Beings of extreme power rant
*Limyaael beats people about the head with fish*
When you write fantasy, there is no law that says any particular attitude needs to stay the same, and that includes attitudes about power. Sure, they can be the same if you want them to be, or if that will make for a better story. But don’t just assume they have to be. A great deal of “truth” about BOEP’s is cliché, not natural law.
1) Who can oppose them? Why, their equals, of course. I’ve seen a lot of discussion of BOEP’s that goes, “Well, but I can’t have a god/a demigod/an artist able to create whole universes/Corwin of Amber in my story! That means that he’d have no competition and solve all the plot conflicts in one second flat!”
I’ve got more than one problem with that (see point 4), but the question I always have the impulse to ask is: Aren’t there going to be other gods/demigods/artists who are able to create whole universes/Princes of Amber in your story?
And, often enough, the answer goes something like: “No, because this character is the only one with that talent/the most powerful mage or best fighter in the world/the last survivor of his race!”
And I say: Ah-ha. We have an overattachment to the protagonist going on again. The author can’t bear for him to have any competition, so naturally he doesn’t. And that leaves you with the problem of why he wouldn’t just snap his fingers and restore peace and love and happiness to everyone around him?
Really, why does this escape so many authors’ attention? You’ve got a dragon who can fly and breathe fire and work lightning magic. Put him among other dragons who can also fly and breathe fire and work lightning magic. “Problem” solved. Probably you’ll be writing a different story than you envisioned at first, but it still has plenty of potential for excitement and high drama and even explosions, if you like that sort of thing. And it forces you to deal with the issues of power in a community, rather than isolation. And it also means you will not be writing a “last survivor of a magical race” story, which I hate with a deep and burning passion and which I would bury in the garbage pit where I dropped the soulmate bond’s corpse if I could get hold of it. The damn thing runs fast.
Why is the protagonist isolated in having such power? Ask yourself why, challenge the answers, and ask if you can keep yourself from turning it into a story of the protagonist brooding, lonely and angsting and bewailing his solitude, on his power. If not, add a few equals for him and see what happens.
2) Challenge the definitions. Why can’t gods be in a fantasy novel? Because they’re omnipotent.
Honestly, this is just blindness. There have been plenty of gods in plenty of Earth pantheons who were not omnipotent, or who were stupid, or who could be foiled by relatively simple stratagems, especially if another god was playing the trick. Yet for many authors, the concept of “God” is linked to omnipotence and omniscience so strongly that they won’t dare have a god as a main character. How very silly. There’s nothing that says a god in a fantasy world has to have the (supposed) attributes of the Christian God.
Two quick examples of ways to solve this: Terry Pratchett has small gods, which have the potential to become greater gods or decline into voices crying in the wilderness. They live and die like other beings, and are only immortal as long as they are believed in. And Steven Brust’s world possesses gods with a few major attributes—for example, being in two places at the same time—that differentiate them from the undead, demons, other BOEP’s called the Jenoine, and the strong, if mortal, cast of heroes. They are not omnipotent, either, and so far from omniscient that it’s laughable. Because both those authors give gods a defined place in the world, they’re not loosing omnipotent, omniscient plot devices into the story. They’re loosing BOEP’s who can screw up in various ways and even get destroyed.
What does “god” mean in your world, anyway? What does “mage” mean, or “sorcerer,” or “demigod?” Examine the BOEP’s. There’s nothing that says the only acceptable definition for a BOEP is unlimited power. They might be quite strong, even invincible, in a certain niche, and exist with varying degrees of competency outside it. They can still be quite scary like that.
3) “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is not an absolute truth. And it’s not recognized as a cliché, either, the way that statements like “Let’s all just get along!” often are, so that authors insert eye-rolling into a story when the character says it. This one is taken at face value, as an unquestioned part of the world. The story’s characters don’t bother to say it; they just nod wisely when they put someone into absolute power and then he starts acting in a disgusting fashion.
Such a cheat. If absolute power is such a bad thing, then why are the protagonists fit to become kings and queens and governors and powerful mages and even gods? Why would they want the job, when it inevitably corrupts those who come into contact with it? You’d think they’d be more horrified by the thought of losing their souls than they act.
It’s because most authors recognize another statement, one which is not an absolute truth, either, and yet, I think, closer to it. No one situation will affect everyone in the same way. People grieve in broadly similar ways, but the individual details differ. Some people break under extreme horrors like torture and concentration camps, but some do not, and even those people who break do so in different ways. And some people in power will lose it completely, and others will become frivolous but harmless, and some will act only in minor ways because they fear what they could become if they let all their power loose, and some will become revered and rightly so.
There is no reason that a BOEP in your story has to become a megalomaniac. If you really want her to survive in a position of absolute power, then show why it doesn’t corrupt her. (I wish the showing was not required, but, as I noted, that cliché has become so embedded in people’s minds that they’ll notice if the mention of corruption is never raised).
Difficult? Sure, it could be, depending on your reasons for giving her the power in the first place, and the reason why she doesn’t become corrupted. But it’s a fuck of a lot more honest than just assuming the cliché is true, or true except when it applies to your characters.
4) What reason does he/she have to solve the plot conflicts? When someone speaks about a BOEP acting as a plot device, or, worse, uses one as a plot device without thinking about it, they often assume that the BOEP shares the protagonist’s goals, or at least the author’s vision of the plot. It’s a magnified version of the same question that asks, “Well, if the king has the money to raze all the slums and build proper housing, why isn’t he doing it?”
Maybe because he doesn’t want to?
Personal will, personal morals, rules that the BOEP chooses to honor even if he doesn’t have to, bargains, and so on can all restrict someone. And no, they don’t have to be silly or outmoded restrictions, either. A BOEP is going to have many fewer chains on his will and freedom than most other people in the story’s world, right? So why not have him follow his choices, and work up a plot that benefits from those choices, rather than force him into slavishly following the plot by stupid contrivance?
Maybe the dragon doesn’t breathe fire out on the heroes because he’s curious about what they’re doing in his lair. On the other hand, he finds their story of war between human nations laughable and contemptible, and no, he isn’t going to just swoop in and solve the main plot conflict like that. Why should he? There doesn’t have to be some Dragons’ Code that will punish him if he interferes, the way that there is in so many stories (and which is stupid, since he winds up breaking the Code anyway, just like every other noble character following a “higher” principle). He could just not have anything to do with humans, and no interest in interfering, and no susceptibility to anything the mortals could offer him. Or maybe he has moral objections to roasting a thousand men in armor on one kingdom’s say-so, never mind how many women and children the invaders killed.
I suspect that the refusal to give BOEP’s inner hindrances and barriers to the sheer exercise of their power, like moral codes, is a hidden corollary of Point 3: so many BOEP’s are assumed to be corrupt already, somehow made evil by what they are, that the author just decides that they don’t have any morals to obey. I really tire of these assumptions, as they are Stupid. Quit it, and write me a reasonable story.
5) What would you do if you had extreme power? I bet it wouldn’t be conquer the world, or even enforce world peace—not for everyone reading this. Some people would laze around for the rest of their lives. Some people would use their power to acquire money and pour it into great philanthropy projects. Some people would study everything under the sun. Some people would become great artists and create artworks of dazzling complexity. Some people would teach. Some people would go hunting for the answers to mysteries that had plagued them all their lives.
With a BOEP, you have the chance at a free character. Most BOEP’s don’t have to worry about the day-to-day struggle to survive, nor about caring for themselves, nor about their health. That doesn’t mean that they’ll turn naturally to politics. Plenty of people do that who aren’t BOEP’s. A free character’s personality has the chance to transform and flower in ways that are impossible for someone chained by all the daily necessities of existing in most fantasy worlds. It might be a fascinating journey to go along and watch that flowering happen.
And yes, by the way, I do believe that immortal and long-lived characters—which most BOEP’s are—can escape the trap of endless ennui and envy for mortals that most authors chain them in. It’s a function of one type of personality to become bored by endless freedom and start longing for a more structured life. It doesn’t mean that structured life is preferable, particularly for someone who’s never been in contact with the reality of it. (I’ve met plenty of people who long for life “in the Middle Ages,” for example, without one idea of the work that it took just to survive in the Middle Ages). And, once again—heya, Point 3!—it doesn’t mean that every BOEP in existence would do this. Their personalities could turn in any direction.
The idea of variations on the “normal,” of personality types that don’t obey all the fictional clichés, seems to frighten many fantasy authors. I have no clue why, given that most fantasies concentrate on characters who are unique or at least extraordinary. I’ve seen plenty of world-conquering BOEP’s, and decadent BOEP’s who all envy humans and want to die or live their lives like humans. Why should every BOEP in existence have to obey those “laws,” though?
6) Power doesn’t particularly preclude pettiness. This is the other side of the coin of 4. Yes, technically I could have put this point right after that one. But I didn’t want to.
BOEP’s could be wrong. They could act in honest faith and still make mistakes. Once again, there’s no need to attach omniscience to a BOEP unless you really want to.
But perhaps there’s not much chance of the BOEP being wrong, you argue, because he has a really awesome spy network and a means of spying on people in their dreams. There’re always his biases. I have ignored things that other people saw as obvious because of my innate prejudices, and I’ve seen people stubbornly ignore things that seemed obvious or commonsensical to me all the time. (Why do you think I started writing these rants?) A long life could lead to clear sight. It doesn’t have to. It could lead to the BOEP being truly set in his ways, and receiving all the information to put things together in the “right” patterns, and setting them in the wrong ones anyway because, damn it, that’s what makes sense.
I could go on for a while, but I’m sure you see where I’m coming from. Dig up the damn unquestioned assumptions that run everywhere when writing BOEP’s. Let’s say that your character has extreme power because of his weather magic. But the magic is magic. It is not perfect knowledge; it is not perfect foresight; it is not the power to change everything in the world with a wave of his hand. Your BOEP is not any of those by nature unless you say he is. No, I don’t care what a thousand clumsy handlings of them have told you. Your character can summon lightning with a wave of his hand, and still die because he never saw his enemy coming, or underestimated someone he trusted.
This is not hard, not really. What makes it so is that damn network of assumptions that make people think previous authors have explored all possible ways of writing BOEP’s and that cliché is law, instead of both of them being a set of suggestions.
This is freedom. This is power. Both can be taken and used as wisely as any magic you give your characters.