Imagination has no limits; physics does.
In my novel, Jaden Baker, the title character can move things with his mind. Before I wrote the story from start to finish, I studied this ability, its strengths, its weaknesses, and most of all, its limitations. If a character could move something with his mind, what laws did it obey? If Jaden could do anything, and he was without constraints, where was the drama and the tension of the story?
Limitations make a scene tense, a character real, and a story more believable.
Popular culture has dubbed the “ability to move things with the mind” as telekinesis. “Tele” is from Greek meaning “to or at a distance,” such as telephone, telecommute, etc. “Psycho-” relates to the mind. Since it’s the mind that moves things, the more correct term for the ability is psychokinesis (PK for sort).
Because the ability originates from the mind, it also follows mental rules. The brain, in order to function properly, needs fuel. In the story, the experts on the PK subject (mainly Dalton and Madrid), believe PK originates as a defensive mechanism, which is consistent with Jaden’s life. Therefore the ability is tied into a fight or flight response, requiring great amounts of energy.
Mental power is different than physical power, and each person’s mind is different from another. Since PK does not rely on muscle strength, would there be any limitations to what could be moved with the mind? How does someone with PK become stronger?
When a child is learning to read they start small: the alphabet, the consonants, the vowels, what sounds they make, how each letter behaves in a word. Then a child learns simple words: Mary wore a red dress. There’s repetition. Mary wore a red dress, red dress, red dress. Mary wore a red dress, all day long. As a child learns more words, more sounds and letter combinations, he builds upon what he already knows. Peter walked his dog, Spot, to the park. They played fetch. After a few years of practice, the child can read, write, and create his or her own short stories. And, with enough interest, intelligence, and practice, can become an expert in language.
Reading is a mental effort. Once you know how each letter sounds, how each behaves, you can read anything. Any word that follows the basic rules (consonants and vowels) can be read. Since PK is also a mental effort, it follows the same rules. To become an expert, PK requires practice, starting with the basics, and moving up. If someone is PK, any free moving object can be moved, regardless of size or weight.
Here is a potential problem. If someone with PK can move virtually anything, where’s the limitation? How could he be stopped?
You can read any word you can see, but what if you can’t see it? You’re driving down the freeway looking for your exit, sure that it’s coming up. But you have to get close enough to read the sign. The sign is always there, you never lose your ability to read. Your ability depends upon seeing the sign. You have to be in range.
In order to move something with PK, Jaden has to be within a certain physical range of the thing. He can’t stand on a mountain and look down upon a city and create absolute chaos. He has to be close enough to mentally “touch” it. He can’t watch a football game on the television and move the football to wherever he wants it. He’d have to be in the stadium to have any influence over it.
Independent of Vision
If PK is just a mental act of moving something, you don’t need your eyes. Just like you can close your eyes, grope around, and influence your environment. At night, you can get up, in the pitch darkness, and feel around to your kitchen, go into your cupboard for a glass and fill it up at the sink, all without your eyes. Feeling is independent of vision, and since PK is the ultra-sensory of touch, it doesn’t require sight. In this way, even if Jaden lost his eyes, he’d still be able to function quite well, because he can mentally touch his surroundings. You and I can move anything we touch (if it has kinetic properties), regardless of if we see it or not. Therefore someone with PK can influence something they cannot see…
So once a psychokinetic is adept enough, he can influence anything with kinetic properties, within a certain range. That opens up even more doors, doesn’t it? As Jaden gets better and becomes more hyperaware of his surroundings, he learns he can influence internal organs, blood pressure, the beating of a human heart. He can also control on the micro-levels: freezing or heating water (as long as he knows the properties of water). That makes him quite dangerous and powerful.
Kinetic vs. Static
Though PK is not dependent upon physical strength or sight, it cannot move things that have no kinetic properties. If an object is static (has no potential for movement) PK has no effect: buildings, mountains, anything built into anything else (a fountain cemented into the ground, for example), and so on, are mentally untouchable.
Outside vs. Inside
Unless confronted with a mirror, we can’t see our faces. If someone tattooed us on our foreheads, and there was no mirror around, we couldn’t read the words on our own skin. Touching it wouldn’t help either. We could read the words on each other’s heads, but not our own.
PK can affect anything outside of oneself. So Jaden could start up your stalled heart, move your furniture (how handy?) and throw your car into your roof (don’t make him mad), but he can’t make himself fly, heal himself, or freeze his own blood…at least he doesn’t think so…
The Timing of Skill
Let’s stay with the reading metaphor for one more example. You have eyes, ears, and intelligence, all the tools required for conventional reading. But for whatever the reason, you’re illiterate. Maybe you’re three years old, or you live in a culture without a written language. Whatever the reason, you don’t know how to read, though you have all the necessary skills to do so. If the president of the United States put a classified document in your hands, what would you do? Well, you may look at it, but you have no idea what kind of information it holds. In your hands, that top secret information is safe. You can’t tell anyone about it, you can’t discuss it, you can’t do anything. If, of course, you kept the document and learned how to read, that’s different. But until you learn it, you are powerless.
Someone with PK is just like the rest of us until they know how to use their ability. Maybe weird things happen around him, when PK is out of his control, but until Jaden knows what he’s doing, he is just as vulnerable as any other human being. So if you’re looking to take control of someone with PK abilities, you must do so before that individual knows how to command the skill.
Humanity: emotions and morality
Except for a sociopath (which Jaden is not), everyone experiences emotions. Anger, fear, joy, and compassion affect our lives and how we behave. Chaos clouds our minds and our judgments. Fear spins us. Empathy moves us.
At his core, Jaden is a decent human being. I want to keep this post spoiler free, so I’ll not say too much more, but this: he has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. A moral compass enables kindness, generosity, and fosters good will. Morality provides guidelines, regardless of physical or mental strength.
The Importance of Rules
The universe cannot exist without the laws of physics. A society cannot function without basic laws. And a story, especially if it contains something extraordinary, like magic, or psychokinesis, must have its own limitations. After all, there is no meaning in life if all living things didn’t die. A flower isn’t special unless it blooms, blossoms, and wilts. There’s no sense of desperation unless there’s hunger and thirst. All human beings, regardless of how powerful they are or think they are, have limitations. To make any story believable, it must be contained.