A few years ago (2011), Brandon Sanderson wrote about his second law of magic, and how it affected his worldbuilding. To wit: Limitations are more interesting than powers.

This is true in almost any story, any genre, because the heart of a story is the intersection between character, setting, and conflict. If you have great big cosmic powers, high magic, implanted communications and highly upgraded bodies, or the more human scale of money, fame, and power…

The conflict arises when you hit the limits. What *can’t* the magic solve? What if your space ship is up against an equally advanced – or more so – enemy, or has to do something out where refueling is chancy? What is the price to pay for upgrading bodies, and what problems will you find that no amount of fast-twitch nerves and subdermal armor can protect against? What can’t money buy? What if you have to go where you’re not a ruler, just an outsider?

That’s where the story is.

Taking a step beyond that… we are all human. We all have our limits, from mental, physical, and cultural to temporal and ethical. As such, while we may love the powers…

Limits are what make powers real.

It’s fun to read about the clever man who managed to get his very own spaceship! But it’s reading about the never-ending pile of maintenance problems that makes it real. You’re visiting an exotic alien port on a far world! Watch out for pickpockets and scam artists. You have a sword that can kill anyone with a mere scratch! But it can’t protect you, and you have to cover crossbow range, first.

Sure, I write super-soldiers, augmented and rebuilt better, faster, stronger, highly trained, and… no amount of implants or regen can protect against PTSD, nor help Twitch when he’s looking at Gunny with rising panic and asking, “I caught her! How do I keep her?”

Limits are what make characters real.

But characters are more than the sum of their limits, and sometimes, finding a clever way around those limits… or embracing the price that must be paid to break them in order to Do The Thing… or finding a way to break the limits, by becoming someone capable of doing so… These are also a heart of many stories.

Make the limits real, and the cost real, and the sacrifice real… and then the victory will feel real, too.

30 thoughts on “Limitations

  1. I recommend “The Theory of Constraints”. Good book on how limitations lead to improved outcomes.

  2. Most people might like a wish-fullment story once but I really doubt they’d like a steady diet of them.

    Which why good stories require limitations that the characters come up against.

    Maybe the characters can bypass the limitations, but it must be hard to do so.

    1. :musing on a thought:

      Most stories are wish fulfillment.

      The question is– which wishes? How satisfying can you make it?

      The stories that aren’t wish fulfillment — if we expand out to “wish to see what happens If This Goes On, which is a variation on ‘what happens next?’ and thus a strong desire– are probably from someone misapplying the notion that wish fulfillment is bad.

      It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that if the only thing TO the story is wish fulfillment, it’s not satisfying for long.

  3. The conflict arises when you hit the limits. What *can’t* the magic solve?

    My favorite limitations are the ones that are inherent– to steal from Sheen, if you are drawing a triangle, it must have four sides; you are free to draw a shape with four sides, but it is not a triangle.

    So, for a magic spell– does it require a triangle, something that is recognized as a triangle (say , a shape like this: /_\, no touching), a shape with three angles, at least three angles, three angles of exactly….

    :announcer voice: And this, boys and girls, is why Read The Manual requires someone that can actually write a good manual!

    I’ve been musing on my Universal Translator.
    I know that the Federation But Realistic has rather nasty control-the-language choices built into their translators, including editing out what people say …but why are people using them, then?

    Because translation is a trade-off, especially real time translation; programming in judgement that THIS time they mean “go pee” and THAT time they mean “element with atomic number one” and a third time they mean “literally produces H2O”, that’s very hard.

    So, make it easy.

    …which also means a bunch of people’s very names are edited out, and the baseline assumptions for a LOT fo thigns get changed, and when you say someone cannot hear your words, you ain’t just whistling dixie!

    1. /sigh

      Either “it must have three sides” or “it must NOT have four”, I edited it both ways and compromised poorly.

    2. Chuckle Chuckle

      In some of the Star Trek novels, the Universal Translator isn’t a “magical” translator but is the product of linguists (from both sides) working together to create a device that translates what is said from one language to another language.

      Well, the Klingon linguists “mistranslated” several Klingon phrases from something insulting to some thing not so insulting.

      Apparently, most Klingons know this so get a thrill out of insulting Federation personnel without the Feds realizing that they were insulted.

      Of course, plenty of Federation personnel have actually learned Klingon and have learned this little fact.

      So (in the novels) we saw people like Captain Kirk showing their command of the Klingon Language when talking to their Klingon counterparts thus telling the Klingons “be careful of what you say because I can understand when you’re being insulting.” πŸ˜†

    3. I believe Chesterton said that triangle one first.

      “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular.”

      1. Quite likely, Sheen did a lot of gleaning from Chesterton– and that first part is VERY close to my memory of that episode of Life is Worth Living, though they went in different directions.

        (For folks following along; Chesterton’s is here: would have been some 40+ years before Fulton Sheen. They were both popular culture philosophers from a Catholic perspective, if you enjoy CS Lewis and Tolkien you might enjoy them.)

        1. Chesterton typically has a very unique approach, Fr Brown just being one example. Another example is The Flying’s Inn type of vegetarianism.

  4. My professional life in maintenance has given me a keen understanding of the gulf between “theoretically possible” and “works in the real world”. No matter how advanced technology or magic becomes, it will always be dependent on people to operate it and to keep it operating.

    People will forget to do PCMS, lose the instructions, rig ways around failsafes, store old furniture in front of access panels, and neglect to report problems in the early stages when they can be easily fixed.

    Engineers live and work in nice clean offices, doing their calculations and drawings in an ideal world. Guys like me have to deal with what happens when the rubber hits the road and those nice neat ideals hit the fan.

    1. One of my favorite (because didn’t happen to me) stories was one during the lead-up to Y2K when the computer people where having to upgrade every server in a company. There were three or four servers that the IT people knew existed, but no one else had a clue where they might be. Finally someone said, “Ya know, there’s this one wire bundle that we never did follow up . . .”

      The servers had been walled in behind sheetrock. Oops. No one would admit to knowing how that managed to happen.

      1. At the university where I used to work we had to completely remodel an office because at some time in the past a bathroom was removed from an upper floor and the pipes weren’t capped, just cut off flush. Then someone upstairs got curious about a valve on the wall that didn’t seem to be connected to anything…

      2. A similar story: an electrical engineer was working on a particular device, and he came across a switch with two positions labeled “magic” and “more magic.” Curious, he followed the wires connected to this switch and came to the conclusion that they didn’t actually form a circuit; this switch couldn’t possibly do anything. Idly, he flipped the switch from “more magic” to “magic” … and the device stopped working.

        Eventually, he pulled off the switch and everything that was attached to it and got the device working again without it. He hung the switch on his wall as a trophy–but was always careful to leave it in the “more magic” position, just in case.

  5. There’s a lot of limitations. It helps to ponder the expanse of possibilities.

    Logical: Even Superman can not do a thing and leave it undone.

    Inherent: Superman can not actually make you do something. He can do it himself, or he can make your life hell if you refuse, but he can’t make you. (This is why mind control would be the truly warping superpower.)

    Likewise a strong power may not help with something that requires a delicate touch. Etc.

    Moral: I’ve got a story where two paladins are clashing because one believes strongly in the rule of law and the other strongly in the punishment of certain wrongdoers — who are both certainly evil and certainly getting away because of abuse of the law. They’ve both got a point.

    1. I apologize for this being OT, but the remark about ‘mind control being the truly warping superpower’ makes me wonder if it were ever possible to have a good or at least non-evil character who has mind control as a power.

      I suspect it’s been done several dozen times but for the life of me I’ve never stumbled across an example in fiction that I can remember.

      1. Marvel Comics has Charles Xavier (also known as Professor X).

        He is able to read and control other people’s minds.

        In the X-Men comics, he often controlled people’s minds for various (said to be good) reasons.

        DC’s Martian Manhunter is also said to be able to control people.

        Mind you, Martian Manhunter often didn’t use his mind-control powers that often.

        1. Ach, yes, I forgot about them entirely! Though to be honest I always kind of wondered about Professor X’s tendency to mind control his way out of his problems, especially in the early years of the X-men comic. Sometimes it seemed like he’d mind-schtunked so many people so often I wondered how they had any self-will left.

          1. He had a distinct lack of scruple. At times I wonder whether he tried to mindcontrol Magneto when they first met in Israel.

            Though that did have some good aspects, in that he was able to draw Gabrielle Haller out of her catanoia — and refused to do again because she had to develop her own resilence.

      2. Marvel Comics’ Professor X (Charles Xavier) and DC’s Martian Manhunter could control people’s minds.

      3. Only with extreme care, which is why they tend to have other powers as well.

        1. And/ or are very reluctant to use said powers? I recall a character named Mindswipe from the Extinctioners comic who was depicted as a very sweet young lady with quite potent mind control powers. She was very reluctant to use them because firstly, she thought it was a horrible thing to do; and secondly, it formed a link between her and the mind of her victim. At the very least she felt the horror and fury they did at being so violated. At worst, if they had any particularly traumatic memories she’d feel it like it was happening to her.

      4. Villain Powers!

        My Hero Academia has several characters with “obvious villain powers”, and does a REALLY good job of applying good, creative thought to the idea that while some tools are well suited to evil uses, they are still just tools.

        (That entire series is basically geeking out over X-Men.)

      5. In one of the Dresden Files books (Proven Guilty) there is character who has mind control magic and honestly tries to use it for good, but she ends up causing more harm to the people she was trying to help.

      6. Much depends on the worldbuilding. If the powers match your personality, spontaneously as they so often are, or by choice, it may be possible that evil folks get evil powers, and good ones good powers.

        Hmm. Does reformation change your powerset?

        1. Or the powerset consist of several elements and your personality “causes” you to use (focus on) certain elements of the powerset and not other elements.

          Thus when you reform, you begin to use (focus on) different elements of the powerset than you used before you reformed.

          Of course, that depends on the Worldbuilding. πŸ˜€

          1. This reminds me of a character I once used briefly in a series that never got published or went anywhere. She was a once-powerful necromancer who got converted to what was essentially Christianity with a faint Buddhist gloss, and who decided to make amends by using her power over life and death as a healer. Of course not everyone believed she was honest about her conversion, or that she should be forgiven for what she’d done, which lead to some problems.

  6. Major component of my writing is OP characters that can accomplish basically anything. Nanotech, post-human intelligence, fusion powered everything, they’ve got it going on.

    They spend almost all their time and effort trying not to break anything. It’s a real problem for them.

    Example from the other day’s discussion, you can’t just nuke Planet Evil from orbit and call it good, even though you’ve got the nukes and even though they’re begging for it.

    When you can do everything, you can’t do anything. Unless you’re smart about it.

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