Recently I read The Edge of Nowhere the first young adult book by New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George. My writing partner is a huge fan of her beautifully complex adult mysteries of which she is a pro. Not so much on the young adult front. One of her biggest faux pas was giving her protagonist a paranormal ability that breaks all the rules. Let’s check them out!
Just what is a paranormal power? Basically it’s a perception outside of scientific explanation. The list of different supernatural abilities is too long to list in my humble post but you can read about them on a special wiki page. I’d say the top 10 are: telekinesis, extra sensory perception (ESP), telepathy and clairvoyance (which are very similar), pyrokinesis, psychometry (reading objects), precognition (foresee events), bilocation (I had to read up on this one – very odd), postcognition (see after events), and astral projection. And with modern pop culture we have a whole host of fictional races all with their own racial abilities.
Today paranormal abilities act as a hook for all kinds of stories. We love to read or watch about people who are extra special. Who stand out from the crowd. Everyone wants on the bandwagon full of supernatural heroes, many of the comic and movie variety. The Young Adult genre is especially rift with all sorts of paranormal (or racial, i.e. Angels, Demons, Chimera, etc.) characters. Don’t make the same mistakes…the secret to a believable paranormal character is only 5 rules away:
#1 – Balance Power
A super powered character must be balanced with a negative side to their ability.
This is probably shocking to see at the top of the list. I find it most important though. Even when a person has a special ability that no other person on earth has, there are always limitations to its use. Emotional, physical, psychological, morally, the limitations can go on and on.
The Hulk, on the other hand, is a super powered freak of nature who can leap continents…yet he does so without a functioning brain. And this can come upon him at any moment due to the actions of others. It makes the Hulk fascinating to watch as we see the very real man struggle with not getting angry, something all humans do over the course of their day.
One of the few elements I believe Elizabeth George tried to add to her whispers ability was a negative side. Our protagonist, Becca, doesn’t hear full thoughts from those around her but intermittent words, like a bad radio reception. This indeed limited any usefulness of the thoughts Becca overheard, it crippled the ability as well. We want a negative side to our ability but it also has to follow the other rules as well (notably #5, so keep reading).
#2 – Background Matters
Establish and take into account how the character obtained the ability, how long they had it and if they had a mentor in dealing with it.
I’m pretty much willing to give any paranormal ability a fighting chance. To be honest I’m a fan of any such supernatural hi-jinks. One of the funnest parts of such an ability is how they obtained such ability and how they deal with it in their day-to-day life. To understand a character’s ability we have to understand the background behind the power. Hence the prolific amount of superhero origin stories – to be believable we need to know how come that particular person came to be chosen for that superpower.
Spider-man whose origin story has been remade in not one, but two different renditions is a case in point. In both versions Peter Parker is bitten by a spider; in Garfield’s version he sneaks into a lab and in Maguire’s version he’s there for a school trip. These are vastly different circumstances, but both work to varying degrees. My favorite portrayal is Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker (while it’s crazy to think he could sneak into Oscorp I like this way better as it speaks to Peter’s character). Whomever your favorite Spider-man is, we believe how he became endowed with such abilities because it was explained to us in a clear manner.
Becca’s whisper’s are hereditary we are told in The Edge of Nowhere – they skipped her mother but her Gran was well versed in dealing with them. In fact, her now dead Gran was able to control whether Becca could read her own mind or not. I assumed that Becca had this ability since a baby since it is hereditary as that is how hereditary abilities work naturally. After 14 years dealing with getting other thoughts floating into her mind I assume Becca would be well versed in understanding what she is hearing. I get it that she can be overloaded by thoughts, the AUD box was a great idea until she had much better control. Still she couldn’t seem to make head nor tales over what she overheard yet she had a woman who helped raise her who is well-versed in the ability. Why didn’t her Gran help her master some part of her power? Becca’s background was too spotty and random for us to understand or better yet, believe.
#3 – Follow Your Own Rules
No two characters are alike and that includes their abilities. So clearly outlining what yours can and cannot do and sticking with those rules (no matter what your plot needs) is essential.
Yup I am officially obsessed with rules. Every writer should be (if only to know when they can break them!) In the first book its common sense to establish what a character with paranormal abilities can and can not do. That way the reader will understand when a character is or isn’t using their special abilities. At the very least you outline their capabilities at the start of the book. There is a pattern established as you portray your character using their power that the reader relies on to replace the natural laws that such powers displace.
If you want your character’s abilities to grow, increase or change then you support in the story how this is possible and off we go. Generally this is for sequels. In the Iron Man stories such happens with Tony Stark and his iron man suits. Extremis Armor is injected into hollow portions of Stark’s bones and the computer to run it is implanted in his arm and connected to his central nervous system. It gets rid of the bulky AI run armors and make it controllable instantly with his own brain. By building on what we knew of Stark’s tech smarts it makes a lot of sense he’d evolve his armor in this direction. We’ve seen his smarts in action previous to this so we know he is capable. In fact, we expect it!
In The Edge of Nowhere Becca’s whisper’s ability is all over the place. She establishes early in the book that another drawback to her ability is that she never knows who the thoughts come from. Yet her step father uses her to crack open senior citizens’ minds so he can scam them. In the school auditorium though, full of students, she is able to pluck out the sheriff’s specific fractured thoughts. That doesn’t work. In the start of the story Becca is unable to pick up thoughts from a man when she is outside his house. Then later she is overwhelmed by the thoughts of hundreds of hikers inside the forest. Make up your mind…does distance matter or doesn’t it? Can she put specific thoughts to specific people or can’t she? How a paranormal ability works can’t be dictated by what you need to happen in the course of the plot.
#4 – Use Good Sense
When describing the sensory perceptions of our characters it’s essential their non-enhanced senses don’t sound super powered, confusing the reader.
We are taught as writers to use all five senses when describing our character’s interactions with the world. This can be hard to do when dealing with paranormal powers. The most important thing is to keep things clear for the reader. If that means being really particular about the words you use when describing particular details then that’s what we do. If a secondary character doesn’t need to have a special smell that comes into the protagonist’s brain then we don’t mention the special smell. It confuses the reader. (And me!)
This might seem like a crazy example but go with me for a second. It’s shown us in The Fast and the Furious what a great driving ability Dominic Toretto is endowed with. Never are we shown him talking about sensing other people’s emotions or smelling special scents. He isn’t shown with x-ray vision to see through women’s shirts either. We are concentrated on his driving ability. The focus is on the cars and the driving. We don’t need any stinkin’ x-ray vision or special smells because Dominic’s vision and smell aren’t what is enhanced.
In The Edge of Nowhere this really bugged me. Becca has had this whisper ability for 14 years. If she can also sense emotions then why didn’t she mention that at the beginning? Why only when it comes to Derric’s dad and mom at the hospital? If she can assign smells to people like she did Derric then why can’t she put thoughts to people in a crowd? Why doesn’t every one of her close friends have a special smell or give off special plot moving emotions? Derric can smell nice sure but then don’t mention it in the hospital – the disinfectant alone would overwhelm any natural scent. (Notice I used natural instead of special – word choice people!)
#5 – Make it Useful
A useless superpower is just that useless. A paranormal ability must have some positive effect on the story.
This seems like the most obvious rule. If you can take away a character’s supernatural power and they accomplish the same events then their power is not useful. Delete it from the story. Like brains, beauty or skill a paranormal ability is meant to be used by the character. If it’s not useful or beneficial in some way then it doesn’t feel real. Just like wanting villains with positive traits we want a superpower to be useful to balance out its negative side.
We all love Sherlock Holmes. It might be stretching it to call his abilities a superpower but since he’s the smartest man in the room let’s go with it. The only reason he can solve the unsolvable cases he does is because of his super powered ability at detecting. Without the hard cases no regular detective can solve and without his specific ability there would be no Sherlock Holmes. The usefulness of Holmes ability in his story is the most important detail.
Becca, Becca, Becca if only your paranormal whispers were useful to you in The Edge of Nowhere. Not once did her ability to hear people’s fractured thoughts help Becca in solving her mystery or in helping her situation. In fact, whenever I thought she’d finally hear something useful she put on her AUD box which blocks even the fractured thoughts. In fact, why would anyone bother taking off the AUD box and subjecting themselves to the whispers at all if the whispers never helped them and only caused them to be abandoned by their mother and hunted down by psychotic killers?
They wouldn’t. Because useless and troublesome powers are just that: useless.
The story would have worked so well as what it was advertised – a well written, well thought out, well-developed mystery of regular ability if such had actually been written by Elizabeth George. Her mystery was actually kind of cute if a little lame on the murder front if it didn’t have poor Becca so random and inconsistent. While I think The Edge of Nowhere had a lot of potential its problems did not end with a badly written paranormal ability. It happens to the best of authors, especially when they don’t follow the 5 Rules when writing Paranormal Powers.