We storytellers love giving our characters special abilities. They’re just cool! They add novelty, let us craft different plots, and make a story’s empowerment fantasy more enticing. But sometimes a powerful ability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I see this all the time in manuscripts I edit. The protagonist has trained for years to master the bow, but they live in a world of guns. Or they can cast powerful magic, but the spells take so long they’re never useful. While this kind of contradiction can make for a fun subversion if done purposefully, it’s a mistake in most cases. But it’s not just new storytellers who have this problem; lots of professionals suffer from it too. Here are a few examples of powerful abilities that aren’t useful.
1. Troi’s Empathic Sense
Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi is routinely mocked for being useless, but in any rational universe, she’d be one of the most useful officers on the Enterprise. She’s a trained therapist on a ship where people face traumatic events every day, and she’s a skilled diplomat in an organization that makes first contact its highest priority. Then there are her empathic abilities. She can instantly read a person’s emotional state just by looking at them, and sometimes she can even sense what godlike aliens are up to.
But if you’ve ever watched The Next Generation, you know Troi’s reputation is well earned. Her therapeutic skills aren’t any use because the writers don’t seem to know how therapy works, and Picard always overshadows her in the diplomacy department. But what about her empathic powers? Surely those would still be useful?
Unfortunately, no. Despite her being an expert in reading emotions, Troi’s powers only ever manifest in one of two ways: frustratingly vague or blatantly obvious. In the first scenario, Picard or Riker ask Troi if anything is up, and she’ll say something like “I just can’t tell” or “I’m getting too many conflicting feelings to be sure.” In the second scenario, Troi looks at the sneaky Romulan commander who is clearly hiding something and says, “Captain, he’s hiding something.” Thanks, I guess?
It doesn’t take an empath to realize how frustrating this dynamic is, especially since it sidelines one of only two women in TNG’s main cast. Neither does it take an empath to realize why this happened: the writers weren’t prepared for a character who can easily determine another’s motivation. You see, a huge number of TNG episodes depend on an alien trying to trick the crew, uncertainty over what an enemy will do, or meeting a new alien that’s hard to understand. If Troi could actually read emotions like she’s supposed to, those plots would all become too easy to solve.
2. Miroku’s Black Hole
Inuyasha isn’t particularly innovative as animes go, but it does have one usual feature: the most powerful ability in the show isn’t held by either of the leads but by a side character. Oh sure, the titular Inuyasha has a big sword, and co-protagonist Kagome has spirit arrows, but both of those pale in comparison to Miroku, who has a black hole in his hand.
Okay fine, the show calls it a wind tunnel, but it acts more like a black hole, compressing and pulling in any matter Miroku points it at. All he has to do is hold up his hand and remove the prayer beads that keep the black hole shut, and anything in front of him is history. He doesn’t have to aim it or do any complicated combat techniques. The black hole’s only real downside is it has a high potential for friendly fire, and that can be countered by putting Miroku up front.*
With all this power, Miroku should be taking down villains left and right, but he doesn’t. So what’s stopping him? Originally, the limit on Miroku’s power was that if he used the black hole too often, it would expand and eventually consume him. But that didn’t hold up for very long, because hastening a far-off death is obviously preferable to being killed by an enemy right now. So, what really stops Miroku from easily defeating any enemy the show can throw at him?
Magic bees. No, that’s not a joke. The Inuyasha setting includes evil magic bees called Saimyōshō,* and their venom can close up Miroku’s black hole. I’m not really sure how that works, since the bees get sucked in just like everything else, but somehow it does. These magic bees are extremely common, and it’s not long before every villain Miroku runs into just happens to have some around. If venom that closes a black hole sounds like an oddly specific power, that’s because it’s an obvious patch the writers rushed out to correct an ability that was more powerful than they meant it to be.
Oh well, maybe Miroku can look into using magic bee venom as a treatment to keep the black hole from getting big enough to devour him.
3. Mai’s Knives
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Princess Azula needs a couple of badasses to saddle up and hunt down the Avatar with her. To this end, she recruits her old friends Ty Lee and Mai. Ty Lee is a master of pressure-point strikes. She can disable an opponent’s bending or even completely immobilize them in just a few hits. Meanwhile, Mai is so good with throwing knives and darts, she’s practically an anthropomorphized machine gun. There’s no doubt about it – these two will be dangerous opponents for enemies of the the Fire Nation.
However, as the show gets deeper into seasons two and three, a strange pattern emerges. Ty Lee is very successful with her pressure point attacks, but Mai’s knives always miss. Whenever she attacks, her target ducks out of the way, hides behind a handy plank of wood, or uses bending to make a shield.
In fact, just about every main character in the show has a higher success rate than Mai. What’s going on? Is she just bad with her knives? Nope! The problem lies in the show’s rating restrictions. Ty Lee’s attacks disable an opponent without really harming them, so she’s good to go, but Mai’s knives would draw blood if she ever hit anything, and that would be too graphic for the show’s target audience of young children.
Now, I can already hear you asking how that can work, when this is a show where characters routinely smash each other with rocks and burn each other with fire. I can only tell you that in the world of Avatar, fire and rock attacks do little more than push an opponent backwards, rather than causing the kind of hideous injuries that would violate the show’s rating. That wouldn’t have worked with Mai’s knives, since it would look absurd for someone to get hit by a knife and only be pushed back.
This leaves Mai with only one way to reliably defeat an opponent: pin them to a wall by putting a knife through their clothes without touching their skin. This is hard even in the world of Avatar, as characters can usually get free unless Mai lands a bunch of knives at once. This means most of Mai’s fights are actually won because her enemy gets scared and runs away, not because she can realistically defeat them.
4. Hawkeye’s Guns
In the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it seems that in order to be good at fighting, you have to specialize in either alchemy or sword fighting. Alchemy is incredibly powerful magic that can level towns, and swords seem to grant ninja powers in this setting, so it’s understandable that most characters choose one or another. But one woman refuses to be part of the magic/sword binary. Her name is Riza Hawkeye, and she chooses guns.
Guns might not seem like an unusual choice for fighting, especially since we’re talking about automatic weapons rather than muskets, but Hawkeye is the show’s only serious fighter who uses them. For her unusual weapon and her deadpan reactions, she is a fan favorite. Unfortunately, her skill with guns is fairly useless.
I’ve got to be making this one up, right? Throwing knives and magic black holes are one thing, but everyone knows guns are deadly killing machines. How could they be useless? It all comes down to which opponents Hawkeye is allowed to shoot. For the first and second seasons at least,* many of her opponents are powerful homunculi, and they’re nearly impervious to her bullets. No matter how many times she shoots them, they always regenerate.
Alchemy, on the other hand, is far more effective against homunculi. It’s slower and more ponderous but also more powerful than Hawkeye’s guns. Fair enough, but what about human opponents? Surely then Hawkeye would have an advantage, since her guns give her more accurate, longer-ranged, and faster attacks? You would think so, but it’s hard to tell because Hawkeye almost never comes up against human adversaries. The one time she does come up against a major human antagonist, her expert marksmanship suddenly goes out the window, and she’s only able to shoot him in the leg.
It’s fairly standard in fiction that characters who can take more damage will get hit more. If damage were shared equally, a lot of characters would die before their time. It stands out with Hawkeye because there’s no visually convincing way for enemies to block or avoid her shots, so she misses unless her opponent just happens to be immune to bullets.
5. Ed’s Special Alchemy
Staying with Fullmetal Alchemist but moving away from guns, let us consider the show’s main character, Edward Elric. In his tragic backstory, Ed attempts a forbidden alchemy ritual and loses his leg as a result.* But as a consolation prize, he gets such a deep look at the fabric of reality that he can now perform alchemy without a transmutation circle.
That sounds like a powerful combat ability. Transmutation circles are highly complex, and most alchemists need one in order to use their magic. Drawing a circle is both difficult and time-consuming, so not having to do it should be a major plus for Ed. He can summon giant hands of stone to do his bidding while his enemies are still scribbling with chalk.
But when you watch the early episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist, there’s one thing you won’t see: anyone drawing a transmutation circle in combat. Instead, other alchemists have transmutation circles sewn into their clothes or tattooed on their skin. While the show occasionally hints that different alchemical effects require different transmutation circles, this never seems to hinder anyone. Alchemists use their pre-made circles for a wide variety of effects, regardless of the show’s intent.
This reduces Ed’s ability to an odd curiosity, hardly the sort of thing you’d want to trade your leg for. At best, he should be able to get some polite applause at dinner parties. Of course, I understand why the writers did this: they wanted a show about alchemy battles, and Ed would win too easily if all his opponents had to draw their circles by hand. It’s too bad they couldn’t think of a special ability that wouldn’t conflict with the show’s basic premise.
As a strange addendum, the show does eventually introduce a combat alchemist who doesn’t use pre-made transmutation circles. Her name is May, and she gets around the circle limitation by… drawing her circles really quickly. It looks a little bizarre, like she’s moving on fast forward, and it only drives home how useless Ed’s ability is.
6. Saru’s Danger Sense
On this final entry, we’ve come full circle back to Star Trek but set over a hundred years before Troi ever set foot on a starship. In the franchise’s newest entry, Star Trek: Discovery, Saru is the first officer on board the titular USS Discovery. His species supposedly evolved from prey animals, and so he has a heightened danger sense. At first, I assumed this just meant he was good at assessing potential threats, but it seems to have a supernatural component as well. At least, that’s the only way I can explain why in several scenes Saru reacts to possible danger he can’t possibly have known about.
A supernatural danger sense sounds really useful, especially in a show where the characters can’t go five minutes without being ambushed by Klingons. Of course, by now you’ve likely guessed that his power isn’t actually helpful, but the way in which it isn’t helpful puts Saru a cut above the other entries on this list.*
First, we get what normally happens when a character has a special sense: it doesn’t work, or it’s too vague to be helpful. For the entirety of Discovery’s first arc,* Saru’s danger sense either fails to alert him of threats or only gives him obvious information, like how the giant Klingon ship shooting at them might be a threat. But then it gets worse!
You see, Saru’s danger sense is always going off around the main character, Michael Burnham. This leads Saru to mistrust and second-guess Burnham, even though she’s only trying to help. Again, it’s unclear if this is caused by some bias on Saru’s part or a supernatural sense, but the result is the same: Saru wastes time being paranoid about a trustworthy ally. That’s not even the worst part! In a later episode, we also see that Saru’s danger sense makes him more vulnerable than his human crewmates to an alien’s mind control powers.*
So not only is Saru’s power useless, but he’d actually be better off without it. He’s managed to eclipse Troi for the award of Star Trek Character With The Worst Power, and that’s no easy feat.
If you look at the abilities on this list, you’ll notice a theme: almost all of the problems arise from the ability’s being too powerful and the writers not knowing how to handle it. Their only recourse was to make the ability useless so it wouldn’t break the plot. The lesson here is simple: don’t give your characters an ability so powerful that it no longer works with the story.
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