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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nobody likes it when someone’s life is too easy.
Consequences and limitations mean someone isn’t invincible or all-powerful—whatever genre you write.
That’s why we’re holding a live workshop on how to write consequences and limitations—in fantasy writing and beyond—next week.
Discover the ultimate way to make your characters’ lives harder in this one-hour workshop. Join the workshop.
Why is it about more than just writing fantasy?
Consequences mean whatever genre you write, what they do is grounded in reality—everything we say, do, and think irl has consequences.
Why are fictional people any different if we want them to be well-rounded and feel real?
Limitations mean they can’t do whatever they want. Their actions are grounded in reality.
Your characters a more interesting, grounded, and three-dimensional.
People can project onto them more easily too, because they’re more realistic. They inevitably will, so it’s worth accepting and working with this.
Consequences and limitations can help us to increase stakes, too, because characters aren’t invincible or all-powerful, so when they face an opponent who is stronger than them, it increases the stakes.
And that could be in crime, thriller—doesn’t have to be fantasy.
You could even use it in romance, with a love interest who’s emotionally detached. Growing out of that could be their character arc.
Or if they’re really selfish, maybe they need to learn to put their love interest first. There’s lots of things you can do.
You can even take inspiration from real life—either your past or other people’s.
Health limitations and consequences
1 in 4 people have mental health conditions, according to mental health charity Mind.
15 million people in England have chronic health conditions, in a population of 55 million.
Which means if none of your characters have physical or mental health conditions, they’re unrealistic.
Many of us with health conditions look fine, like Ellie and I do. But there are some things we have to consider before going out. Like I have to consider how much energy I have to drive places, as well as drive back, thanks to my chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many of these conditions are invisible, which means they come with a lot of judgment. When I parked in a disabled spot recently—using my badge—a woman glared at me, as if I wasn’t allowed to be there because I’m young and look fine.
It goes to show how much just one small aspect of your life can have daily consequences.
It’s not just about chronic issues, though. We all get colds from time to time. So why wouldn’t you include your characters’ health? It could just be a throat infection which means they can’t say what they want to, or a sneeze that makes something funny happen each time.
Allergies and intolerances
20% of the global population have an allergy or intolerance. If they’re that common, why aren’t we including them?
Including them in our stories normalises them. Which makes them easier to talk about and less of a taboo subject.
Even ten years ago, being vegan was looked down on and there wasn’t much in terms of options if you were vegan or dairy-free. Now, there’s more acceptance around it, and a lot more choice whether you’re at the supermarket or a restaurant. When we can eat out again.
It’s talking about these things that changes the dialogue around them.
As writers, we have a duty to educate people. There’s no reason we can’t educate and entertain at the same time. They’ve never been mutually exclusive; people just assume they are because of school and uni.
Jobs and careers
Limitations like jobs will get in their way, too. For instance, a police officer needs to follow the rules but may have to break them to solve a crime.
The main character in Happy Valley does that, and she gets into trouble for it. She’s good at her job but she rubs people the wrong way.
There are naturally consequences to someone breaking those rules. It’s unrealistic for someone in an important job to not face consequences if they break the rules.
When someone doesn’t face consequences for breaking the rules, it pulls the reader out of of the story. Especially in stories that ground themselves in reality.
Fantasy needs these restrictions, too. All-powerful people are unrealistic.
There’s a limit to how far someone can suspend their disbelief.
In a book Ellie and I read recently, the main character was dating a police officer. It’s a mystery series, so she was trying to solve the murder on the side.
Her police officer boyfriend handed over the victim’s laptop to her, as if it was nothing.
The main character then let someone else look at it—someone who was an enemy up until this point in the series: book four.
It doesn’t make sense that she would be allowed anywhere near the victim’s laptop, let alone give it to someone she’d hated until that point.
It’s frustrating to read when characters do whatever they like to aid the story.
Yeah. Take The Avengers. They smash stuff up, accidentally kill people, and face no consequences.
This is finally addressed in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and there are finally consequences to all the things they’ve smashed. We see what happens to all the broken things.
This was a good way to acknowledge it after almost ten years of build up. It shows even superheroes have consequences to their actions.
Which grounds them in reality and makes them more believable. Even if none of us will ever have supernatural powers.
Even Superman can’t do everything. Kryptonite humanises someone who was designed to be really powerful at a time when we needed a hero like that. More modern versions try to humanise someone who was designed to be invincible even further, but that’s hard to do when he was created to basically be perfect.
His relationship with Lois helps, because people can relate to that/ship them. They’ll have gone through similar relationship issues. Minus the superpowers.
Fantasy restrictions and believability
In paranormal romance, people can project or fantasise about all these different powers.
And different trends come and go based on what’s happening in the world. Like right now, it’s all about witches and ghosts.
Vampires are out of favour, after ones that didn’t drink blood being everywhere for years.
If they don’t drink blood, one of the key limitations of them being vampires is taken away
Vampire Academy does vampire powers really well.. They have feeders, who basically get high from being bitten.
Their magic system is also clever. All vampires have an elemental magic, except for one of the main characters.
It’s revealed she has spirit. Spirit users slowly go mad if they don’t learn to control their powers,
The consequence of that is usually drug use, suicide, or turning into an evil vampire, a strigoi, who has no emotions and is basically a killing machine.
This lack of control from something that comes so naturally from them sounds terrifying—but that’s part of what makes it so good.
The Dresden Files has different types of vampires that have different powers. For instance, white court feeds on sexual energy.
Dresden and other wizards have different natural abilities in terms of types of magic they’re good at, but also raw natural energy. This builds over time.
So you can’t just decide to be an all powerful wizard and be blessed with tons of power. It has to be built up, and built on natural ability, too.
Charmed started like that, too. When using powers for personal gain they’re punished. But these consequences lessen as the seasons go on, removing the consequences—and the stakes. Which makes it less interesting and engaging to watch.
In the early days, one of the limitations they had was finding spell ingredients. They needed an ancient owl feather, so Prue had to steal it from a museum…
…But she got caught by her on-again-off-again boyfriend.
If I remember rightly, she uses her powers to get away from him.
Over the course of the season, he gets more and more suspicious that she’s a witch because of everything that keeps happening.
He eventually finds out, they permanently break up, and then he’s killed by a demon.
This made fans root for Prue and Andy, and many of us still ship them as a couple even though they were barely together.
Which shows how good they were, both magically and romantically.
And how there’s no need to rush the build up of your magic system or romantic relationship.
No consequences? No story.
The reason limitations are so important in fantasy is because you don’t want to have all powerful characters who can do anything and everything they please. There’s no story there.
You want your characters to struggle, to have to work for their pay off.
If everything comes too easily for them, there’s no reason for the reader to read on. If you solve all their problems on page one, why would they carry on to the end of the book? Or the rest of the series?
So make sure that your characters aren’t all powerful.
In Christine Zane Thomas’s Witching Hour series, magic can only be used when there’s a need for it. For instance, magic can be used to clean the house when someone important is coming over, but not when you’re being lazy. This applies to all types of magic.
In, Vampire Academy, vampires need bloody to survive. They get ill and become less powerful if they don’t have it.
Limitations can be physical, too. Frodo wouldn’t have anywhere near an interesting story if he didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to destroy the ring in Mordor.
How boring would that story be if they lived next to the volcano?
The story is good because of the physical limitations of them being hobbits with no way of getting there aside from walking, and the hardships they face along the way.
Create a challenge
Opponents have to have these weaknesses and limitations, too. Just as you don’t want your main character to be all powerful. They need to be defeatable, but not easily so.
Like Thanos in The Avengers. He has the ability to obtain the gauntlet that will give him the power to do what he wants. But he can’t just nip to the corner shop to get it.
Thanos is also more interesting because he believes he is morally right. His motives are, as far as he is concerned, justified and admirable .
But he’s so driven by these motives that they almost become a limitation.
He’s so consumed by getting this done, in a way he believes is fair, he fails to see that what he’s doing is damaging.
He can’t see the damage he’ll be doing.
So it’s then super weird for people who come back after the second snap, because they’ve been gone for five years. It taking The Avengers that long shows even they’re not invincible.
Which is part of why it works, unlike Justice League. They didn’t spend enough time building up the world, powers, or characters.
The Avengers vs Justice League
There’s a key scene in Justice League and the first Avengers film. They argue, which creates rifts.
This scene has very real consequences for the Avengers they need to get over it to defeat the big bad.
There are no real consequences in Justice League; no real increase in stakes after the argument.
So we’re less emotionally invested and the stakes aren’t as high. And they move on from the argument pretty soon after.
Meaning we care less about the Justice League than the Avengers. Because they’ve got nothing to lose.
They think the solution is to outsource and resurrect Superman. In the Avengers it’s teamwork, which is more relatable…
…so is what fractures them.
Those vulnerabilities are what grounds these superhuman characters in reality.
You need the same for all characters, no matter what genre you’re in.
A plot-heavy story isn’t an excuse for a lack of character development, or weak motives.
As The Avengers and Thanos taught us. They spent ten years building up to End Game, which gave them plenty of time to explore character motivations, flaws, fears, all the stuff that makes them three-dimensional.
And all those things mean that there were naturally consequences and limitations to what they did—or didn’t—do.
Wondering how to add consequences and limitations to your story?
We’ll delve into how you can create them for your characters, whatever your genre on 24 Feb at 8pm GMT. Join our consequences and limitations workshop.