The basic mechanics of reading a dramatic narrative (be it a short story, a novel, or what have you) goes thusly: characters communicate with one another and with themselves, relaying various thoughts, emotions, locales, and events along the way. Crucially, they’re also communicating with the reader while doing so. This process (the reader, in effect, becoming a part of the story) is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s the very reason writing is one of the purest acts of empathy we have.
Through self-hypnosis, we experience a story firsthand. We can quibble, of course, about certain stories presenting their tale stylistically in a second- or even third-hand manner, but I think we can all agree that this deep, emotional connection is what makes fiction so great. It’s also why other forms of media, like TV, film, and even comics, struggle to reach the same depth of experience—they simply don’t connect to the consumer in the same way.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about the nature of writing, how it acts as a gateway of sorts, a conduit that, through the power of language, allows thoughts and emotions to be transferred directly from author to reader. Indeed, the very act of writing is magical: half telepathy, half time travel. How else to explain the fact that we can read and understand the words of Plato anywhere on earth (and even beyond) more than two millennia after his death?
The act of sharing of thoughts and emotions so directly via writing is mindbogglingly cool when you stop to think about it. It’s probably why I’m so drawn to telepathy and why I’ve used it a number of times in my fiction. In Absynthe, my new decopunk novel set in a reimagined Roaring 20’s Chicago, the main character, Liam Mulcahey, takes part in a military experiment during the Great War that allows his squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, to communicate telepathically. Initially, as the serum that enhances their innate, extrasensory perceptions is being developed, communication is limited to a vague awareness that other minds are near. Later, as it blossoms into an empathic link, Liam and his squad mates becoming progressively more adept at sensing one another’s moods. Eventually, the Army’s bioengineers achieve their true goal: a serum that allows the Henchmen to transfer orders and reconnaissance information in the blink of an eye, then analyze, strategize, and act as a single, combined unit, all at the speed of thought.
An issue arises during testing, however. The first component mentioned above, emotion, is an essential building block to higher forms of communication, and therein lies the problem. Blood lust can leak from one squad member to the others, infecting them all with similar emotions. The same is true of courage, or lack thereof. And when the fighting’s over, one squad member’s shell shock can become the entire squad’s. This touches on another vital component of any speculative element in a book: there must be a cost.
In Absynthe, the primary cost, at least for the Devil’s Henchmen, is that with the power of telepathic communication comes an almost complete loss of privacy. When the war escalates, the Army’s top brass, largely out of desperation, order the serum to become permanent, which means that even after the war, the Henchmen will have almost no ability to limit what thoughts and emotions are shared with one another. In many ways, it will become a nightmare scenario.
Another way Absynthe plays with the concept is to deal with conscious thought in a more abstract way. The story deals a lot with memories, which are of course essential elements in how we identify ourselves. In the story, the mind is treated as a storehouse, a database of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions. By accessing them in such a manner, a particularly powerful telepath might be able to alter memories, or even remove them altogether. That sort of attack—an attack on self—is viewed as very serious, akin to suffering a stroke, and became an essential part of the story. By threatening a character’s memories, and later assaulting them, I was able to explore what our memories mean to us and how our experiences, both the good and the bad, shape our likes and dislikes, our decision making, indeed, our very personality.
There are other ways to play with telepathic powers and their associated costs. In another of my series, an epic fantasy known as The Song of the Shattered Sands, a mage named Meryam gains incredible amounts of power through use of blood. Sometimes the blood is given willingly by her servants or family; sometimes it isn’t. Either way, it grants Meryam the power to dominate their minds, to control them from afar, in essence turning them into golems that bow to her every wish. It is, however, a taxing endeavor for Meryam. Over time, she loses her appetite. She becomes frail. I loved the notion that her gaining such mental prowess would see her body wasting away, the mental and physical always at war with one another. It allowed me to show her as willful, driven, ready to pay any cost to gain revenge over her sister’s killer.
In the current book I’m writing, Ill Winds Over Ancris, telepathic links are forged between humans and dragons. One of the book’s primary themes is the notion of empire and what it means for the conqueror and the conquered, both. It flavors everything in the empire’s sphere of influence, including something so basic as the method of controlling their winged mounts. While imperial dragonriders bind their dragons through use of special stones—exerting control, always control—the conquered people of the Kin bond with their dragons to create a mutually beneficial relationship.
In either case, the result is largely the same: a telepathic link between rider and dragon is formed. More to the point, it allows communication between species that could not otherwise do so, at least not to the same degree. This, to me, is another powerful and compelling aspect of using telepathic powers in fiction: bridging the communication gap between two or more alien life forms.
It’s a technique that’s used exhaustively in fiction, allowing humans to speak with, say, magical creatures, or visitors from other planets, or artificial intelligences, or even ghosts, returned from the land beyond. The key here, the thing that makes the ability so intoxicating, is that it allows the reader to be transported to something truly alien. It can shift our thinking in ways we hadn’t even considered before. It takes writing’s greatest strength (transportive empathy) and turns it up to 11.
In the end, writing is about the communication of thoughts, emotions, actions, and settings that the reader themselves has not, and often could never, experience firsthand. Telepathy is a tool that allows the author to deepen those experiences.
There are countless stories that make use of telepathy, many of them to great effect. Absynthe is one example (and a good one, if I do say so myself), but there are many, many more. I’d urge you to seek them out, because I really do believe it provides a gateway of sorts, a way of enjoying fiction that other types of narratives simply cannot offer.