I was watching this review for the new Harry Potter game, and it got me wondering if it might be considered a terrible plot hole when your character has a mysterious, unexplained power.

If you end up using the mysterious, unexplained power trope, do you have to 100% address it as a writer and make the mystery go away before the story gets wrapped up? If no, why is it ok for it to remain a mystery?

5 Answers 5


"Mysterious unexplained power" is sort of what the HP world is all about. The magic in that world is a combination of several things.

  • Natural talent
  • Objects with power
  • Hard work and practice
  • Help from powerful entities
  • Plain old luck
  • It makes the story work

So an acceptable explanation in the HP world is "You're a wizard! But, you'll need training up a bit. Wands at the ready! Where's your cat?" This works for just about any ability that a character could have.

Other contexts will require different explanations. Superman comes from Krypton. Batman has a HUGE amount of cash to spend on toys. And so on.


It is kind of like everything else that goes into a story. If you pull it out of nowhere and spring it on your readers, they will feel cheated.

Your readers need to have the feeling that this unexplained ability is part of the story, and not merely something that the author pulled out of the hat to get the characters out of a sticky spot.

Say you have a character in a story about truckers and trucking. Lots of scenes about loading trucks and driving cross country. Lots of stuff about truckers who meet up in truck stops because their routes cross, just all kinds of ordinary things that happen to truck drivers. This character drives up to a fenced in building to deliver something, and there's no one there to open the gates. The only place to turn around is inside the gates, and backing out isn't an option because the road is five miles of switchbacks. The driver gets out, picks up the truck, carries it back up to the highway, gets in and drives off.

That's going to really cheese off your readers. They thought they were reading about some average guy doing normal things, and the author has casually thrown superman at them just to avoid fixing the story so that the trucker can get on with his work in a normal way.

Your story has to at least hint at the existence of special abilities. It has to at least hint at the character having special abilities. Just dumping them on your readers cold looks lazy - like the author couldn't be bothered to come up with a good solution and just punted an "eh, magic, good enough" at the readers.

You don't have to explain how such special abilities work. You just have to give them a plausible reason to exist within the story. There needs to be some pattern that your readers can see that connects the special ability to the story.

Take Major Joachim Steuben from David Drake's Hammer's Slammers novels.

The Slammers are a mercenary outfit with members drawn from all over the human universe - hundred, if not thousands of planets.

The members count themselves as the best of the best at what they do - winning battles at whatever cost it takes.

Steuben is the best of the best as a gunman. Fastest shot with a handgun, best shot with a handgun.

In one story, an important character is killed by a shot fired from a handgun.

There's no way anyone could have gotten close enough to intentionally shoot the guy - fenced enclave, guards, etc.

At the time of the shooting, there was a battle going on a good mile away - Major Steuben was in that battle, and was known to have not gone to the enclave where this important character was shot.

There's an investigation with the conclusion that the guy was watching the battle from within in the enclave and was hit by a stray round from the fight because "nobody could intentionally hit a human sized target with a handgun from that range" - at which point, Steuben smiles. The implication being, of course, that Steuben had shot the guy from a mile away with a handgun.

Steuben is nearly magically good with a gun. That was well established in the stories. This one incident is accepted as Steuben pushing his already existing abilities to the utmost - he did it, you are not quite sure how, but you know he's good. The story doesn't say how - maybe he used a rifle firing handgun catridges or some other trick. All the reader knows is that Steuben is good, and that he will find a way to succeed.

It works because it fits established things within the story rather than popping up out of thin air.


It depends on who the character is. If it's a main character, it should be explained at one point in time, maybe (for a lack of better words) scattered around the story, or shown in a flashback or dialogue.

If it's a side character that doesn't show up much or doesn't have a huge impact, I guess it could be left unanswered, though it might give a quite unsatisfying feeling of incompletion.

Still, it's usually better to add details! ^-^


To adapt Sanderson's Law, the more problems it solves, the better it needs to be explained. It's usually OK to give your antagonist mysterious unexplained powers. But if your hero has them, it can feel like a cheat --unless trying to figure out their powers is their quest.

Even if a story is pure fantasy, the reader wants something they can relate to, and suddenly having strange unexplained powers isn't very relatable. On the other hand, powers you have to work for, or that are governed by strict laws, are at least analogous to things ordinary people might wrestle with in the real world.


If I recall, and it has been some time since I read the books, but "Ancient Magic" had been a concept that got a nod as early as the first book, with regard to the source material.

Even then, the game is exploring the nature of this new power, so it's not a plot hole to the story itself (I'm still on my first play through but the opening cut scene shows that there are characters who are aware of the concept of Ancient Magic prior to the story's start.). Additionally, the concept of rare magical powers only a select few wield has been in the books concepts before.

Harry is one of the few people who has the Parseltounge ability (he can speak to snakes) which is scene but not explained in Book one (it's done in a way of weird magical stuff that happens to Harry because he's a Wizard child suffices) and isn't explained until the 2nd book. We also have the concept of Animagi and Metamorphmagi which aren't discussed in full until book 3 (although observed in book 1) and book 5 respectively. Some early concepts have yet to be developed (Vampires exist, but nothing is known about them).

Anding a new concept late into a story does not create a plot hole. It can, such as "why didn't we use this before in this sitation" but normally a plot hole exists when something that affects the story in one work is invalidated or forgotten in another work without any explanation. For an actual plot hole in Harry Potter, we have the properties of Harry's Invisibility Cloak. In book 4, Mad-Eye Moody demonstrates that his famous Mad-Eye allows him to see people and objects under Harry's own invisibility cloak. In Book 7, we learn that this same cloak is a Deathly Hallow, and works better than most Cloaks, which lose their invisibility over time AND is strong enough to prevent Death Personified from seeing the wearer concealed underneath it... which would mean Moody seeing Harry under the cloak should not have happened. At no point is this inconsistency explained.

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