I’ve always been drawn to books with characters whose abilities represent a classic double-edged sword, both blessing and curse. Think Incredible Hulk—unbelievably strong, capable of protecting both himself and others, but also out of control, unable to clearly remember who he is or what he’s doing when he’s in that transformed state. When it comes to such powerful characters, the double-edged ability is a great way to explore the dark-side of awesomeness, to render someone who is untouchable painfully relatable. The unfortunate side effects and consequences of special powers also bring balance and tension into a story, where power alone would limit the tale to simple answers and quick resolution.
I love writing this type of character into my books, too. In my latest urban fantasy novel, Reliquary, along with its prequel comic miniseries, Mayhem and Magic, Asa Ward has the power to sense magic in people and objects, but it comes with nasty side effects—he’s an exposed nerve. Too much of certain types of magic can make him violently ill, too much of others leave him vulnerable to addiction. So, while he has an edge as he steals and deals bits of magic all over the world, it’s an ability that could destroy him. I love that interplay between power and vulnerability, and here are a few of my favorite books and comics that use it to great effect:
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
In the long running and compulsively readable Sookie Stackhouse series, the eponymous heroine simply wants to live a normal life in her little home town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Only problem—she can hear the thoughts of the people around her. Sounds like a cool power, except it means she’s privy not only to everyone’s secrets, but also their thoughts about her. Worse, she can’t always hide it, and so everyone knows there’s something off about Sookie. Having that endless cacophony in her head is sometimes more than she can take, leading her to seek the company of vampires, whose thoughts she can’t hear. Bloody shenanigans ensue.
So many of the mutants of Marvel’s X-Men have classic blessing-and-curse powers, but the one I think is the most poignant is Rogue, AKA Anna Marie, who absorbs the memories (and powers, if present) of others whenever she touches them. Awesome! Except the person she touches can end up dead, which absolutely sucks for her love life. She discovers this as a teenager when she has her first kiss and leaves the boy in an irreversible coma. There is a short interlude in the comics where she’s drained of her powers and gets a taste of normal life with her boyfriend, Gambit, so that’s something, at least, but still. She is literally untouchable.
Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost
The female protagonist of the extremely fun Night Prince paranormal romance series is Leila, who after a childhood accident with a downed power line, channels electricity AND has the gift of psychometry, meaning she can see past, present, or future events tied to objects or people when she touches them. Unfortunately, this means she has a tendency to shock others both physically and emotionally, as she often sees a person’s darkest moment the first time she touches them. At the beginning of the series, she’s designed her life around avoiding contact with other people. It’s no fun, but like Sookie, she finds her match in a vampire! Vampires are awesome that way.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The main character of this, one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors, is Saleem Sinai, who was born at the moment India became independent from Great Britain. His life and health are closely linked with the fate of the country and the other thousand children who were also born at that moment. Saleem is a telepath with a massive, constantly dripping nose that causes him no shortage of annoyance and ridicule. At one point he has a medical procedure that rids him of the telepathy but gives him a hypersensitive sense of smell that also allows him to detect emotions. He’s possibly the least glamorous but most interesting character with powers I’ve ever read about.
The Green Mile by Stephen King
John Coffey is locked up in Cold Mountain State Penitentiary for raping and murdering two little girls, but as guard Paul Edgecombe gets to know him, he realizes John has some pretty unusual gifts. Sensitive and empathic, John somehow has the power to heal others, and it turns out his attempt to use that ability to try to help others led to his imprisonment. This story is a perfect yet brutal example of how a wonderful, positive power can get a good person into serious and tragic hot water. I highly recommend the read—just have a box of tissues at your side.
Top image: The Avengers (2012)
Sarah Fine is a clinical psychologist and the author of the Servants of Fate and Guards of the Shadowlands series. She was born on the West Coast, raised in the Midwest, and is now firmly entrenched on the East Coast. Her latest novel, Reliquary, is available now.