Five Fun Ways To Use Plants in Your Fiction

Five Fun Ways to use in your fiction

Maybe it’s all the green from St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, or maybe I’m just tired of being in the frozen North where green things don’t really show up until mid-April, but today, plants are taking over the blog. Consider this one of those world-building/plotting mash-ups to give you a fresh perspective as you take on your weekend!

Note: this is slightly ironic because, despite two years of teaching basic botany, my personal plant-caring skills are less than awesome. However, I love finding ways to use plants in stories. At least they’ll thrive somewhere!

Environments
One of the most obvious ways to use plants is in setting. Whether you’re creating entirely new flora and fauna for a fantasy world or inviting your readers into a new locale on this planet, using details about plants can help set the stage and make your story stand out. Plants can trigger all of the senses, which makes them a great thing for adding sensory detail–even the sound of leaves rustling in the trees or brush crunching underfoot is a great way to anchor your reader into the story. Using a city environment? Unless you’re in a post-apocalyptic, no-green world, plants are sturdy and adaptable enough to grow anywhere.

Food
From special herbs to succulent salads to delicious fruit desserts, there are plenty of ways to use plants in your food descriptions. While it’s easy to dismiss food as an unnecessary part of world-building and plotting, food has actually been used in pivotal ways throughout history. Sea travelers ate oranges to stave off scurvy. The colonists of America would have starved without a friendly Native American teaching them how to grow corn. And then consider the Irish potato famine and the origins of the Dust Bowl–both instances where poor plant farming drastically changed millions of lives.

Love/Romance
From love potions to pheromones, plants are a primary culprit in love and romance for many stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream did this to great effect and humor (and yes, magic was involved as well), and a common trope in science fiction television is for the cast to find themselves on a planet with plants that send out frisky vibes. Supervillain Poison Ivy takes this to another level with her poisonous kisses. Even just using a lush garden as a surrounding or a bouquet of fragrant flowers as a gift can be a great way to add romance. And if that bouquet of roses is dipped in blood, suddenly you’ve gone from romance to horror, which can be a fun twist!

The Villain
From poisonous to people eating, plants can make the best baddies. Of course, someone using a plant-based poison to kill someone else else is a time-honored plot twist–and it helps that so many plants are both healing and poisonous. Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors has a taste for human flesh that makes for great tension. M. Night Shymalan’s The Happening has plants releasing spores to take out humans. In fact, plants run amok is a common theme in horror and is an aspect of the natural horror subgenre.

Medicine
From athelas in The Lord of the Rings to herbology classes in the Harry Potter books, the plants that can kill you can also make you stronger. Plants are used so much for medicinal purposes, especially in mythological and medieval story worlds, that it would almost be a cliche if it weren’t so accurate. However, the degree to which plants are used as medicine is also an easy indicator for the general anthropological period of your story, as in modern days over-the-counter medicines and chemical remedies are more common, and in science fiction stories the usage of actual leaves and roots in home-grown remedies can be viewed as suspicious. In addition, the way characters respond to the usage of plants in medicine can be a way to reveal aspects of their personality.

Edgar the Plotbunny is a fan of plants!

 What about you, readers and #plothoppers? How do you use plants in your stories? What other ways have you seen plants used?

 

6 Fundamental Questions to Refine First Draft World-Building

You’ve now finished your first draft–or you’re getting pretty close to it! Or maybe you’re right in the middle, deep in the trenches, excited that you finished NaNoWriMo or hit your personal deadlines, but with no idea that after fifty thousand words the novel would just. Keep. GOING. WHEN WILL IT EVER BE DONE?

In any case, it’s a great time to relax, sit back, and do a world-building integration check-up. This can be a welcome break from the daily word count grind and a fun way to celebrate your awesome creativity. All the while, you’ll figure out how to use elements like setting, superpowers, and space ships to make your story stand out from the crowd.

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Question 1 ~ What World-Building Elements are You Excited About?

When you start writing speculative fiction, you go into the story with these crazy fun ideas. This is where you tackle all the coolest “what-ifs” in your story and get thrilled about them all over again. Maybe it’s a tribe of shape shifting armadillos! Or maybe you have the best take on cytoplasmic alien invaders. Whatever it is, recognize those world-building elements that make you care about your story, because those will be the ones that fuel your passion all through the months of rewrites and editing and…more rewrites and editing. In the end, your goal is to actually get this thing published, so make sure you hang on to cool things that will keep you motivated all the way up until your author interviews!

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Question 2 ~ What World-Building Elements Got Lost In the Shuffle?

So, you thought the vampire slugs were a fun throwaway, but they just ended up, well, thrown away. Or you really wanted to do something with those five extra moons surrounding the planet, but they’re still orbiting and you have no idea why they even need to be there or why you spent an entire chapter on them. This happens. No worries! Maybe you have a plot hole later on that they could fill and all you have to do is connect the dots. Maybe you need to drop back to your pool of sciency advisors (or Google + Something More Trustworthy Than Google) and figure out if those moons have a place. Worse comes to worse, you now have extra ideas to toss in your idea box and bring out in a later story. Because I really want to know about those vampire slugs. *Googles* Wow, someone actually used vampire slugs! We live in a wondrous world, folks.

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Question 3 ~ What World-Building Elements are Crucial to Your Narrative?

Before you start tossing things on the cutting room floor, considering what elements are necessary to your narrative. Sometimes when we get into revision mode, we can forget how everything works together. Take away that opening surprise attack with ghosts because you decided you wanted werewolves instead can drastically change how that entire scene works. While your switch-out might not be as dramatic as werewolves and ghosts, any kind of world-building shift can have trickle down effects that alter the foundations of your story–and your audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Figure out soon what world-building elements need to stay if at all possible.

Question 4 ~ What World-Building Elements Are Crucial to Your Characterization?

This ties into the narrative question. You need to identify key world-building pieces that are fundamental to characterization. While I’m all about making characters who have depth and layers separate from abilities, part of what makes speculative fiction fun is that the unique speculative parts of the characters are necessary to who they are. I may or may not have snipped ‘unnecessary’ superpowers from a character at one point — and then realized that those abilities were the only thing giving her the security to actually act and be a protagonist. Without them, she suddenly lacked a ton of motivation. Whoops! First off, I needed to fill out her characterization more, and second, I gave her back the powers in a way that enhanced the story line.

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Question 5 ~ What World-Building Elements Make WOW Moments?

You know those moments. The ones that make you go “HAH, that was GREAT” or rub your hands together gleefully or grin at the computer. The ones that send tingles up your spine. Keep those scenes. You need them. Yes, revising and editing is all about cutting the fluff, but you’re writing speculative fiction and your readers like. Cool. Stuff. It’s one of the main things we bring up in word-of-mouth recommendations. So while you might not need all twenty epic battle scenes or awesome wizard duels, go through and geek out over your most exciting, scariest, and/or most thrilling moments and make sure they don’t go anywhere. Unless you plan on replacing them with even better scenes.

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Question 6 ~ What World-Building Elements Need More Muchness?

This one will take another set of eyes, so wait until you’re chill with sending things out to your inner circle of beta readers. You’ve got to steel yourself and ask the dreaded question: what isn’t enough? What isn’t cool enough, clever enough, integrated enough, or explained enough? The upside is you get much-needed feedback and the joy of having other people appreciate your stuff. The downside is your ego takes a bruising as your readers go through your creative mind and heart and ask all kinds of silly questions, like: “how do the lightning blasts come out of trees underwater?” or “Wouldn’t those five moons affect the planet’s gravitational pull and climates?” or “I don’t know why you need eight kinds of dragon species. Are they going to be used at all?” All that common sense can be a cold shower on the creativity, which is why you might need to take a break from your story for a bit before critiques. Also, remember that sometimes critiques aren’t saying to get rid of the element – they’re just a challenge from your beta reader or editor to make it work better and prove its awesomeness. Although occasionally, you might just need to toss something back into the idea box.

What about you? Any other world-building checks you do? Share one of your world-building WOW moments!

3 Easy Tips to Use Dialect in Writing and World-Building

When you bring up world-building, one of the first things that comes up is language. People ask if you’ve made up your own language, or if you’re going to, or how you should do it.

Now, if you want to make up languages, go ahead! I’m not stopping you. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of phonemes, morphemes, etc.  However, if you want to focus more on getting words onto paper, I’d suggest a different route.

Use dialects.

The different between a language and a dialect can be subjective.

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Officially (more or less) the difference between languages and dialects is that people who speak different languages can’t understand each other, whereas people from other dialects can at least hold a conversation (this Economist article does a nice job with a few more details).

For the purposes of writing, we’ll call a language something you have to make up and then translate for the reader somehow–context clues or a convenient translator repeating everything for the protagonist are common ways. A dialect is something that involves more of syntax (word order) and lexicon (vocabulary) than long strings of foreign language. The reader can still understand the dialogue more or less.

For example, the acceptable, grammatically correct way of phrasing a sentence might be this:

I like flute music.

Nonstandard speech might phrase it.

I like me some flute music.

Another way could be.

Flute music me likes.

(Yes, I used to play the flute).

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The second and third examples are both nonstandard usages of English that would get a red flag from any editor–unless those usages were intentional uses of dialect within a fictional setting. Then it becomes a matter of which usage best fits the voice of the character, the tone of the piece, and is easy for readers to understand.

Unlike the tips I’ve given you previously, messing around with dialect isn’t an easy trick. It requires time, effort, care, and a fair amount of YouTube videos (and if possible, some in-person reference or personal experience to draw upon). However, I’m all about action items, so here are:

3 Dos and 3 Don’ts of Dialect

1.) DO use dialect as a way of showing differences between culture, ethnicity, and socio-economic class.

You can also explore concepts of discrimination against certain dialects,  the elevation of other dialects as superior, and the way that people make judgments based on speech. It’s also great for showing geographical distance. Any time a people group is isolated, they will develop their own manners of speech.

DON’T overdo dialect at the expense of clarity.

I read a YA book with the standard love triangle with two guys after one girl. This was actually a decent love triangle. Both males were fully-fleshed characters who had their own lives and goals apart from the female protagonist. However, a main reason I shipped one guy over the other was due to dialect. This writer went all in for piratey dialect in such a way that made it really hard to understand what the guy was saying–and even harder to imagine his voice in my head. All of the commas and apostrophes used to indicate his particular way of speech made reading his dialogue more of a decoding session instead of an enjoyable experience.

2.) DO use resources online. Google references and sources on the dialects you’re using. If possible, go bother a linguist friend. 

DON’T just think you can do this on your own. Even if you are writing from personal experience and your personal dialect, still check some YouTube videos, online reference guides, and resources. Google is your friend. My current WIP draws heavily from my personal dialect and my experiences with Appalachian dialects. Plus, I’ve had linguistic and cultural training. However, I still have at least three different tabs open when I’m drafting for easy access to sentence structure, idioms, and unique lexicon. Writing is different than speaking and still requires intentionality.

3.) DO feel free to borrow different linguistic aspects from existing languages to substitute for fake languages.

Languages borrow from each other all the time–English being one of the worst offenders! Go ahead and Google ideas. Just be respectful and intelligent in usage. Having a linguist help out is invaluable.

DON’T forget to keep track of your own rules!

Each time you borrow a sentence structure or a type of spelling or a slang word, write it down or copy and paste into a document. Make sure you’re consistent in usage as well. In my current WIP, I’m managing the interactions of three different levels of Appalachian dialect: the super thick, archaic dialect of immortals who have lived there for over a century,  the mixed dialect of a descendant who wants to break away from his ancient clan, and then the dialect of AJ, the main character who moved to the valley when she was a young teenager and picked up a lot of the syntax to fit in but is a little self-conscious about it and will code-switch into more educated speech. Those little touches are easy ways to distinguish between character roles and deepen each character naturally.

What about you? Do you use dialect in your writing or world-building?

What do you think of books that are heavy on dialect? Any great pieces of advice?

 

 

5 Essential Tips For World-Building

5 Essential World-Building Tips

 

1.) Worldbuilding must serve the story or it’s only window-dressing.

I love world-building. That’s one reason I wrote a textbook and workbook about it. But if the world-building has no connection to the story, then why bother? Use the cool things you make up to create issues and conflict in your plot.

Make sure your world-building impacts the plot. Doing so will automatically elevate your story and grab reader attention.

Now, I understand that in epic fantasy worlds, creating a vast landscape of shiny things for the reader to dive into is part and parcel. But even then, epic fantasy readers have limits on just how much insanely technical or detailed content they’re going to ingest before they’re ready for it to effect the plot in a meaningful way, whether on a small or large scale. If you have a dragon, at the very least have it attack your hero or have it get a broken leg or something when your hero is riding it (preferably at the most inconvenient time).

2.) Figure out the following major categories for societies: gender, birth, family, marriage, death.

The anthropologist side of me is coming at you now. These five categories highlight key aspects of culture and society. Figuring out these areas will automatically nail down your race in highly usable ways. These five categories are especially important for human or humanoid races. However, I would suggest you subject even your less-humanoid races to this analysis.

Why?

First of all, it will help you to make key decisions about how to make your non-humanoid race different from everyday norms.

Second, it will keep you from making your non-humanoid race too inhuman. Is there such a thing in speculative fiction? Yes, if you want to relate to readers and sell books. Even in Lelia Rose Foreman’s Shatterworld, her race of exceptionally odd aliens still show a protectiveness towards their young–a family trait that humans also have. Thus, even though this race has tentacles and other weird things, the reader will still ultimately find a bond of commonality and a reason to cheer for them. Conversely, if you want to make a disposable, blaster-target-practice inhuman race? Make them as different from humans as possible in really odd or repulsive ways.

3.) Always look for contrasts between the worldbuilding and the protagonist’s goals.

 Yay for contrasts!

This tip connects to Tip #1 about making the world-building impact the story. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the Hunger Games themselves are a key part of the dystopian world-building. Collins uses the selection of Primrose Everdeen at the reaping to push Katniss into the Hunger Games out of protective instinct. Then, within the games Katniss ends up making choices that directly conflict with the official purpose of the games. Her goals, to survive and to preserve the life of someone who reminds her of Prim, conflicts with the bloodthirsty spectacle of the games. The fascinating thing about Katniss is she is largely reactive through nearly all of the story, yet Collins still manages to push her buttons so that she develops into this contrasting character. Imagine what you could do with a character who is intentionally bucking the system!

4.) Make sure to have fun – put in quirky things like favorite foods, odd body modifications, or flaming unicorns as everyday transportation.

 As long as you keep this aligned with Tip #1, feel free to go ahead and stamp your personality all over your world. This is speculative fiction. We can make up all kinds of crazy things and, as long as we execute it well, readers will eat up our stories. Own your favorite things and own what is unique about you. Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from your own history, passions, and experiences. The authenticity will bleed out onto the page and make your stories that much more compelling.

For instance, I like ice cream…and frozen custard…and whipped cream…and pretty much any kind of dairy-based frozen dessert. Does this show up in my stories? You bet. In fact, I may or may not have written a web comic where the main character partly sets off the whole adventure based upon an argument over a fair price for a certain flavor ($35 is NEVER an acceptable price for ice cream, by the way). And flaming ice cream is the least of the weird flavors I’ve come up with–did I mention I also like things set on fire?

5.) Everyone believes something – know your culture’s worldview.

Worldview is that big, crazy, mixed up pile of beliefs and life experiences and nurture and personality that form into a lense by which we view and make judgments about the world. It’s a pretty complicated thing and not something you can just draw up for a character in one day–unless you’re one of those authors whose stories NEVER change or develop during drafting. However, knowing the worldview of your character or society is a great way to tap into core motivations. From there, you have all the tools to push them into various plots as you choose. For more information, check out What’s Up With Worldview?

Want a quick and easy way to remember these tips? I just so happen to have a limited supply of exclusive bookmarks featuring all five. Share this blog post between now and Saturday, August 13th on your choice of social media and post a link in the comments and I will personally mail you a signed bookmark (I’ll sign the side that doesn’t have the tips 😉 ). They’re shiny, sturdy, and blue! Perfect for marking books or poking someone with…or whacking someone with…not that I’ve done this…

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This post is also available on YouTube! Click below to access the video version – subscribing to my YouTube channel and notifying me can also get you a signed bookmark. Thanks for tuning in!

Character Test 2 – Do You Use Contrasts?

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Why did I return to contrasts? Because it is one of the quickest, most effective ways I’ve found to enrich plot, build tension, add humor, and/or add character arcs. And it’s so easy!

Easy + Quick + Effective = you get a friendly reminder from yours truly in the form of this awesome test.

There is also now a video to go along with the post! As per my habit of perpetual self-improvement, the video has new examples and spins on the concepts contained in the blog post.

Thanks for tuning in! Scroll down for the text.

Do you use any contrasts in your stories? What are your favorite contrasts? Please share in the comments!

A flying dragon who is afraid of heights. An elephant who doesn’t want to drink the water because of potential bacteria. A brilliant doctor who saves lives, but doesn’t get along with people.

What do they all have in common? They use contrasting elements. They put two opposing elements together and then sit back and watch the conflict of those elements create compelling interactions with other characters and within the overall narrative.

Contrasts are a great way to spice up characters and plots. Not only do they create conflict, which is essential to any great story, but they are also quick fixes if a character gets boring or stuck in a rut…. Click here to read the full post on Author Culture.

World-Building Online Launch Party (with autographs!)

I have a sharpie and I know how to use it!

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Although in that picture I’m using a pen. The reason I’m writing in brand new books is that several people have either won or special ordered autographed print copies of World-Building From the Inside Out. So I take sharpie in hand for the grand moment, as Suzy Q taught me, and I sign–and then I reach for the pen (because I’m a rebel).

Signing books is a thing for me. In my family growing up, a book gift didn’t REALLY count until the giver had signed and dated it with a personalized message. Didn’t have to be long, didn’t have to be fancy, but that little touch had to be there. Something to make it memorable.

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There’s the sharpie!

As I sat down yesterday to sign the books, I had the jitters as I realized I wasn’t signing for family (okay, some of it was family, because that happens, but not ALL for family 😉 ). I was writing for friends and people that I honestly, deeply wanted to help with these materials. Due to some personal reflection lately (always fun), I learned that I’m in fact a sometimes socially-awkward extrovert. I’m pretty good at cracking a joke and chatting about ideas, but not so great at communicating how deeply I care about people.

Writing these instructional materials wasn’t a way to get a speaking engagement or make a quick buck (although I do love teaching and money is helpful). First and foremost, I wrote World-Building From the Inside Out because I really wanted to make a quick, usable reference/primer for writers who struggle with finding time or energy or resources to world-build. Who get scared at the idea, or get bogged down in all the choices to make.

Who sometimes feel like giving up.

I know what it’s like to squeeze out words when all you want to do is sleep and the voices in your head are telling you that there has to be something else you could be doing. To pray for inspiration when you are spent after a long day. To try to explain to people “yeah, so I write” and they ask what else you do–and you don’t have anything else, because your life is filled with jobs/kids/cleaning/occasional sleep and you have to fight for those moments at the computer screen. Or to spend hours searching for just the right world-building element and meanwhile no words are getting on the page.

And I say to you: Keep going. Be bold enough to put crazy fantastic ideas on the page that no one ever has. Be brave enough to use your unique voice. And be AWESOME!

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Also, if you have a chance, be at the online launch party this Friday on Facebook from 8 pm-10 pm. There will be epic guest authors H.L. Burke and Kat Heckenbach, games, and videos! Plus, lots of fun prizes, including print copies of World-Building From the Inside Out (textbook and workbook), fantastic fiction, and a free custom illustration of a creature or book character (for writers) or a custom piece of fan art (for readers) by artist Julia Busko. Hope to see you there!

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Three Ways Superpowers Can Supercharge Your Story

Two important comic book facts to know about me:

1.) Marvel forever. I asked my future-husband when dating whether he liked Marvel or DC more–and if he had said DC, who knows where we would have ended up? 😉

2.) X-Men rules. I am a huge fan of the creative (albeit sometimes ridiculous) superpowers, the concept of being ordinary people alienated for something they can’t control, and the wide cast of characters (until M-Day and…I’m still not sure how I feel about that).

Anyway, sufficed to say I saw X-Men: Age of Apocalypse with my husband on Memorial Day. This isn’t a movie review, because I am highly biased and have no desire to approach dissecting the movie rationally. Plot holes? Oh yes. Underused mutants? Absolutely. Crazy anti-climactic moments where a major catastrophe is broken up by a certain speedy mutant saving the day to 80s pop music? Yes, please! And through all that, an underlying thread of meaning and regret and purpose. What I love about X-Men is that these aren’t larger-than-life superheroes or driven soldiers. These are kids and professors and losers from their parents basements who come together to make a difference.

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That brings me to the tips! Special abilities. Some people dub it magic. You could also say affinities or abilities or talents. I usually label any extraordinary skills superpowers, just for the sake of simplicity. I even put Adrian Monk from Monk in this category. Whatever word you prefer, having a special oomph in a certain area can amp up characterization, super-charge the plot, and just be a lot of fun to mess around with.

Three Ways Superpowers Can supercharge your Story (1)

1.) Make the superpowers contrast a character’s personality 

Contrast is one of my favorite story buzzwords, simply because tossing in a contrast is a super-easy way to create interest, tension, and conflict–all things that push plot. In this case, give the character a power, talent, or racial ability that directly goes against their innate tendencies. Make a quiet, brainy girl a Phoenix. Give a lazy, basement-dwelling guy super speed. Make a dragonshifter afraid of heights–and even fire! Or, for a more normal twist, make a pacifist a natural with a weapon. This creates internal conflict as the character struggles against their own gifts, and that will go a long way to making them more interesting. It also pushes for the characters to grow and expand in their perception of the world, for good or for ill. Make a thoughtful, rational person an empath, and suddenly they have to cope with all of the emotions of those around them. This could drive them crazy, but it could also force them to understand and appreciate the individuals around them more.

Note: be careful that the contrast isn’t so agonizing that the character spends the entire time whining about it. Then it just becomes annoying. Also, be advised that when you choose to go the route of contrast, it will take over a significant part of the character’s arc, and possibly the plot as well.

2.) Make the superpowers an extension of the character’s personality

This takes the opposite side of contrast, but if done correctly, it can be equally effective. Adrian Monk from Monk fits this to a tee, with his OCD giving him the ‘superpower’ of being highly detail-oriented (combined with human intuition). Another example is Iron Man, whose suits are literally an extension of his incredible intellect. A third? Steve Rogers. While he could also fit into the ‘contrast’ category as a weakling given superhuman capabilities, his heart, honor, and code of ethics are already superhuman. The physical stuff is just part and parcel. Their superpowers become part of a character’s identity, because they are already synced with their natural inclinations. Not only does this make their personality larger than life (helpful if your character is an introvert), but it also means that the superpowers can be woven into their origin stories in a very organic way. Consider how the death of Monk’s wife spurred his OCD, as well as his desire to track her killer. The more you can weave a superpower into a character’s psyche and make it natural, the easier it can be for the audience to accept it.

Note: be careful the superpower doesn’t take over the actual characterization. Story-tellers often find making personality and power match substitutes for actually digging into their brains and making them tick. While this can work for tertiary/side characters, it’s unsatisfying for primary or secondary characters.

3.) Make the superpowers have serious side effects

Some superpowers are innate, especially racial superpowers, like elvish nature-abilities or Vulcan telepathy. Others come about unnaturally, but end up helping the character (even if they hinder them at times). However, there’s always a third kind: the awful ones. Rogue’s life-force suctioning, denying her basic human touch. Scott Summers’ energy beams, which require that he wear ruby quartz glasses 24/7. In my Houses of the Dead, the abilities of each Blood Kind house have equally matching psychological conditions: super-senses get a sensory processing disorder, charisma opens up social conditions, and high intellect equals neuroses and savant syndromes. Any of the above make a superpower more than just fun escapism. They make things serious, and ground the story in a sense of reality. In real life, things have consequences–and adding side effects or difficulties increases the potential for consequences and disaster in the narrative. And that pushes plot.

Note: be mindful of audience expectations and the expectation of your genre. Serious side effects often add a dim or even depressing tone to a story. Readers like superpowers for escapism and may not always want a power laden with Serious Repercussions. If you’re going the route of heavy side effects, try to find ways of adding in moments of lightness or humor.  Unless you’re going super grimdark.

Thanks for tuning in! Character-Building From the Inside Out should be out by the end of the summer. In the meantime, please comment with your own favorite or least favorite superpowers and share why–as well as the superpower you’d like to have! Broad categories count; if you really want to be an elf, that race counts as a superpower. 🙂