With Great Power Comes Greater Limitations

Saturday, June 16, 2012

By happy accident, my writing career has been dominated by witchcraft. With Charmed, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and a little bit of Buffy/Angel, I have written more about witches than any other topic. As a result, I have learned some important lessons on writing about the many, varied forms of magic that witches can call upon. But with all this power at my characters’ fingertips, none of their abilities are as interesting to me as what they can’t do.

But first, a disclaimer: I’m talking about writing for TV witches, not the Wiccan religion or anything regarding the spiritual aspects of witchcraft … although the concept of limitations on power is a universal subject.

Writing magic in Charmed is a delicate balance, especially since we all agree that the series is first and foremost about the family, not the magic. The biggest challenge comes in writing for “the most powerful witches the world has ever known” or “to have ever walked the earth” or whatever the proper phrase is.

Even with the most powerful witches ever, there have to be limits to their powers. They can’t just do anything the writer wants, otherwise there would be no drama. If your heroines become all powerful, then your villains have to grow exponentially as well. Their fight will then build to a point where the story becomes all about magic and power instead of the relationships of the characters.

The best part of writing for The Charmed Ones is that the rules were so clearly established in the beginning. Each sister has one primary ability. That ability will grow as they get older. They can do traditional spells and basic magic, but it’s their primary power that is the cornerstone of their strength. (Oh, and they can’t use magic for personal gain. We’ll get to that lousy rule in a second.)

The show didn’t always follow those rules, but I’ve done my best to stay within the parameters in the books and comic books that I’ve written. That’s why when people ask me about The Charmed Ones getting “new” powers I generally refer to an “evolution” of power. Paige’s orb shield is a more focused form of her telekinesis (or telekinetic orbing as many of you call it). The shield defensively—and in some cases, offensively—moves objects away from her. Piper can now manipulate molecules in a variety of ways, which she’s only starting to explore. And Phoebe … well, Phoebe’s always been a little different. I’m just working with what we’ve been given.

I like this rule about a primary power. It makes the writing more interesting for me and it generally makes the Charmed story more engaging. The magic of Charmed isn’t about a Charmed One learning how to propel a giant orb bubble through the air. The magic of Charmed is about three sisters coming together to: 1) create that orb, 2) lift it into the air, and 3) propel it across the room. Emphasis: together. And to join their powers in that unique way just before their other sister: 4) comes back to entirely throw off that new balance of power.

As for the personal gain clause, it’s just so arbitrary. Anytime The Charmed Ones use magic, there’s some kind of personal gain involved. Even if it’s just to protect themselves. If Piper freezes a bullet about to kill her, that’s personal gain. If Paige uses a glamour to hide her identity for whatever reason, that’s also personal gain. Yes, we saw what happened when The Charmed Ones used their magic to punish someone who refused to clean up after his dog, but what if they just used it to clean up the mess after the dog owner left? Would that have been misusing their abilities? It’s really a matter of degrees. As long as they don’t do anything egregiously selfish, I prefer to go the Pirates of the Caribbean route and consider the personal gain rule as more of a guideline. But it is a necessary guideline because if they just did whatever they wanted it would lead to chaos … as a witch on another popular series learned. We’ll get to her in a moment…

But before we do… Sabrina, The Teenage Witch had similar rules about the limitation of power that perfectly fit in with a sitcom about the challenges of the teen years. Sabrina was just learning to use her powers, so she was going to make a lot of mistakes along the way and learn a lot of lessons. It was her ingenuity once she learned her lesson that usually won the day for her, not simply her access to magic. But no matter how strong she got, she was rarely able to use that power to make herself the one thing that most teens on TV want to be: Popular.

The absolute brilliance of this series was in how it established the rules of a teenage witch. Primary among those rules was that she couldn’t create name brand items. Her Rollerblades were Rollerblahs, for instance. She would never be able to use her magic to impress her friends by coming to school decked out in the latest trends. That idea carried through every spell she cast. Magic wasn’t there to make her life easier. In fact, it often complicated things … usually in humorous ways.

The Fairy Godmother of all TV witches has to be Samantha Stevens from Bewitched. I’m sure she wasn’t the first witch on TV, but she was the most mainstream. Samantha had very few magical limits on her powers. She really could do almost anything if she set her mind to it. Her limitations came from her human husband and his refusal for her to ever use her magic. Emphasis: ever. If Bewitched were on the air today, it would be a much darker show since it basically depicts a marriage based on a horribly oppressive husband and a wife forced to lie about her life on almost a daily basis. But let’s leave that deeper discussion for another time.

What’s interesting about Bewitched is that the entire concept of the show was based on that single limitation to Samantha’s power. How it affected her relationship with her husband. With her mother and the rest of her family. With her husband’s human coworkers and their neighbors. It is also the key component in another limitation on most TV witches: having to keep the magic a secret. That in itself requires a different kind of balance between who knows the secret and how long other characters can stay in the dark. (A concept The Vampire Diaries has turned upside down in its breakneck pacing in how the residents of Mystic Falls have come to know the truth about their neighbors.)

What happens when those limitations are completely ignored? We saw that answer in one of my other favorite TV witches: Willow Rosenberg. When Willow became all powerful on Buffy, The Vampire Slayer she had to go evil and be taken down. That’s just what happens when a witch loses her limitations. She was already bringing people back from the dead. What could stop her after that? If she remained good with all that power, the show would have become Willow, The Everything Slayer.

By making her Dark Willow and then redeeming her, she became self-policing in her magic. She was too concerned with getting that taste of evil again that she only tapped into the most powerful magic when it was absolutely necessary. By making her limits self-imposed after we saw the consequences of them going out of control, the writers added great depth to an already fascinating television character.

This rule about limiting power goes beyond TV witches, of course. It’s inherently the same problem you run into with characters like the Greek Gods, Dumbledore, Yoda, and Superman. When you’ve got an all powerful being, you need something to weaken that character or else every story will be so uneven there is no drama.

With Superman, we have kryptonite. But if that little green rock were to show up in every story, Superman would not have lasted as an icon for as long as he has. There would be no drama. That’s why Lex Luthor, when used correctly, is such a fascinating villain. His superior intellect is his weapon. So that even when a being is all powerful in one way, it requires other powerful characters to present a challenge in different ways. If a hero or heroine doesn’t have weaknesses for the villain to exploit, then what’s the point of creating a story about them in the first place?

Interestingly enough, Superman does have another weakness besides kryptonite. He is powerless against magic.


  1. Justin says:

    I really enjoyed this article, I am a huge fan of fantasy and magic, and characters such as witches, wizards, and warlocks in all kinds of universes are my favorites. I am also a huge fan of charmed, so I loved seeing your perspective on things that i have considered in the past.

    1. Paul Ruditis says: