English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld ex...
English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld telepathy experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following on from declaring Telepaths as hard science fiction I thought I would write about using Telepathy in stories and how to solve the problems. Telepathy is a super power, and with all super powers it brings a reduction in challenge for characters endowed with it.

Writing a Story featuring Telepathy

I mentioned two things I did in passing in the earlier post, but there’s also a third.

  1. Set universal limits on super powers
  2. Give characters moral limits that stop them abusing their super powers
  3. Give the opposite side a (temporary) counter to the super powers

Taken together these let you put the conflict and challenges back into the situations your characters find themselves in. We all know the equation:

Conflict + characters = plot

So this balance gives us back our interesting story.

Limits on Telepathy

Vector drawing of the five kinds of Zener card...
Vector drawing of the five kinds of Zener cards. Ordered by number of lines and curves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The key reason for writing this down was to keep it all straight in my head. It gave me something to test whether or not my characters should use Telepathy to solve the challenge or whether there needed to be another solution. It also helps when editing to ensure consistency.

You set the limits on Telepathy, or any other super power, to suit your story. I was trying to keep as close to the Hard Science Fiction edge as I could. So I set the following universal limits on the telepaths in Lit By Another Star.

Making a connection

Before a telepath can use their power they need to connect to another person.

  • Connection strength is affected by both physical proximity and the relationship with the target.
    • Physical ranges are: head to head contact; touching; arms length; conversation; room; shouting; line of sight; out of sight. Both of the latter had an implicit maximum distance of under 500m.
      • The default range was room. Closer improved the connection and further made it worse.
    • Personal relationship groups were: lovers/parents/offspring; close friends/siblings; friends/family; colleagues; acquaintances; neutral strangers; suspicious strangers; enemies.
      • The default is colleagues. These represent people you interact with but don’t necessarily know well outside a single context.
    • Each character, even the NPCs, was given a score between 0 and 5 for their ability to control making a connection using Telepathy.
      • If the person was aware of telepathy and wanted a connection then the score made it easier. Otherwise it was harder. This means that Telepaths can former stronger connections with each other than with non-telepaths.
  • Connection strength determined the level of content.
    • Presence of another human (no connection needed).
    • Identify a person (not necessarily by name, just recognise their unique mental signature).
    • Emotional state
    • Immediate intentions/forefront thoughts
    • Life goals/objectives
    • Attitudes and routines
    • Strong memories (either recent or significant things like life events or trauma)
    • Guilty secrets and repressed memory
  • The default connection for a colleague in the same room is emotional state. If a telepath got close enough to shake hands then they might be able to determine that person’s attitudes or some routines. They wouldn’t really be able to winkle out their darkest secrets without getting intimately close.

What Telepathy can do

  • People can learn how to block telepathy, or rather make the connection harder to establish.
  • A skilled telepath can lie or conceal things from other Telepaths (although there’s a risk they’ll know this if the skill gap is not large enough).
  • All the telepaths had different skills in terms of picking up information. It took as long to get information as it would to watch an event happen or be confessed to. This meant it was harder to pick up detail, but easy to get general impressions. I.e. you could get an intent to kill easily, but not the plan for a murder.
  • Some Telepaths can use telepathy to intensify or minimise emotional states. This is rare and needs a strong connection to work.
  • It’s always possible to determine that people are nearby, regardless of the personal relationship.
  • send broadcast messages that any other telepath can pick up.
  • send point to point messages targeted at someone they know who is close enough to form a strong relationship.
  • Telepaths could speak inside someone’s head if they had a strong connection (immediate intentions).
  • Each individual has a distinct mental signature. It’s possible to recognise people from this if even a weak connection is made.

What Telepathy Cannot Do

  • Telepathy doesn’t give anyone mind control, nor put ideas in anyone’s head. You can’t make someone act out of character.
  • A telepath can’t instantly know everything about someone else
  • let you see through someone else’s eyes
  • There is no way to compel someone to tell the truth

Social conventions on Telepathy

The previous session was about the hard limits on Telepathy. However I didn’t want to rely on that for my narrative. So my Telepaths some moral qualms about invading other people’s privacy. These aren’t hard and fast rules like the set above.  They vary by character and may be ignored when the situation demands it.

  • Most people are unaware that Telepaths are real.
  • The Imperium knows about them
    • Telepathy is a state secret of the Earth Imperium.
    • It actively recruits them into their undercover intelligence units.
  • Secret laws restrict the use of telepathy on citizens.
    • It is a breach of personal privacy without a warrant or explicit consent
    • Locating people and testing emotional state is allowed, but nothing more.
  • Even with consent one ought not to dig deeper for things
  • Using Telepathy for personal advantage or to produce a positive response is unethical, similarly to disadvantage a third party.

Counters to Telepathy

I’ve covered some of this in the hard limits. But I built in a variable difficulty for it that makes it easier for antagonists to resist. I also made it so that people could learn resistance techniques if they know telepathy works. On the other hand I left it so this just weakens the connection. That makes the Telepaths to get closer to their enemies.

An enemy might still give things away, especially when in close by. Also the antagonist has to feel that they are the enemy of the telepath. If they aren’t yet aware the telepath is their antagonist then they might come across as an acquaintance or even a colleague from the relationship scale. They might even start off as lovers. Even if the relationship worsens as conflict comes up in the story the ability of a telepath to gain access to their antagonist’s mind might not change. The extent to which you let this work needs to suit the story.