Letdowns in Fiction or, the Power of Powers


Diana and I were talking the other day about what secret powers we wish we had, or something along those general lines. (Our car appears to have been struck, or nearly struck, by lightning, and I have been waiting for the superpowers to kick in but so far, nothing. Oh, and everyone was OK, though Chestnut is somewhat skittish about electrical storms now, and the tree that was near us is dead.)
Anyway, Diana was talking about a book she read and really enjoyed (The Prophecy of the Stones, which I have not read yet myself and so I cannot tell you whether it is good, but she really liked it). She was saying how cool it was that everyone in the book had all these powers, and some of them were really cool, but the problem was that when they really had to beat the enemy, do you know what saved them?—and here her voice took on an intense contempt that I can't really convey on a screen—the power of hope.
"Lame?" I offered, as my heart broke within me.
"Really lame," she agreed.
She told me that it's not that she's against hope (whew!) but that if you have the powers, isn't the whole point that you use them?  I offered up A Wrinkle in Time as a book that had a climactic moment in which they triumphed because of the power of love, and wasn't that so excellent? "Uh, not exactly."
So there I was, torn between 1) worrying that she didn't care about the humanity and good that we hope is at the core of all of us, and 2) thinking that I could see her point. Where, exactly, is the line between a heartfelt positive truth and an admonishing moral example? And maybe, just maybe, the whole thing of Greek drama in which Gods came down and solved everything wasn't the letdown for people that modern drama says it is; maybe it's what people really craved, and in some weird space still want: the conviction that something inexplicable and magical and powerful is out there, waiting to awe us.

3 thoughts on “Letdowns in Fiction or, the Power of Powers

  1. I guess it seems like sometimes storytellers (books, movies, anything) use that as a cop-out. It’s great to see that hope or love can be the source of tremendous power, but if that’s the point you want to make, don’t give your characters other powers. Or have them use those powers in the course of discovering those things. I’m a pretty big Harry Potty fan, and that’s one of the things I really like about those books–that the thing that saves the day is always his courage or loyalty or some other commendable quality; but it comes through in the way he uses magic. It’s so wonderful to believe that there’s a world where the impossible is possible. Don’t offer us that, then take it away to show us we already have all we need inside us. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.


  2. Well, YEAH, I totally want the Gods to swoop down and solve everything! That’s what gives me hope!
    I’m being sarcastic, but in reality, there is some hope in that scenario – all is not lost, we are not alone in the universe, and there’s probably some Jungian (or something) way in which the Gods are archetypes who give us a reason to believe those powers reside within ourselves… All without having to heavy-handedly point out that The Power of Hope is The Greatest Power of All – gag.


  3. I’m with Kendra. This is a timely post for me because I just finished a book (won’t say which because of spoilers) that had exactly that cop-out, and it was really unsatisfying. If the characters have (or are developing) cool magical powers, I want to see them using those powers all the way through. I also want to see them learn something about love or courage or hope or whatever (something “real”). But the climax has to involve both.
    Much as I love A Wrinkle in Time, I didn’t like the climax for that reason.


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