This is not a new concept.
We’re all intimately familiar with the idea that power can corrupt. But the extent of the corruption is something that doesn’t always get a lot of attention. In some ways, that’s a good thing and leads to some of the most nuanced storylines.
However, as with most other things, it’s important to know the background and understand *how* power corrupts if we’re going to write effectively.
I bet you’ve asked this question
We’ll start this post off with a question: Why does Gandalf not use the One Ring to destroy Sauron?
We’ve all heard people asking this question. And doubtless, if you’ve read The Lord of the Rings (and you should), you’ve had this question yourself: Wouldn’t it be much simpler for Gandalf to just get it over with and forget all that tedious walking and character growth?
Well sure, let’s take the obvious answer (“Because then there’d be no story”) off the table and really think about it. We know, canonically, that Gandalf is incredibly powerful. We also know that the one thing he really fears is becoming corrupted by his power.
In fact, when Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf early on, Gandalf recoils in horror. He’s clearly thought about this before, has considered taking the ring and using it to solve all the problems in Middle Earth. He doesn’t though – because he recognises Power corrupts.
If you do any background reading into the lore behind LOTR, you’ll see that Sauron actually started off with fairly good-sounding goals. All he and his ultimate boss, Melkor/Morgoth, wanted was order in the universe.
Whether it’s the power of armies and being a ruler (see: Denethor and poor life choices. Also, Theoden) or the power of magic combined with fear (see: Saruman), power has a unique ability to corrupt even the very best of people or concepts.
When you’re writing a Magic System, the same principle applies – Power Corrupts.
Power Corrupts Characters
Think about the magical worlds you’re fondest of.
Good. Got a clear picture in your mind?
Now, superimpose on that picture, the idea that all the characters have unlimited magical ability. However, the Magic System in your favourite world operates, it’s surely not a great leap to say that this would make the world worse.
In fact, it would probably ruin most of your favourite characters. I’m not talking about the Heroes and Villains (we’ll get to those later), I’m talking about the simple ones, the ones that play supporting roles.
Sticking with the Lord of the Rings theme, imagine if Merry and Pippin had ultimate power. It’s likely that the entire story would never have been started.
Those guys would still be back in the Shire drinking beer and smoking some magically produced Shire weed. Even if they had left, there’d be no point to the story – there’d be no peril.
Every time anything bad was about to happen, Merry and Pippin, Super Soldiers, would simply deal with it and the fellowship would move on. Balrog? No problem.
This brings us, rather neatly, to the next section…
Power Corrupts Plots
Although it may have been several thousand years ago, the Deus Ex Machina is no longer a satisfying plot device. We’ve talked about this before in a previous blog post and this is what Power ultimately represents – a potential Deus Ex that leaves readers (and writers) feeling hollow and cheated.
It’s a writing trope that when you get to a section that you can’t solve, you put in the placeholder “and then the hero does something clever and solves the problem” or something similar.
It’s a tried and tested method of breaking out of a funk and getting past a block without compromising your story. After all, you know *what happens* after the problem, you just don’t know how your plucky hero gets there.
The problem with this technique is that if you’re not careful, you end up using it as a shortcut and just using some hand waving to get out of trouble. I can’t think of an example from Lord of the Rings so let’s look at one of the most egregious examples in modern fiction – the Time-Turner from Harry Potter.
Without getting too far into the plotline, the Ministry of Magic gives what technically qualifies as a MacGuffin to a teenage witch.
Which is insane, no matter how responsible she may be.
It’s clear from the way it’s written and used that JK Rowling realised that the Time-Turner was far too powerful and that it would ultimately corrupt her plot if she kept it around so it was only used once and then conveniently destroyed during the battle at the Ministry of Magic Headquarters.
Still, the damage had been done – Hermione and Harry had used the Time-Turner to solve an otherwise completely unsolvable problem, and, in so doing, launched Sirius towards his inevitable death. The power of the Time-Turner had saved the life of a character who should have died in a poignant and heart-wrenching display of the unfairness of life, and incidentally, given Harry MUCH better motivation going forward.
Power Corrupts Villains
Villains are just as susceptible to the corrupting influence of Power as anyone else – in fact, they’re worse off in some ways.
Who was the scariest villain in LOTR?
Was it Sauron? No, despite being the Big Bad (TM), Sauron was so ridiculously overpowered and far away that he never really felt like a threat. Sure, the eye was a little creepy and there was some tension build up in that, but it was never really a threat.
Sauron’s only actual job is to sit in Mordor looking threatening. Even Saruman is a more effective villain than Sauron and all he really did was cut down a bunch of trees and breed some orcs.
In the LOTR Canon, Sauron and Gandalf are on the same “level” of Power and that’s completely not shown in the context of the main writing. Gandalf is shown to be VERY powerful but still mortal, fallible. Tension builds up effectively when we’re with Gandalf because we know that he’s able to solve most problems but has limits. The fight scene between Gandalf and the Balrog feels genuine and frightening *because* we fear Gandalf will be lost.
If Gandalf had just swept the Balrog aside, it would have felt like a meaningless encounter and we’d have lost a lot of the potential in the storyline.
Power Corrupts Heroes
There’s nothing sadder than a Hero that’s run out of challenges.
Terry Pratchett’s “The Last Hero” deals with this in a particularly poignant way – reaching deep into the real meaning of heroism and stories to remind people that a hero without a mission is just a bored person.
The ultimate killer of Hero tropes and depth is Power. When a hero has unlimited magical power, the whole thing becomes pointless. If you can destroy the Big Bad TM with a wave of your hand, what’s the point of even getting up in the morning?
When you’ve solved world hunger by breakfast, what do you do with the rest of your day?
This is dealt with pretty well in LOTR – Tolkien is careful to keep his heroes’ flaws open and visible all the time. It’s not a magical power, but if Frodo had been strong and unrelentingly positive, his trip to chuck the ring away would have been pretty dull. A quick saunter up a hill, a flick of the wrist, and that’s the end of the story.
Sometimes, an incredibly powerful hero is a very useful plot device (see: The Name of the Wind) but it means that you need to give yourself other constraints – you need to then answer for other problems with the hero.
What are their weaknesses?
What stops them from solving the problems of the world?
Brandon Sanderson does this really well in his series “Steelheart” where he plays with the ideas of Superheros and Supervillains and sets them up against their greatest weaknesses. If you prefer something a little more mainstream, The Incredibles works through this mechanic as well – Mr. Incredible is only an interesting character because he doesn’t have Ultimate Power.
In the end, Power is a very important part of a Magic System and it’s also something that can quickly demolish all the hard work you’ve put into making it all work.
Be careful of power – it corrupts. And when you corrupt your power source, you risk corrupting your entire story.
If you’ve missed them…
Come back next week for the Final Post in this series!