This article will focus on a primary concern for writers of super heroes fiction. To a certain extent, the ideas here may apply to fantasy and some other genres as well, but supers fiction will definitely take center stage here. To put the titular question another way: Do you know the limits of what’s possible in your world?
Consider the scope of super powers in fiction. Basically, any inherent ability (or ability granted by equipment of some type) that allows a character to produce an effect that cannot be explained by her society’s normal modes of understanding the universe is a super power. The power might be, for example, the ability to create super tech, like Tony Stark in the Marvel universe, or it might rely on a gift of super science, as in The Greatest American Hero TV series. What really sets these two examples apart, however, is realism. Ralph Hinkley is clearly more constrained by circumstances. Since he lost his suit’s instruction manual, he’s not really sure what the suit’s full capabilities are, and it’s a struggle for him just to fly in a straight line most of the time. By contrast, we get the sense that given time, Tony Stark could whip something up to deal with almost any threat. He is a more adaptable – a more empowered – hero. And he’s not at the top of the scale by any means.
So the challenge for the writer of supers fiction is to choose a suitable power quotient for the story world – or at least for a given story. Maybe there are beings capable of throwing a tank into orbit in your world, but if they don’t enter into the action for a particular narrative, super strength may be just enough of a factor to lift one end of a bus off a trapped bystander. It’s not necessarily important for you to tell your reader about these limits in detail, but knowing this information yourself is essential in order to craft a compelling story. Much of the dramatic tension will stem from your awareness of what the heroes are capable of, and then finding a way to deal with each challenge within those boundaries when you write them into a corner, either intentionally or not.
The scope of powers must also be limited in order to prevent them from short circuiting the plot. The higher the quotient, the more difficult the second half of that equation becomes. If your hero can rip metal in his bare hands, how can your villain restrain him while he delivers his fiendish monologue or prepares to launch his world-dominating attack? If the mentalist hero can read minds to reveal dark secrets against his subject’s will, how will you maintain tension and keep the plot from resolving itself in the space of three paragraphs? There’s a reason mystic metals of amazing durability, super-dampening technology, and laws against unauthorized mental intrusion are common tropes in the field.
Even Superman’s back story, with his childhood spent absorbing good and honest small-town American values, serves this function in his stories. When he’s placed “under arrest” by duly appointed authorities, we expect him to be a model prisoner and submit to that authority, even though it’s clear his guards can’t possibly hope to stop him. And when circumstances require him to escape to save Lois Lane from danger, we expect him to return to his confinement and accept further punishment once the situation is resolved. Constraints can be self-imposed.
Your setting will dictate what sorts of constraints your characters will have to acknowledge or overcome. For example, in The Wonderland Effect, powers are unknown to the general population. That means that either powers are limited in scope, so that the results of their use can be attributed to more mundane causes, or go unnoticed altogether, or that there are good reasons for the empowered not to use their abilities in a way that attracts public scrutiny. In fact, both of these factors are at play in this story. However, since super powers are unknown to the general population in this setting, there are no specific laws on the books to limit any of the characters’ use of their abilities. True, murder committed with powers is still murder, but how can you convince a jury that a victim was murdered by electrical bolts hurled by the pudgy man sitting at the defendant’s table if no juror in his right mind believes that such action is possible? Super tech that counters paranormal abilities is likewise unknown at the start of the story.
The greatest challenge posed by deciding on a world where supers are all but unknown lies in the variety of responses people would have to suddenly acquiring such unusual abilities. Some might choose to hide out of a fear of persecution, or due to a sense that such abilities are improper, or out of a desire to use them secretly to gain wealth through theft or other means. But even out of a small sample of a hundred paranormals, there would be some who would seek to use their gifts as a ladder to fame. So why aren’t powers an accepted fact, especially if they started emerging over a century ago? By implication, Oglethorpe and his network of agents keep the story from breaking, at least up through the start of the story, through his aggressive recruitment program
Taken together, these factors strongly encourage a setting with powers that are more constrained than in most super heroes fiction. With the exception of Oglethorpe, there’s a pretty firm limit on super strength, for example. The strongest character can lift about a ton, maybe a ton and a half if he pushes himself. No one in this world is going to be able to catch a jet falling from the sky. Likewise, attacks that rely on generating and channeling some sort of energy can produce damage on par with military-grade munitions and artillery, but not nuclear weapons.
Another consequence of the power level for your story is the level of acceptance the supers will receive from normal citizens. Supers with relatively minor powers may encounter only occasional jealousy from normals most of the time. The more powerful and god-like the supers, the more the general population will fear or resent them. And, Superman / Lois Lane not withstanding, the less likely it will be that supers and normals will be able to maintain close interpersonal relationships. If this rule doesn’t hold in your setting, you may need to think a bit as to why this is the case. A threat to all of humanity that makes supers an important resource in the fight for survival could serve, for example.
So before jumping right into tales of world-shaking powers and ubervillains, take a bit of time and think about the story you want to tell, and what power level makes sense for your setting. Remember, this is very different from what we all started with: providing the annotated bibliography writing service, etc. It will be time well spent. You’ll end up with an internally consistent setting tailor made for your characters to inhabit and shape.