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I've heard that in fictional magic systems, what's most important is not a character's power(s), but its limitations. That's an issue I'm running into with one of my novel's main characters, who has the ability of person-specific clairvoyance; i.e the ability to peer into individuals' futures. I want to avoid this ability being a deus ex machina. I need to figure out the limitations to this ability so that it makes sense for the character to not use the power in every single conflict of the story---for if they could, then why wouldn't they? However, I also need to balance these limitations with the power still being useful; otherwise, the ability just sucks. I've devised the following possible limitations:

  • He sees all possible futures of a person, not their "fate," so informational overload is a consistent obstacle
  • Of all possible futures, he must use the information available to him to discern what futures are most likely
  • Viewing the future is like one's life flashing before one's eyes; rapid-fire visions that he must write down in a frenzy to get the most important "scenes"
  • (Above) means that he more sees summaries rather than a specific outline of a person's future
  • Excessive amounts of information are derived from this ability, but he's bedridden for days after using it, so he can only use it about once a month, generally

Does this still render the character a bit overpowered, or does it make the power useless? And would these limitations make it realistic for him to overlook/miss an important event in one's future? Is there a way to better write the limitations of this ability so that it doesn't solve every conflict in the story?

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    Do you have some idea of which sort of conflicts/problems you want the clairvoyance to help out with, and which ones not? For example having vivid visual hallucinations during a fistfight sounds really inconvenient and distracting. On the other hand knowing just specifically what move your opponent is going to make just before they do it would be very useful. What features and limitations fit best depends a lot on the story.
    – user54131
    Dec 22, 2022 at 18:22
  • @towr the larger problem which the character aims to solve with his ability is essentially to "save" the main character from their own future, to keep them from going down a dark path. This determines the clairvoyant's main motivation for being in the plot at all. Generally the clairvoyance helps out with "big picture" courses of action, if that makes sense. Dec 23, 2022 at 2:34

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The problem with clairvoyance is you cannot see in advance random things happening. Cancer can be caused literally by a quantum event, or a cosmic particle traveling at the speed of light and altering a gene in one strand of DNA.

I'd limit the clairvoyance the way Stephen King limited it in The Dead Zone, but with a different reason: The protagonist (Johnny I think) said the information he could not see was in the dead part of his brain.

But were I writing, it would be that the random effects can build up so the future is literally unpredictable; or make the most probable outcome a duality triality. Either two lovers will celebrate a 50th anniversary, your clairvoyant can see that, or the wife will visit his gravesite in 50 years, you see that too. And the difference is an event you cannot quite see, and the outcome of that event is unpredictable. It is a pivot point in history. A decision to act by somebody that has not yet been made.

This preserves the notion that the future is not fixed and not all of our decisions can be foretold, while allowing clairvoyance to exist because most of our decisions are indeed predictable. Barring some completely random event, I will get up and go to work this Friday, and I won't go to work on Saturday or Sunday.

Even in the long term, a retired couple married for 40 years and still happy today are quite likely to remain married for life. They will encounter little new in their lives they have not successfully dealt with before.

But put random events beyond clairvoyance, because not even a magical analysis of current information can predict when a subatomic particle might decay, or emit a particle of radiation that changes a gene, or cause a neuron to spontaneously trigger that results in a new idea.

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