Writers of speculative fiction know how hard it is to build worlds and magic systems entirely from scratch and work all of it seamlessly into the story’s plot. One of the biggest obstacles when writing anything involving special powers is avoiding giving your protagonist or their allies overpowered abilities that, when the story’s tension is at its highest, they are saved by the plot convenience that is the deus ex machina.
A deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” is a plot device that appears exactly when it’s needed to save the day. Your protagonist is cornered with no hope of survival, but suddenly, a random superhero just so happens to be in the area and hears your cries for help. Or a stray dog charges out of the forest to maul the bad guy. Or an angel comes down from the heavens to heal all your wounds and whisk you away from the baddies. Basically, it’s a solution to the problem that has little or nothing to do with the protagonist’s progression as a character or the actions they’ve taken thus far.
Powers are one thing that could create risks for a “deus ex machina” moment. If your world consists of incredible abilities that your protagonist and those allied with them can access, you might find yourself at the climax of the story with nothing else to work with except making your characters just…suddenly develop a new ability right when they need it. Today, we’re talking about those powers and abilities; the ones you should be especially careful about if you want to avoid a sudden, convenient, and unsatisfying victory for the protagonist.
I’ll include a ranking for this because I love ranking things. Deus Level is the level of “convenient solution” I consider this ability to generally be. This doesn’t include things like limitations, the conflict, the world, the antagonist, relative power levels, or other factors that may affect how convenient the ability would be at just the right moment.
Finally, I want to clarify one thing before I continue: an overpowered protagonist and a deus ex machina are not necessarily the same thing. A protagonist being really strong and never struggling is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, which is another issue that M.C. Burnell’s article in defense of the overpowered protagonist might be able to help with.
A deus ex machina, however, is an abrupt, completely random, and implausible plot convenience. So while you should always be wary of making characters so powerful that nothing challenges them, I am talking about these five abilities in the context of how easy they could be to turn to them as a sudden, very convenient solution to your protagonists’ problems, not just how overpowered they are in general.
Side note: I feel I should note which articles are the result of winning the poll vote (which you can find on the front page of the site, on the sidebar, and at the very bottom, hint hint!). So here we go: this post claimed victory in our third ever Pasta Poll! Thanks to everyone who voted, and I hope you find this helpful!
Deus Level: 5/10
What Is It? The ability to read minds.
Why Is It a Deus Ex Machina? While telepathy is undoubtedly a useful ability with lots of potential for accidentally writing yourself into a corner, I ranked this one lower than the others on this list because it’s rather situational in terms of being a deus ex machina. If the central plot of your novel involves some kind of mystery, then the problem being resolved by the protagonist suddenly just being able to read someone’s mind to get all the answers would certainly count. But in most cases, the moment when the protagonist is in the most danger in sci-fi/fantasy is usually a moment where their life is at risk, and being able to read minds wouldn’t immediately solve that problem.
Nonetheless, this would be a cheap solution to most stories involving any kind of mystery. The fun in a mystery is the protagonist having to work towards the answers they need; seeking clues, encountering a quirky cast of characters, trying to deduce who the killer is or where their vanished friend or loved one has gone. If you build up to this moment of revelation only for a mind reading character to reveal the truth, it kind of defeats the purpose of investigating the mystery in the first place.
I consider this a less common potential issue than the others on this list, but always keep in mind the advantages that telepathy gives and the conflicts that are rendered a non-issue as a result.
Avoid the God from the Machine: How do you avoid a telepathic deus ex machina?
- Don’t randomly give a character telepathy just to solve the mystery
- Establish counters or limitations
- mind reading is confusing because our minds are always a jumbled mess of random thoughts that you’d have to sift through to find anything useful
- mind reading can be painful or taxing
- devices or techniques exist that block telepathy
- Give us a reason why telepathy wasn’t used sooner if it was always an option. For example:
- the telepath would need to be close enough to the suspect to read them
- the antagonist is skilled at fortifying their mind against telepaths
- the antagonist’s mind is such an absolute cesspool that no sane telepath would dare delve into it without risking madness
- the telepath did solve the mystery, but now they either don’t trust their own power or others around them don’t believe them, and they have to prove it
- the telepath did read the antagonist’s mind, but could only recover fragments that they now have to piece together into a coherent narrative themselves
- Telepathy doesn’t count as evidence in a court of law and therefore can’t be used to (legally) solve the mystery; you’d need more
Deus Level: 7/10
What Is It? The ability to repair physical damage.
Why Might It Become a Deus Ex Machina? The villain has struck a killing blow, and a main character is on the verge of death. Everything seems lost, for without this very important character, victory is impossible, and the world is doomed.
But hey, wait a minute! This one other character just so happens to be a gifted healer. Sure, they never said anything about it up until now, and sure, lots of characters died up to this point without healing ever being mentioned as a possible solution. But how convenient, that when the plot needs it most, the power of healing is there to save them!
Maybe it’s a serendipitous magic potion that a character just so happens to have in their pack. Or the power of friendship bringing about a sudden recovery (this happens a lot in anime, when a character on the verge of death sees their friends in trouble and not only recovers, but powers up and proceeds to completely whoop the villain’s ass). Or, as mentioned before, a character possesses the power of healing and never once used it up until now.
Whatever the case may be, it’s not satisfying. Healing is a very, very common crutch used by spec fic writers because when a protagonist is in mortal danger, what better way to solve the problem than a random healing potion, or healer, or some kind of supernatural force that restores health? It’s a way to ensure the protagonist lives through even the most dangerous of encounters, so you can go nuts as a writer and put them in as much danger as you want without either you or the protagonist having to work for it.
I can’t emphasize enough that healing on its own is not a deus ex machina. What is, however, is a miraculous recovery that isn’t earned by the character or foreshadowed in any way. Always remember the difference!
Avoid the God from the Machine: How do you avoid a healing deus ex machina?
- If the characters can heal, establish that so it doesn’t seem as sudden and, ahem, convenient, if it’s used at a crucial moment. Same for healing objects or artifacts.
- For example, a healing potion that saves the main characters’ life could be mentioned earlier on. “We don’t need that many healing potions; get rid of it and save some space.” Spoiler alert: they do not get rid of it and save some space
- Establish limitations to healing, such as:
- only minor wounds can be healed; less effective on more severe injuries
- healing is physically taxing
- if the heroes can heal, maybe the villains can too
- injuries and illness don’t disappear; they transfer to someone else
- healing requires physical touch
- healing is provided by an item (ex: potions, jewelry, tomes, etc) you have to have on hand to use
- Have the healing character earn their powers instead of them just so happening to have it during the fight
- No power of friendship moments. Adrenaline and fighting through the pain are totally plausible for a character if they’re fighting to save someone they love, but making a complete recovery and totally destroying the villain is…a little less plausible
3. Teleporting/Super Speed
Deus Level: 8/10
What Is It? The ability to instantly transport oneself from one location to another. Or, in the case of super speed, moving very fast.
Why Might It Become a Deus Ex Machina? Teleportation is arguably one of the most convenient abilities out there. This is especially true for stories that involve travel, but even in the ones that don’t, this power makes everything a breeze; from fleeing bad guys, to sneaking around, to being exactly where you need to be at any point in the story. Stealth and time are completely on your side, and don’t even get me started on the advantage you would have in combat if you could teleport instantly. See Nightcrawler kicking a bunch of Secret Service agents’ ass for an example.
The way teleportation can become a deus ex machina is if your protagonist is in trouble with no way out, until they 1. suddenly develop the ability to teleport, 2. randomly teleport with no explanation and it never happens again, or 3. are saved by another character who teleports in at exactly the right time to save them. Bonus points if this teleporting character is a total stranger to the protagonist up until now, never mentioned or even foreshadowed prior. Even more bonus points if teleportation was never a part of the story up until the moment your protagonist needed it to be.
Avoid the God from the Machine: How do you avoid a teleporting deus ex machina?
- Establish the teleporting character early on
- Establish limitations and counters to teleportation. For example, in Jumper, a thousand volts of electricity could do the trick. Or things like:
- the teleporter can’t teleport literally anywhere
- the teleporter can only teleport very short distances so they can’t just pop in anywhere at any time
- the teleporter can’t teleport others, or it at least puts a heavy strain on them if they do
- others can resist being teleported by someone else
- If the protagonist suddenly develops the ability to teleport right as the antagonist is about to kill them or someone they love, at least acknowledge some obstacles or inner turmoil on their part as a reason why they couldn’t do it earlier. Perhaps they fear the antagonist, and in this moment of encountering the person they’re most terrified of, they summon the courage to stand up for themselves and their loved ones. Boom, teleportation!
- Better yet, maybe don’t just give the protagonist a new power right when they need it
2. Stopping Time
Deus Level: 9/10
What Is It? The ability to stop time. Usually the user is still able to act despite the rest of the world being frozen.
Why Might It Become a Deus Ex Machina? You’ve reached the climax of the story. The protagonist is finally facing off against the big bad, and it’s not lookin good. Even though the protagonist trained their ass off and did everything in their power to beat the villain and save the day, they are getting absolutely wrecked. All seems lost.
Suddenly, everything freezes. No one moves. Not the villain, not the protagonist’s allies, not bystanders, animals, not even the wind. Time itself has frozen. How fortuitous, that in the end, we did not rely on the protagonist’s growth and training, but time itself literally freezing just so the hero can win.
Bonus points if this ability or phenomenon has never happened or even been acknowledged at any point in the story. The more unforeseen this plot convenience is, the more of a deus ex machina it is if it saves the day.
Avoid the God from the Machine: How do you avoid a time-stopping deus ex machina?
- If the heroes can stop time, maybe the villains can too, or they are immune to being frozen
- Establish limitations to freezing time
- freezing time messes with the space-time continuum, or some other fun sci-fi shenanigans ensue
- can only keep time frozen for a very limited amount of…well, time
- limited range
- freezing time messes with your sanity
- Instead of time freezing so the hero can just beat the villain, maybe it instead creates an opportunity for an epic battle with the fate of the frozen world at stake
- Make freezing time work against the hero as much as for
1. Divine Power or Protection
Deus Level: 10/10
Why Might It Become a Deus Ex Machina? I can imagine nothing more “god from the machine” than having a literal god swoop in to save you when you need it most. It varies, of course, as all gods across stories and mythology behave differently. But if your protagonist is favored by a god, or more than that, liked or even loved by a god, it’s natural for writers to be tempted to just have the god save the day if they can’t figure out a way for the protagonist to save themselves.
This is fine assuming earning the god’s favor or gaining their power took up a huge chunk of the story and resulted in a lot of growth and learning from the protagonist. But if the god is relatively unimportant to the protagonist’s story other than being a cool power source that they can draw upon when they need it, you are only setting up a predictable and disappointing climax to the story. Why would a reader want to follow a character who they know will just be magically saved by a god when they’re in danger? What makes the antagonist so threatening to a protagonist protected by an all-powerful god?
Avoid the God from the Machine: How do you avoid a divine deus ex machina?
- Make the gods fickle. Just because they can save you when you’re in trouble doesn’t mean they will
- Establish limitations to divinity/divine protection:
- the god is not very powerful
- the god is not allowed to interfere with mortals directly
- gods are dicks who don’t care if their favored mortal is in danger
- a god can swoop in out of nowhere and save you, but now they own you. So now your fun little plot convenience has put you in an even worse situation than you were in before
- the god grants the protagonist abilities, but will otherwise not help them if they’re in trouble
- Make the divine protection come with a cost. Maybe a god coming to save you puts you at risk another way, or gets the god in trouble with the rest of the pantheon
- Give the god a counter. Maybe one god really likes your protagonist and wants to protect them, but another wants nothing more than to see them dead. Or perhaps the antagonist also has the favor of a god and they’re at odds, uh-oh!