I’m just finishing up the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (which I’m enjoying more than the first, for some reason), and while there’s certainly a lot about the books that draws me in, there’s one small, superficial thing that caught my attention. Several of the characters can, through the use of a particular kind of magic, enhance their senses, their strength, their endurance, or other qualities, thus resulting in some amazing and horrifying feats. In the middle of reading this, surrounded by intrigue and plot and The Fate of the World at Stake, I found myself thinking “wow. It would be really cool to be able to do that.”

Which is, really, a very shallow reaction, especially when the rest of the book is about much more serious topics. But I wonder sometimes if that’s why I read fantasy — to briefly, vicariously experience being someone with a special power.

Superhero comics (and superhero fiction in prose) play on some of this and draw on similar tropes. But in general, good stories don’t just stop there; they show the aftereffects of the powers, the responsibilities of those who have them. I can sometimes see the flaws in a story by whether the repercussions of the magic have been worked out and considered. (Of course, sometimes the story’s arranged itself so that I don’t care, but that’s another matter.) So a story can catch me by that wish-fulfillment potential, then draw me in further by showing the realistic effects of it.

Wish fulfillment is, therefore, one of the reasons I read fantasy. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit it — I always feel I ought to be citing the transformative power of imagination or the way fantasy and science fiction make us look at what it means to be human — but I’d be a liar if I denied it wasn’t a part of my gut reaction.  (That and making stuff go boom.)

I’m not sure it goes the other direction, though, at least in terms of writing. Yes, some of my characters embody some elements of wish fulfillment — Evie puts up with less crap and gets away with more, for example — but there’s not so much of a craving for mighty powers. In fact, I don’t like having my characters being superpowered; it makes them boring and harder to crush under my authorial boot.

When I’m writing to escape — writing to briefly get away from the grind of day job and groceries and who’s taking care of the tablecloths (don’t ask), I’m usually not writing for this kind of being-someone-else escapism. I’m writing for an escapism of setting, of a different world where the stress of ConHugeCo’s production metrics pales in comparison to, say, the Dark Lord’s evil plan or the giant air serpent bearing down on the dirigible or the logistics of transporting a talking severed head across post-apocalyptic America.

Is there a distinction in writing to escape and reading to escape? Does the difference hang on personal preference, or on something more universal? And, just for the heck of it, what kind of fictional power have you always craved? (Bonus points for the apparently useless ones.)

7 Responses to “Powers”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    June 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Ok, I have to ask…tablecloths?

    Writing to escape is far more intensive. When I read to escape, it’s a joyride. When I write, it’s a joyride I control.

    You know what superpower I always wanted? (And I’m not saying this to win the ‘useless’ prize) I always wanted to be able to talk to my toys. I used to line them up and tell them, “I know you can hear me. I know you play when I’m not around. I won’t hurt you. I won’t tell anyone. Just talk to me!”

    I never got violent in my insistence, but I never stopped believing they were all having a real joke at my expense. I wanted to know what they saw! I was certain toys paid very close attention. Even today, I’ll look at one of my knick-knacks and become absolutely CERTAIN it’s smirking.

  2. June 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    I think a good superpower to have in the world I actually live in would be machine-fixing. Just being able to open anything up or pop the lid and have an instinctive knowledge of how it works and what to do to fix it/make it better.

    Although that Heroes character that had the power of persuasion was pretty jealousy-inspiring…maybe I’d go for that one instead.

    Then again, the ability to multi-task, taken to a superhuman level, would also be cool. If you could completely focus on everyone in the orchestra individually at the same time? That could work. 🙂

    I’d better stop, I think I could go on forever.

  3. June 11, 2009 at 5:07 am

    I’m still back on how to crush a character under my authorial boot without, you know, killing them. By the time your main character is stuck halfway up the side of a very tall mountain with faulty gear and he’s been worked over by the equivalent of a very large Brillo pad, the number of things you can do to him that are not INSTANT DEATH seems rather constrained (even if he is The 2nd Best Climber In The Entire World).

  4. 4 mlronald
    June 11, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Do not ask about the tablecloths. They are…difficult. (I’ll have an explanation of sorts next week.)

    Terri-Lynne, did you ever see the Jim Henson story The Christmas Toy? It came out just as I was starting to lose that belief in toys’ sentience, but it hit several nerves when I saw it.

    Currentconductor, I think I wrote a story about that. Not sure how well it worked, though. (And yeah, it’d be useful. Persuasion…eh. That’d be way too easy to misuse, and I don’t think I’d be up to the temptation.

    And John, when a character is in that situation, then you just try a different kind of crushing — like giving him an emotional dilemma as well. Or maybe dangle his puppy off a nearby cliff. Crushing works in so many ways!

    Me, I think I’d want invulnerability. But the cartoon kind — drop an anvil on me, and I’d just stand back up, making accordion noises. Of course, this would mean that I’d always have time to look up and hold up a little sign saying “Yikes!” before the anvil hit, too.

  5. 5 Terri-Lynne
    June 11, 2009 at 9:18 am

    I love that movie! Oh, wow–haven’t thought about it in years. Now I’m going to have to find it!

  6. June 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

    That’s TRUE! You know, I had consciously forgotten about that story, but now that you bring it up, I think it was actually in the back of my mind as an example. Because I want to go, “Oh, yes, I think I was thinking of that when I wrote the comment w/o realizing it.”

    I don’t actually think I would mis-use the persuasion thing, although I realize those are famous last words. This is probably too heavy, but what was in my mind as I wrote that was that I would go stand outside abortion clinics and soldiers’ funerals and anti-gay demonstrations and talk to protesters. 😦

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