Any time you sit down to write a fantasy story, one of the first things you have to think about is magic — who has it, how does it work, is it good or bad, and how prevalent is it.
The question was even more important as I started creating a fantasy world where secret agents infiltrated other nations and thwarted evil schemes to conquer the world. Surely to be effective my characters would need magic.
I’m also a fan of superheroes. I love the idea of people with extraordinary powers performing feats of heroism and villainy.
So with all that in mind, I created Shadows. These are the special individuals employed by governments to do their espionage. They have innate magical abilities that make them well suited to this sort of covert work.
The next question was what is the source of their power? Are they born with it? Are they transformed? Why are these people special?
To answer that, I created The Rift — a poorly understood tear in the fabric of reality. It was opened over 30 years ago towards the end of a war against Bretelstein and its mad dictator, Lord Himmel. Back then, Urland and Phrygia were allies, and they worked together to defeat Bretelstein, but not before Lord Himmel opened The Rift by accident in an attempt-gone-wrong to summon enough magical power to destroy his enemies.
The Rift spews its dark energy into the world, and it transforms certain humans, granting them their strange powers. These people are touched by The Rift’s influence at birth, but their powers don’t manifest until puberty or early adulthood.
The Rift’s magic is known as Shadow due to it manifesting as black energy when it can be seen. Thus, those who acquired power this way became known as Shadows. They are generally feared by normal humans, who can feel the “wrongness” of the Shadow that pulses through these strange people. It is a rare Shadow who doesn’t come from some form of broken home. They are often turned out by their families when their powers manifest.
Such is the case with my main character, Wolf Dasher. His family is an important part of the Urlish court, having the ear of the queen. Wolf was born into a life of wealth and privilege, but he had it stripped away at the age of 15, when his powers became known to his parents. Like many of his peers, he was taken in by the Shadow Service — Urland’s spy agency that recruits these strange humans and trains them to serve the Crown — educated, and raised to become a weapon for Her Majesty’s interests at home and abroad. He’s good at his job, and he likes it, but he bears strong feelings of resentment towards his family.
So with Wolf’s background and the nature of Shadows set, I went about deciding what sorts of powers I wanted him to have. I liked the idea of every Shadow having different abilities. That would allow me to create different kinds of characters, since one’s powers would affect how one would operate as an agent and in a fight.
For Wolf, I decided to go with subtle but useful abilities. Since he was a spy, I decided to have him be able to hide from his enemies. But I didn’t want to give him invisibility. That’s too powerful and would make it too easy for him to escape trouble. So instead, I gave him the power to hide in shadows. As long as he is standing in a naturally occurring shadow (i.e. one created by the sun or other light source) and doesn’t move, he can vanish. This would make spying a lot easier while also limiting him in where and how he could do it.
Next, I chose one of my favorite superpowers that you rarely see used: postcognition. By holding an object, Wolf can see something of its past — who used it, what was done with it, etc. This is another useful ability for someone doing investigation.
Finally, I gave him the ability to see magical energy. Shadow is not the only source of magic in Wolf’s world. There are traditional fantasy wizards who can cast spells and charm devices. Wolf can see the eldritch energy they produce as they cast spells as well as the magical auras of enchanted items.
By choosing the abilities I did, I did two things to Wolf. First, I made him extremely efficient at doing his job — spying and otherwise collecting information. Second, I made him weak. He has no offensive powers. Other Shadows do, and, in some cases (such as the psychotic villain, Ravager, in State of Grace), those abilities are devastating. So Wolf is often overmatched and has to use his wits and his skill when it comes to fighting the bad guys.
That makes a more interesting character to me. I prefer heroes who have to struggle and think their way through problems over ones who can just knock over any opponent. Odysseus is a more interesting character than Heracles (although in the latter’s defense he is clever in the original myths, not just strong).
So I had an underpowered hero with a chip on his shoulder who is good at his job. That’s a character that’s been very fun to write.