Mary-Sues (Part 3): How Much Power is Too Much Power?
I'm sure everyone has heard that an obvious Mary-Sue is one that is too powerful, but no one has explained to me in enough detail when the line is crossed. "Oh, an original character can control all four elements? That's way too powerful!" Since when? Since it became a clichéd idea? That idea was around since before Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon. Aang, the main character in that show, along with eventually mastering all four elements, also practically came back from the dead a century later in the very first episode of the show, and no one called him a Gary-Stu (which he is not, I'm just saying that labeling a character over power is overused)! As I said in my past two articles, Mary-Sues aren't about clichés, they're about lack of explanation and key details.
The point is as long as your character has had enough time to learn about their skill, practice it, master and perhaps perfect it, then the character can have whatever power he or she is given by you the creator, original or already been used. This does not leave out the "power" of influence on other people, or ranks in school, jobs, military or other social statuses. In simpler words, the power in any story can also be the kind in "normal everyday power" in our real life universe. I'm talking about not just superpowers. Even when there are other kinds of ordinary powers, superpowers seem to be the biggest concern when talking about Mary-Sues.
When a character has a high social status in the "normal everyday power" kind, just make sure that they've worked at it long enough to earn it. As an example of what possibly not to do, in the House of Night series, Zoey earns the High Priestess rank after only a few days of her turning into a vampire, after saving her peers once, even though Aphrodite, the High Priestess before Zoey, had been High Priestess for at least a couple years. Granted, Aphrodite was a snob in personality and had no regard to others, especially humans, or the rules, but why give that rank to Zoey, a fledgling? The only explanation given was that Nyx had given her that power (along with the four elements plus spirit). If Zoey had been saving people left and right and she earned that rank by the end of the school year, then that would have been a reasonable amount of time to be handed the rank and would have been plenty of time to practice the elements, not just three days.
I was only talking about that nearly unexplainable rank jump aspect of the example I just gave, but the elemental power aspect was a bonus to another example.
"I thought you said that learning the four elements wasn't a Mary-Sue trait?" That person who asked that hasn't been paying attention. There are no 'traits' whatsoever, only a lack of explanation. Zoey was given the four elements, and I didn't mind that part, it was the fast pace of how she and her friends mastered it that bugged me. Zoey and her friends only tried calling the circle once, maybe twice, and it seemed as if they had been calling circles for years after that, with only a snap of their fingers. Again, the first book was only three days long. The practice and mastering which was supposed to be one of the points in the series was ignored until the point that it was practically invisible. The only explanation was that Nyx gave Zoey and her friends the power. That shouldn't be enough.
Nyx, a goddess, may have given the power, but it's the receiver's responsibility to practice, thus it's the creator's responsibility to portray those hours of hard work of mastering it. Since supernatural powers are the most problematic, I'll discuss those kinds of powers instead of the "normal everyday power".
Just to get this out of the way, let's discuss immortality. By definition of Microsoft Works Word Processor, it means "able to have eternal life or existence", but it doesn't mean that an immortal character can't die. Elves are considered immortal, but they can die just almost as easily as humans can. Vampires can perish too although they're a lot more difficult to kill. All immortal creatures can die, but it's just that they have long lives. Immortality isn't even qualified as a power, but it's still arouses arguments.
So if I make a character that is immortal and can use magic, but is susceptible to death just as easily as any human, maybe even more, what's the problem? Well, long lives equals more time, more time equals more practice, more practice equals more skills, thus more power. If the character had already lived millennia of learning and practicing, why can't the character I created be powerful? He's definitely had plenty of time and practice.
Oh, I know! With all of the time the character has lived, he's too powerful when comparing to other characters and it's especially bad when it's in fan fiction comparing to the canon characters.
If you're a fan fiction writer, don't worry about overpowering the canon characters. They aren't brittle! If the character you created is more powerful in his or her own right, then it's fine if he or she can beat one of the good people, is faster, or can mimic whatever they do. It's fine as long as there is a good explanation and a reasonable amount of time for the practicing to sink in. If the original creators didn't want us to create a more powerful character they could demand that right, just like J. K. Rowling doesn't want to see any explicit pictures or writing (and yet I see that rule broken quite a lot), and Anne Rice doesn't want fan fiction at all on the internet or published. These authors have the power to limit what kind of fan fiction is out there, and it's their right to make whatever rules they want. Have you ever heard an author make the rule, "No one can create other characters more powerful than mine"?
Immortality is a door that is there in plain view, not even locked, but since it has so many possibilities for powers, other people tell you not to open it. These people are trying to limit your creativity by slapping the Mary-Sue label. Don't be scared of them. The only thing you need to worry about is your character development, and how immortality affects them. That is the real question here.
In Time (yes the Justin Timberlake movie), had a great sci-fi twist on the idea of immortality. Everyone is born with a time limit glowing on their arms, and when they reach the age of twenty-five, they stop aging, and their one-year of time starts counting down. As soon as a person's clock hits zero, the person drops dead. Instead of money, the economy works on time, so the ghetto people die and no one cares because they have to live with the risk everyday, and the rich never die and never share their wealth. If the character was born poor, how do you suppose they lived? How did they get around town? What skills do they learn? If the character was born in the more wealthy family, what was their life like? How did they react when they turned twenty-five?
Getting off of the movie and more into the fantasy genre, did the character want this immortality? If they are around mortals, they have to watch all of their friends die eventually, and that's heart wrenching. Maybe the character has attempted suicide a few times, but was too afraid to go through with it and called for help just in time to save his life. If the character does like being immortal, may be all the power he has gained goes to his head, so he's careless and ends up dying on accident. Indifference to being immortal isn't an unreasonable idea either; it's just one more day at a time after all, right? Immortality can be a great thing in writing because the character can change and develop in so many ways.
How Many Powers is Acceptable?
Now that I'm finished with the immortality subject, I'm going to talk about just how many powers a character is allowed to have. Superman's powers consist of super strength, heat vision, x-ray vision, super vision, super hearing, invulnerability to physical attacks in the form of force, extreme temperatures, diseases, and aging (effectively giving him immortality, but he does age, just a thousand years slower); super speed, superhuman breath, super smell, and has eidetic memory; along with other mundane powers like self-telekinesis enabling him to fly, and hypnosis enabling him to effectively disguise himself with only a pair of glasses, or throwing his voice to give Clark an alibi. With all of these powers, his only weakness seems to be Kryptonite radiation, the red sun/or the lack of the yellow solar energy that Earth has, the use of magic, great force will temporarily stun him, and he won't be able to see through lead. Over the decades since his creation, the publishers for Superman have wondered if he was too strong since they found it hard to provide challenges for him, and while that can be difficult for the plot, does it make him a Gary-Stu?
Did he have these powers all at once? No, they developed over time, like puberty. Some powers he was born with immediately, but that's normal for his species. Did he have to practice? Of course! I can imagine how many times he's accidentally crushed door handles just trying to open a door. In addition, he can have a bit of a temper, so he's had to learn to control that too. Since he was an alien, most of these powers, like strength, were natural from birth because of the greater force of gravity or other forces of nature his home planet had. Since he's on planet Earth where the environment is much different, his natural-born powers would seem stronger and expand in strength as time passed, especially so with the immense yellow solar energy around for him to absorb, as explained by the publishers. Was everything explained? Yes, and with science and psychic theories that would be acceptable in the universe the comic and shows it takes place in. In addition, under certain circumstances, not all of his powers will be useful or work at all. Superman can be killed, and it has almost happened several times, but part of his development also resides in overcoming these near-death obstacles.
Another key, besides explanation, is balancing between powers and weaknesses. What would it take this and that power not to work? How would an enemy take advantage, or what range of fighting would the character be weakest? For example of fighting range, maybe character would prefer long or medium-range fighting distance, but gets flustered at close range hand to hand combat. If an enemy knew that, they would do anything possible to get within the closer range because it's at least part of a weakness. Does that mean the character can't overcome this weakness? No, of course not. The character would have to practice close combat to overcome his flustering, but it will always be difficult since the character would still prefer long to medium range combat.
Does that mean Superman can overcome a weakness like Kryptonite? That's different since it's a chemical radiation instead of a physical kind of weakness. The only way he could overcome that was if he somehow got used to it like snake venom; however, since he's a Kryptonian, no. He won't ever get used to Kryptonite. It will forever be his weakness. Maybe he won't mind extremely small doses, but it will still zap his powers to some degree. Although, at one point, in the series Kingdom Come, he had absorbed enough solar radiation to counteract the effects of Kryptonite, but that kind of solar radiation probably wouldn't come around everyday, so it's not the same as fully overcoming the weakness.
So I'll ask again: is Superman a Gary-Stu? No he is not. While some powers were natural to his species, he gained more abilities due to Earth's unusual atmosphere. He does have weaknesses, and not all of his abilities would work under some situations, and he can die. It just hasn't happened yet.
The Hero Cycle
So why can't I make a powerful main character? As long as I give him or her explanations, key details and weaknesses, that should be enough to let me have my freedom of creativity, even despite the character being in fan fiction. I know the answer to this too: writers, focusing more on fan fiction writers, probably never considered using the Hero Cycle effectively. The Hero Cycle is used to effectively tell a story in stages. While there are various versions of the Hero Cycle with many stages in various orders, the most typical and plain cycle works in three stages: the Separation (or Calling), the Initiation (or Trials), and the Return. When someone doesn't use the cycle in their story, even though it's a practical subconscious form of writing, it seems as if the priorities aren't straightened out, or the author doesn't know when or how to describe the character's strengths or weaknesses.
In the Calling stage, the author would introduce the universe and the main character(s) (M.C.) where the M.C. would hear about what's beyond their scope of vision: an adventure, a war, a battle, a monster, just something that would require assistance, whether the calling specifically called for the M.C. or not. In some cases, the M.C. refuses the calling, but some outside force eventually forces them to accept the mission. This is the beginning, when the picture of normal for the character and the universe is described.
The next phase is the Trial. This is where the M.C. faces the mission. Sometimes there are small battles before facing the real monster, tests if you will where the M.C. develops his abilities or skills. Other times, the M.C. has to face the monster immediately. In some cases, the M.C. fails, escapes, and tries again, but there are some stories where the M.C. fails, escapes and returns home to let someone else handle it. The M.C. can face the monster alone, or have help. When facing the tests, this is where the hero gains power either through practice or (magical) tools, and can fail some of the quests, developing his weaknesses and overall character. After a time, or immediately, the hero finally faces the monster stage. It's also the stage where the hero is on the verge of dying, or in some sort of deep hole, and somehow miraculously finds strength, an adrenaline rush, to defeat the monster to show off the hero's strength. In rare occasions, the author has the M.C. die, thus ending the story. If that's the case, either there is no return, or one of the M.C.'s friends takes what's left of him home.
After the Trial Stage, whether the M.C. completes his mission or runs away, the M.C. usually returns home. If the hero overcame his obstacle, they earn rewards and share their knowledge with the people. In some cases, the M.C. may not want to return home or spread their knowledge because they think the normal people wouldn't be able to handle it, so there may be some outside force, forcing the character to return home, or the M.C. makes a home for him or herself somewhere else to start over. If you have a plan for another battle, there may be another Calling, thus starting the cycle all over again, where you can forgo some stages or add more.
Other stages may also be included somewhere within the story to make it more complex or epic, but the Calling, Trials, and the Return are the basic stages of any story. Obviously, some powers, like witchcraft, may force the author to add in the teacher stage where the character needs some sort of mentor, or needs a vast collection of books, so needs connections to acquire these books somehow. The more you know about the Hero Cycle and the many stages it can include, the more you can question and understand your plot and characters.
Another reason for the "too many powers" complaint may be because some authors just don't do enough research whether it's the universe or the abilities themselves. Many abilities have something to do with psychic theories, science, or magic, and most of it is a mix of the three. Some authors can't differentiate what the three are, so here it is:
"Psychic" refers to willing something to happen with the mind. This includes telekinesis, reading minds, pushing people (mind control), crytokenisis (freezing objects), pyrokenisis (heating objects or creating fire), and other abilities where the will of the mind comes into play. Even though wills and thoughts may seem too easy of a definition, if you've read X-Men, or seen the movies, then you would know that it takes a lot of concentration and a certain mental technique whether it refers to inner commands, or concentration on pictures. Some psychic techniques like levitation have scientific theories behind them, but they are only theories and haven't been proven, and the others are just purely fiction. If you do choose an ability that does have a scientific theory, it just counts as a bonus for believability, but you certainly are not limited to just them.
Abilities that are supported by science are abilities that can somehow be measured, or can be repeated. This would be heightened senses whether or not the character has lost a sense already, hybrid by genetics experiment, radiation, splicing, cloning or other such experimentation; drug use such as steroids to increase physical strength, speed, or to increase any of the senses are also included. The total understanding of alchemy or King Solomon's teachings of science or "changing lead to gold" or other elements would also be considered science despite the fantasy genre it revolves around. Full Metal Alchemist, although not the same as the ancient alchemy, is a popular concept of what alchemy could have been in the mind of fantasy. There are some abilities, like having photographic memory that can be developed by anyone, but practice is necessary. This area would also include anything anyone was born with, from being a contortionist, to being an "indigo" child.
Something that can't be totally proven by science, but can be controlled by the mind on some aspects; however was not "born" with the ability, usually has something to do with magic. Sometimes, this area has a religious aspect to it also. It's something the character had to learn on their own or with a teacher with the concept of "everyone has the ability to do magic, they just have to commit to it with a full heart" kind of deal; similar to the "everyone is a little psychic" phrase. Sometimes, a divine spirit hands down an ability. Depending on what kind of ability you want your character to have in regards to this section, there can be a ton of misconception, so research in the specific religion, symbolism, guidelines or type of magic is a must before you make up your own rules. The magical or religious abilities would include witchcraft, the ability to talk to the divine, advanced divinatory practices, which includes summoning specters, or having an internal spiritual guide, and seeing signs that most people would play off. Sometimes a powerful intuition can have something to do with the religious aspect as well as being a little psychic.
There's a wide range of what these three areas can be involved in when creating an ability.
As far as being a different species, it's only an unusual ability if it's exceedingly rare for any other of the same species to have the ability, which is what defines as having a superpower. So Superman, if he had lived his whole life on his home planet, wouldn't be all that much of a superhero or different.
Other "powers" like martial arts, or weaponry use, aren't really super powers. Anyone can learn them, but just as we've discussed, it is an added strength if one practices until they master it.
Now that we've learned about what kind of abnormal abilities one can have, let's discuss the countermeasure: weaknesses. Like Superman, he has a ton of powers, but a few weaknesses. You can choose as many or as little weaknesses as you want, as long as they can affect your character at any time, and can pose a serious threat.
Before we get to the weaknesses for the abilities, if for any reason you choose that your character can't be killed, like the Leviathan in Supernatural, you have to create enough weaknesses to render your character stunned or immobile. The Leviathan can bleed (black goop), and if they bleed a lot they're stunned for a while, they can't repel magic so can be bound, they can be decapitated, but if their head gets back on their neck, they are still alive and can immediately walk around; however they really can't be killed as far as the show has shown. So they're seemingly invincible, right? Well, sodium borax, a chemical found in most cleaning products burns them and eats away at their flesh (who knew cleaning products had that kind of use!), and even though it doesn't kill them, Sam and Dean can get close enough to decapitate them and hide their heads so they can't regenerate anymore. That means that they're close enough to being dead, but still alive, perfectly rendering them immobile.
Another example of invincibility would be a soul bound in an object. They technically aren't dead, and they could have another ability so that the object should never be destroyed, so whosever soul is technically invincible. The object can be thrown into lava so no one can put on the object and the soul can't gain control again, or the object can just be locked away somewhere with the same results.
This is a given, but anything that can specifically injure the species is a form of weakness (like Kryptonite), so I don't think I need to go into detail with that. The other forms of weakness, besides obvious natural-born and physical kinds of weaknesses would be distraction, environmental, and cancellation.
If the character is already easily distractible, then it's a given weakness as portrayed in the character flaws or hindrance, but I'm talking about characters who have a concentration like the crosshairs on a sniper's scope. A psychic user can inflict imaginary pain in the character's mentality, or make them see illusions, just anything that is that can be implanted in the person's mind to ruin their concentration. The person doesn't have to be psychic to do that if the character is the caring type to worry about friends or teammates. This won't work with all characters, this is just a thought on what kind of weaknesses there are. For example if the character is a magic user, he or she may have a talisman to block mental attacks. Similar to abilities, you can be as creative with weaknesses as you want, just as long as the weakness isn't a euphemism like I discussed in part 2 of my Mary-Sue articles.
Environmental, like with Superman, can be a boost, or a weakness. If there is a lack of something that is usually there in the environment, that can totally be a major weakness. This would include a lack of one of the five senses; even a lack of smell or taste can be a bad thing. What if the character is unable to smell the kerosene, so has no way to know that there's a bomb or a leak somewhere? Or if there is something added to the environment, like poison gas or a radiation spill; that can be just as harmful. This can be within a small area, or an entire continent. Another environmental factor can also include making something that usually is harmless, harmful (like when a power line falls into a puddle of water). Another factor that should be greatly considered is the character's charging and cooling time.
If anyone is in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft or Grand Fantasia, they'll know what I mean, but the charging time is when a character is gathering enough energy (like with magic abilities) to attack or defend, while the cooling time refers to how much time is needed before the character can use the attack or shield again. If the character is new to the ability, then it will most likely take up a bunch of energy gathering it and spending it afterwards, so the charging and cooling time will probably be greater also. Obviously, as the character gets used to it and gains enough experience and strength, the charging and cooling time will decrease, however, energy spent is still energy spent, and there will always be some sort of charging and cooling period.
Cancellation can refer to one of two things: another ability canceling out the characters, or something that the character needs in order for him or her to use the ability is lost. I pointed this out a little in the distractions category, but now I'll go into depth with it. If the person is an elemental user (but can use only one element at a time), another elemental user can use the opposite element to cancel it out. Or if it's brute strength on strength, it's the one that's a little stronger that will win (maybe that isn't your character). Anything that can match or beat the ability of the characters, is a part of the cancellation weakness. The example I used in the distraction was when a magic user uses a talisman to block mental attacks, but if that talisman was lost or destroyed, then there would be nothing that the character could do to defend her mentality. It's similar to if someone disarms another whether the tool be mystical or ordinary. If the character is not within reach of the tool, then there isn't a way the character can use it.
If someone does have a problem with your character because it seems to be too strong or have too many abilities, than it probably means you haven't described the weaknesses yet, how your character is able to use their abilities, or if it seems the character has had too little time to practice. As I said in part 2, it isn't necessarily what the character is or can do, it also has to do with the execution of the writing or comic. When there isn't enough details, people get skeptical, so don't take it to heart too much. They don't have all of the answers to your story, you do, but you have to eventually explain everything; however it doesn't have to be from the beginning or when the audience observes the strengths when the character is showing off. The only time a weakness would come up is during battle; why would the character reveal their own weaknesses?
Everything works in threes so try to balance your character, writing style, and having fun. Creating is supposed to be fun, but you can have fun creating abilities along with weaknesses.