Wrestling the TMP

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I’ve been rewatching some old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes on BBC America lately, remembering how much I liked the show’s innovative approach to familiar sci-fi scenarios. But I’m also reminded of something that always drove me nuts: Deanna Troi’s intermittent empathic sensory perception which allowed her to read people’s unspoken feelings. I say intermittent because her ability was often crucial to the episode’s story, but at other times—when it would have been really useful—it went on the blink: the emotions of the crew were running too high, or there was atmospheric turbulence of some kind, or the target being scanned was the wrong species… In each case, she was suddenly unable to get a clear fix on how someone was feeling.

Of course, the truth is that in most of those episodes Deanna’s abilities had to be switched off or else the episode would fall apart. Without all those convenient blockages, intentions would be stripped bare, duplicity revealed and villains unmasked. We would know by the end of the teaser all the stuff we weren’t supposed to know till the last few minutes of the show. Suspense, mystery and dramatic conflict would all go out the window because Deanna was just a bit too useful.

I call this an example of the TMP: a plot device which has Too Much Power.
Somewhere in those early script meetings it sounded really cool to have an empath on board, someone to balance the (supposedly) emotionless logic of Data by being not just in touch with her own feelings but clued in to everyone else’s as well. But once the series was well underway the script writers constantly had to turn her emotional radar off, and the result was not just annoying: it exposed the plot as a machine which was all too easy to derail.

There are lots of these in fantasy and sci-fi: wondrous artifacts which have mystical properties, innocent looking weapons which have the effect of a nuclear strike, characters whose magical abilities allow them to summon tornadoes or turn lions into hatboxes. The TMP device often looks cool, a great way to get out of a plot difficulty or raise some interesting character issues, but at some point it turns on you and you have to start trying to explain why—sometimes—it doesn’t work at all: can’t be allowed to work, if all your other work on plot, character etc. is going to hold together. The TMP is a Pandora’s Box or—if you prefer—a ring of power, an idea you turn to give your story something a bit special but which then tunnels into it and eats it from the inside (not so much fun now, is it, precious?).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late because I have a WIP which flirts with time travel, a TMP if ever there was one. Think of the dreaded Time Turner in the (otherwise excellent) 3rd Harry Potter novel: an artifact of extraordinary power which can unleash all manner of potentially fatal chaos which has been entrusted to a school girl so she can take extra classes? Really? OK. I can just about accept that for the puposes of the story. But then it’s NOT used in future books as the body count mounts because that would somehow destabilize the universe or something? I don’t want to get too literal minded about this, but no. Sorry. Not buying it. If you commit to the TMP, you have to be prepared to use it wherever and whenever it seems reasonable to do so. Expect no mercy from your readers if you use it only when it suits you to do so.

There are two ways of handling the TMP device to your advantage. One is to do the Next Gen thing and hedge the device around with limits and boundaries, but if you do this those limits need to be consistent and self-evident. Deanna’s occasional empathic abilities drove me mad because turning them off was so obviously a ruse: there was no clear pattern as to when they worked and when they didn’t (so far as I could see), so the moment was exposed for what it was: a plot point. If you give a character a powerful ability or artifact, think about limiting it in definitive ways: it won’t work under water or, for that matter, it ONLY works under water. Whatever. Just set the rule and stick to it.

The other way of foiling the TMP device before it eats your story head first is simply not to use one. Fantasy and sci-fi writers seem to find it almost impossible to resist the lure of the TMP, bent as we are on showing how the world in our stories is not the one outside our windows, but I can think of no easier way to paint yourself into the kind of corner you can never get out of. So I say this. Beware the TMP and all its works and all its empty promises. It is one of those green-eyed monsters which mocks the meat it feeds on, and the meat—don’t forget—is what was going to be your book.

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21 comments to Wrestling the TMP

  • Great post, A.J. (“Not so much fun now, is it precious?” — you crack me up!) I run into this a fair amount, dealing as I do with magic in all my books. This is one of the reasons why I believe that not just limitations but also COSTS have to be built into a magic system. When wielding magic weakens the mage or her familiar, when it requires blood or some form of sacrifice, then it destabilizes the space-time-granola continuum you have a built-in reason NOT to use that cool spell that might otherwise save the day. I’m not saying this works with every narrative circumstance, but it does give the author (and the author’s readers) something to chew on as they contemplate magical solutions to big problems.

    My favorite TMP moment? The first Star Wars movie, when the empire’s forces have to wait for the MOON to move out of the way in order to use their weapon that destroys PLANETS. “Um, Lord Vader, sir? Can’t we just blow up the moon?”

  • Great point, David. COSTS are another excellent way of handling the problem and raisign the stakes (I’m thinking of Gandalf facing the Balrog in an already weakened state). As to Star Wars, I find your lack of faith in the plot disturbing. That’s a quote. well, nearly.

  • Same applies in RPGs. Give the characters the uber-device and you can guarantee yourself one thing–that they’ll use it to lay waste to your best laid plans time and time again.

    Yes, Costs is an excellent method for curbing this. You can use the Staff of Uberawesome (pronounced “oo-bear-ow-ah-sahm-ay”) to annihilate that group of monsters, but remember, if the wild power within it goes out of control, you and the surrounding countryside…maybe the world, goes *poof*. 😉

  • I think you guys have gone over to the dark side.
    (snicker)
    Good points all AJ. I wish I’d had this info when I was trying to create my Rogue Mage world. That first-ever fantasy novel with its magic, strange world, and weird characters was so taxing and difficult to keep straight.

    (Yes, I am calling my characters weird. Hey, they use stones or metals or growing things or death or air or water, etc. to weld magic and each one has a different system of magic. Oy.) This post would have saved me a lot of headaches by giving me the info I leared by trial and error. BUILD IN THE WEAKNESSES of the TMP from the very start! Keep them in place. Yes! Excellent advice. (Tattooing this on my forebrain.)

  • In Moorcock’s Elric series, he employs an interesting solution. On the one hand, Elric has his sword Stormbringer which is a pretty uber-TMP sword — draining lives and giving its strength to Elric. But in the 4th volume (The Vanishing Tower), the sword decides its satiated and doesn’t feel like doing much. Later it gets hungry again, but for a time, Elric’s TMP was more like a whinny kid — “But I don’t WANNA!” The cost of his magic sword wasn’t to himself as much as to the magic’s own independence.

  • Daniel, I found a Staff of Uberawesomeness in my closet but the batteries had coroded. :)

    Faith, ah, the knowedge of hindsight. My vision in that category is positively telescopic (in the sense of being really powerful, not of folding up unexpectedly). During the actual writing… not so much.

    Stuart, a good example. I don’t recall the books well enough to know the rational for why it packed up, and thus don’t know if I thought this a solution or a symptom of the problem! Maybe it was a knock off magic sword liek those “Cartier” watches they sell on the streets of New York that turn green in a month.

  • No, the Staff of “oo-bear-ow-ah-sahm-ee-neez” is a different item and I have heard they are prone to battery wear if left unused for long periods of time. 😉

  • Ah. Thanks Daniel. That explains it.

  • AJ> Great post. I’m dealing with the TMP now with a couple magic elements in my plot. Give a girl firepower and she can do a lot. She’s a lot less hesitant to use it when she knows that it is likely to get loose and burn the whole city–including herself–to the ground. And that it wants to get loose, too.

    I remember rolling my eyes at some of the Next Generation stuff, too. When I rewatch them now, they stike me as a bit over acted (isn’t all of tv?).

    I’ve just started watching the new Dr. Who series (i’m in the middle of Season 1, ahh Netflix!) and I think they do the TMP thing pretty well with the Doctor. He’s got the right kind of limits, and that seems to work.

  • Pea Faerie,
    sounds like you’re thinking along the right lines re. fire girl. I’m still a Next Gen fan. I think it was really innovative and edgy for its day, though–yes–some of it looks heavy handed now. Big Doctor Who fan too, though I think they’ve lost something in their writing in this latest season. Maybe it will stabilize, but I’m a bit anxious (and that has nothing to do witht eh new doctor, who I like)…

  • Alan Kellogg

    I recall the time I gave a player of mine TMP (Too Much Power). Did he use it? You’d better believe it. Killed the campaign true dead.

    Give anybody extraordinary abilities and they are going to use them. More so when there’s no real price for those abilities.

    On this score I find myself agreeing with Dave, remember the price of any extraordinary ability. A price the talent will have even if it has no other cost.

    What is that price? People will expect things of you they won’t of anybody else. You can bring the dead back to life? Then everybody and their great aunt Jane will want you to bring their dead back.

    My point is, everything has a cost, the fun lies in learning what those costs are.

  • Alan, yes the RPG analogy is a good one. Resurrection, like time travel, is one of the supreme stakes-lowering devices, however much it may seem liek a godsend the first time you use it. After that, in games or books, why should anyone care?

  • I agree with Pea Fearie about new DW generally doing a good job with TMP. There are some times when RTD made some strange choices to try and justify why the TMP (the TARDIS usually) can’t do something when it clearly did something very similar in a previous episode. This is particularly true in episodes with Rose and the 10th Doctor. However, for those of us watching the show for more than 30 years, it hardly matters because that universe has never been very consistent as far as technology. The adventure moves along fast enough Gerald and I can both ignore any technological problems which appear.

    Unfortunately, written science fiction does not have this choice of giving a visually interesting story moving very quickly to distract from TMP issues. Doctor Who novels based on the new series do a good job of dealing with the TARDIS issue usually by having the characters not even be in there but for a brief moment and sometimes not at all, until the end of the adventure when they get in the police box and leave. This means the stories are entirely adventure with the Doctor and whatever he has in his pockets with a companion along usually. This gives the novels much less of a feel of the TARDIS as home which you get from the TV series. Many of the scenes which make the show seem alive, like companion’s family visits, and angst over how the characters feel about each other are also missing. This means characters other than the Doctor can feel a bit flat. Gerald does not bother reading them because the lack of character development irks him much more in written form than in the show.

    So the bottom line is, although the show deals with the TMP issue well, when you convert that to a written format it doesn’t go over so well because you have leave out to much in addition to the TMP in order to get the story to flow without it. I think that is possibly because the TMP is basically the place where in the show much of the character interaction takes place, once the doors are open, it’s just running and adventure.

    There is also a new RPG of the 10th Doctor era. It has great details on all the TMP items and on the Doctor and his companions. Gerald has decided that we can run it as a 2 person game with him doing the gamemastering and running the Doctor and I will play a companion. Any choice where the Doctor is run by a player would give that player too much power and seriously unbalance the game. Also it would allow the Doctor player to mess with the GM’s adventure which is never a good idea from a game group standpoint. Keeping the gamemaster happy is crucial to everyone surviving the adventure and continuing to get the game run.

    So for Doctor Who, what works for TMP in the TV show does not really work when you translate that to written work of either fiction or gaming. However, I think how the different mediums handle the TMP can give us as writers ideas for how to handle our own TMP issues. Most universes don’t have a TMP which the characters live and travel inside, so the effect of reducing the presence of the TMP would not have the characterization issues it does in Doctor Who.

  • Tom G

    I was going to say something so funny it would melt all of your brains. But the Gods stepped in, and refused to allow my precious password to work. So I got a new one generated, and after much ado…I forgot what I was going to say.

    Say thank you, Obi-Wan.

  • I don’t know, that was pretty funny. 😀

  • That’s an excellent point, Angela. What works on TV/film doesn’t always work for fiction which allows slower, more reflective analysis of what slips right by on screen. I overuse TV/film as an example because I figure more people will know what I’m talking about (readign experience being more varied) but it’s good to be reminded that it is a different medium and works by different rules in some respects.

    Tom. I’m with Daniel. I guarentee that if you wake up with a clear memory of what you had planned to say, it won’t be as effective as what you did say :)

  • I think costs are much better than limitsat controlling TMP, because it allows you to make use of the emotional and moral issues with using power. We could end the war if we killed 5 million innocent people with this device… but should we? And would we? Especially in decide right now moments(DRN), this sort of thing can be a believable reason not to use the TMP device, rather than naked plot machinery.

    But there’s also the fun of realizing someone has TMP and making them use it. Maybe your original plot can’t handle it, but the result of doing so could be just as interesting.

  • Atsiko, good points. I think the key for a lot of this (as wirth Star Trek) is duration. What you can get away with in a one off story (esp. in a final climactic moment) may only become a problem when that character/situation is revisited in a subsequent encounter. Even costs and everything else that made the TMP interesting are likely to get more strained with progressive use, so maybe that’s the key: think ahead. Unless you know absolutely certainly and for ever (and nothing is forever!) that you will never write anything in which this TMP will loom in the background, be cautious. Thanks for the comment.

  • Thanks for the great post. In my current WIP, I’ve tried to avoid TMP issues, and I think it’s hurt the story in the opposite way. I’ve put such substantial costs on the magic that nobody wants to use it, and thus my story is more like a bronze-age historical with magical potential than a bronze-age fantasy.

    TLP, Too Little Power is the opposite problem, when we worry about TMP so much that we curb some of the excitement the story could have. In the next revision, I’m going to ease up on one of the bigger costs, at least leave it unknown until it happens. That way the readers will get a taste for the magic earlier in the story and see it in action, until I drop the cost-bomb on the MC.

    Then the TLP will be driven by tangible fear and not “we heard if you do this, then that might happen.”

    Good stuff, thanks.

  • NGD,
    interesting. That makes sense, though the refusal to use power is, as Atsiko said, itself interesting. And I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with writing “a bronze age historical.” I’ve never quite understood why “fantasy” assumes extensive magic: the bronze age historical you describe sounds like fantasy to me. Lastly, as a rule, I’m all for anything that makes fantasy novels driven by the same things that shape other kinds of fiction, particularly character stuff which–it seems to me–doesn’t ned magic to work. That said, I can see how committing to a particular kind of story and then find that elements of the narrative won’t let youd eliver that story could be troublesome. Just don’t overcompensate: the TMP is lurking, telling you how much better your book will be if you pump it full of show-stopping power. Don’t listen to it.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Hartley,

    I disagree. Let the TMP have its way, and watch as it upsets everything. :)

    Think of the legal ramifications alone. Let’s say you have a dohickey that can raise the dead. So death isn’t permanent? How will this impact laws on homicide and manslaughter. What about inheritance, especially when the deceased gets raised after the will is read and the estate disbursed.

    Would limitations be placed on the usage. Would the condemned be put to death multiple times for especially heinous crimes? What about those who’s religions forbid resurrection?

    And who decides who gets raised should the device be limited in some manner?

    Uncle Ben got it wrong, with great power comes great hassles, responsibilities are easy in comparison.