Off the Top of My Head: The SPHISW Problem

I decided to start a series on this website, where I highlight a problem that writers often face and give my two cents on said problem, without doing any kind of spell check or grammar check or sanity check. Welcome to the first post in the series “Off the Top of My Head.”


I have a massive writing problem.

No, I don’t mean that in the I-can’t-quit-typing sense; I mean it in the I-keep-messing-up­ sense. Today, I’d like to focus in on a problem that I see quite prevalent in several recent books that I’ve read; a problem of which I’m quite guilty.

We like our protagonists to be relatable. We also like our protagonists to be badasses. I mean, unless it’s a romance novel, in which case—you know what, let’s not get sidetracked here. That’s a whole different issue right there. Anyway, the problem with both of those qualities is that they’re a bit…opposed to each other. I’d guess that (no offense) 100% of us aren’t super-powerful, hyper-intelligent space wizards (I’m NOT typing that out again) who can fix a warp drive with one hand and fend off an army of angry pirates with the other hand—which is, of course, spewing fire like a severely intoxicated dragon.

Yes, that was actually a scene I wrote that I’ve since (thankfully!) scrapped.

Unfortunately, that kind of writes us into a corner. How are we supposed to relate to the “struggles” of the SPHISW when he could clearly annihilate the opposing forces with a snap of his fingers? Or a sneeze? It’s hard to relate to an invulnerable character, especially since (no offense) all of us here on planet Earth tend to be extremely vulnerable. I mean, except for me, of course. Blame my ability to heal. I’M WOLVERINE!

Sorry, got sidetracked there.

I fall victim to this trap all the time. I love writing awesome characters. Who doesn’t? But I have about 30 half-finished books in my novel “In Progress” folder where I got a little too carried away and realized that I was basically writing about a god. I mean, one character was a shape-shifting, invulnerable, teleporting lightning thrower whose one weakness was impulsivity. I might as well have called him Zeus.

Hey, maybe I should write a book about Zeus…nah, I think that would be both boring and a little too…much. Greeks weren’t exactly subtle about their head god’s interests. Moving on.

Can any of you relate to a god? Or a SPHISW? Didn’t think so. So, there has to be some kind of balance. How does one go about finding it?

Personally, if I’m going to write a book, I sit down first and define the universe—especially if I’m allowing magic or advanced technology into it. What are the strengths? What are the weaknesses? Let’s say your SPHISW is a master of fire. Can he also be a master of water, and what’s the tradeoff? Does his hyper-intelligence come with some form of cost? What offsets his powers?

I like using what I call “the Sonnek test.” No, I’m not narcissistic—okay, maybe a little. Basically, I build my character so that I could defeat him if I had to. (In case this is a magic computer and my protagonist comes to life and turns evi—did my toilet just flush???) My SPHISW must have some kind of weakness that is 1) evident and 2) possible to use against him. That leave stupid weaknesses (like have a sneezing fit after every battle) out, while leaving…well, equally stupid weaknesses (sneezing before every spell during battle) in. Granted, my method isn’t perfect, but it helps me write awesome, flame-filled scenes into my space epic while leaving the reader wondering, “Is this dork of a protagonist going to survive?”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there appears to be an angry SPHISW in my room complaining about being allergic to his own spells. I’d greatly appreciate it if anyone wants to help me find the Twelve Stones of Power to align according to the Writ of Co’pher in the precise angle to the current phase of the moon, which is…oh, crap, I made this too complicated, didn’t I…?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s