, why not both?
Oren: Does that mean that the window has its own spirit, or is that part of the house? Who knows.
Oren: (laughing) Look, it gets weird, okay?
Wes: Everything turns out to be like the man o’ wars. They’re colonial organisms. And then it’s, wait, aren’t we all colonial organisms, maaan?
Oren: I’ll admit, I’ve watched several videos and I’m still a little unclear what makes a colony organism different from a regular organism, because it isn’t that the different parts of it can leave and go live on their own. They can’t do that, they’ll die. I don’t know, I’ve tried to watch, I still don’t get it.
Chris: It’s cuz we want to believe we are not colony organisms. That’s probably what it is. (laughter)
Oren: Maybe we’re all a colony, I’m fine with that. I would just like to know! (laughter) With that. I think the colony organism that is this podcast is going to have to head off in different directions cuz we’re out of time.
Chris: If you enjoyed this episode, please support us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: Before we go, I wanna thank a few of our existing patrons. First we have Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Then there’s Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening, closing theme: The Princess who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?