Superhero fiction is rich in characters who won the superpower lottery. They are simultaneously invulnerable, able to fly, equipped with super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, flight, shapeshifting, invisibility, intangibility, psychic powers, and the ability to create ice-cream out of nothing. It’s always useful to have at least one of those guys around and in fact the Legion of Super-Heroes (in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity) had a loophole in their “no duplicate powers” rule that allowed them to add as many Superboy-knockoffs as they could get.
However, do-anything lads or lasses (and their all-powerful wizard cousins over in fantasy) present the author with the problem of presenting these overpowered characters with challenges not immediately solved with little effort using their vast arsenal of abilities. In many ways, characters limited to one or two minor knacks are more fun from an author’s perspective, because weaker characters have to be ingenious (or at least lucky), rather than just bulldozing through their problems.
This makes for amusing reading, as the five works below will show.
Skeeve from Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin (1978)
Wizard Garkin has a youthful apprentice, Skeeve. Lucky Skeeve, given the chance to master the breadth and depth of magic! But magic study is a long and arduous work; it takes years of study. Too bad that an assassin’s bolt ended poor Garkin’s life before Skeeve had taken more than a few steps along to the road to magic mastery.
The assassin was working for a would-be evil overlord, who saw Garkin as an impediment to his schemes. With Garkin dead, it falls to Garkin’s old chum Aahz and Garkin’s apprentice Skeeve to confound the evil overlord. But…there are problems. Just before his death, Garkin played a practical joke on Aahz that stripped Aahz of his magic. Aahz therefore has a lot of knowledge, but no ability to put it into action. Skeeve, on the other hand, can work magic, but knows only two weak spells: levitation and minor pyrokinesis.
Can the pair save the world with just two minor spells?
Ken Vanrey from “Leaks” by David Langford (1991)
Ken Vanrey’s very special ability is just good enough to earn him a position with the UK’s Department of Paranormal Resources. However, the DPR’s standards are comprehensive but undemanding. Anyone with paranormal powers, no matter how ludicrous, will be swept up by the DPR. Ken’s ability definitely qualifies as absurd—he can, by an act of will, ensure that his beer glass remains full. But that’s a bona fide paranormal power, so…
Ken is sent off to investigate skullduggery at a nuclear plant. His intended role is “stalking horse”: he is to ostentatiously poke around to see if the player on the other side is foolish enough to reveal themselves by taking a shot at Ken. Limited and very specific short-range teleportation seems unlikely to be of use in atomic espionage… but Ken is a bright guy and even limited superpowers are still quite handy, if applied in an unexpected way.
Mumen Rider from One-Punch Man by ONE (2009 onwards)
In a world filled with destructive, voracious monsters, each determined to create a larger body count than the last, humanity’s only meaningful protection are the members of the Hero Association: enhanced cyborgs like Genos, telekinetic champions like Tornado, and of course the indestructible, super-strong, inexplicably obscure Caped Baldy. And then there’s Mumen Rider.
Mumen Rider is a reasonably fit man with no superpowers. He does not even have a driver’s license. He does, however, have a bicycle, a safety helmet, intimate knowledge of road regulations, and a desire to help his fellow humans that cannot be crushed by…being crushed, among other things. Despite frequent trips to the hospital (and the presumably lengthy bouts of physical rehabilitation that follow), good-natured Mumen Rider will never fail to respond to the largest monster with unflinching courage, determination, and what looks like a swell multi-terrain bike.
Cas Russell from Zero Sum Game (and others) by S. L. Huang (2014)
There are indeed people with abilities far beyond mortal ken. Not that this is widely known. In this setting, people outed as having superpowers are attacked, their minds scrambled. No costumed superheroes in this world.
Protagonist Cas Russell has an unusual superpower: she can do complex computations in the blink of an eye. Now, super-math may sound like a niche skill, more suited to filling out tax forms quickly than to fighting. Leave it to Cas to figure out how to use her superpower in unexpected ways. Undetectable ways.
Cas also has a corresponding lack to balance out her special ability—namely, a poor grasp of ethics and morals. Still, a mind-scrambling attack on her friend Anton is sufficient to send her hunting for the evildoer.
Evelyn Starkey from Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross (2020)
The United Kingdom is firmly in the grasping extremities of the New Management (horrors from beyond space and time who have claimed Earth as their rightful territory).
Evelyn Starkey is a personal assistant to her creepy boss Rupert. She’s a very good PA, proficient at a number of mundane skills. However, she does have one seemingly unimpressive special ability: just enough telekinesis and thermokinesis to prepare and heat a quick pot of coffee.
Turns out that this is good for more than supplying her boss with a steady stream of caffeine. Her powers can boil a brain or just lobotomize it. Minor her powers may be, but brains are incredibly fragile.
No doubt you all have your own favourite examples of interesting characters with minor abilities. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.