Telekinesis, pyrokinesis, matter transmutation, bringing tiny chunks of stuff into existence, etc...

If no special rules apply, it seems that wielders of such superpowers might easily defeat their enemies by attacking their ultimate weak spot - insides of their bodies. For example, just a small intervention in enemies' brains should suffice, not only to defeat them, but also to kill them.

It seems like an obvious strategy, yet we rarely if ever see it employed.

Why?


In this universe, there are many people who poses various superpowers similar to e.g. X-Men. Superpowers are varied in both type and strength. While people with any kind of superpower are fairly common, people with a superpower so strong they can single-handedly level a city block are rare (the distribution of strength looks like the Poisson distribution). Most superpowers are not "unique" - many unrelated people may have the same type of superpower with various strengths. The society has somewhat adapted to the fact that superpowers exist (again, similar to the X-Men).

The setting is similar to the contemporary Earth, with addition of the superpowers and their direct social and other similar consequences.

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    To clarify: would you like plausible in-universe reasons, which is on-topic here, or the out-of-universe reasons, which might be better covered on SF&F or Writing? – Cadence Sep 11 at 11:32
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    Then it is essential for you to elaborate on your universe. Otherwise this is entirely opinion-based (and possibly to broad given your numerous examples) and will likely be closed by the community. It is required that questions are somewhat objectively answerable. There needs to be a metric on how you are going to evaluate answers. And for this context is needed. – ArtificialSoul Sep 11 at 11:36
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    Just to provide an example, this exact use of magic is pivotal in the Eragon series. Without magical protection, entire armies can be killed with very little effort as magicians can target specific nerve bundles or arteries and pinch or sever them in hundreds of people simultaneously. – Schrodinger'sStat Sep 11 at 15:16
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    Sounds a lot like you need the manton effect – Benubird Sep 11 at 15:25
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22 Answers 22

up vote 55 down vote accepted

Magic can't penetrate the skin

There are lots of things that won't penetrate a person's skin. High energy electrons won't make it through, nor will visible light (at least, not far enough to see anything you want to target). Why should magic be able to penetrate a person's skin?

A reasonable explanation for the protection of internal organs is that magic can only act at a 'line-of-sight' from the caster, either from his eyes, or hands, or mouth, depending on the nature of the magic. Spells to burst doors, explode fireballs, and disintegrate orcs are good to go, spells cast against a spleen are not.

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    It's also a nice way to make healing hard because you need to work harder to get under the skin and fix the issue. – ratchet freak Sep 11 at 12:45
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    You would also need knowledge of the human body to know how to fix it. Priests get divine insight while mages can only guess. – ratchet freak Sep 11 at 12:48
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    Visible light does penetrate skin. Ever held your hand in front of a strong flashlight? You can definitely see light through your fingers and even your palm. Part of the reason why CGI movies have a hard time getting skin to look right is because of the way light is absorbed and reflected from the multiple layers of skin. – computercarguy Sep 11 at 17:26
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    @computercarguy Just because sufficiently bright light can penetrate skin doesn't mean you can see internal organs well enough to target them by sight. – jaxad0127 Sep 11 at 22:08
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    For any nerds who want to learn more about what @computercarguy is talking about, the term is Subsurface scattering – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 11 at 23:41

Have a look at the Manton effect in the Worm (by Wildbow) universe.

Simply put, it is an unconscious effect that prevents your ability from targeting people, to prevent you from hurting yourself, because powers can be difficult to control.

The Manton Effect is a result of a person's shard imposing limitations to ensure they don't accidentally hurt themself. During a second Trigger Event, the shard can refine its technique to only protect the host.

Try reading Worm too, it's also a universe with widespread super powers and it's amazing!

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    There was a similar effect in Shinsekai Yori. Only there it wasn't a natural property of magic, but a sort of genetic manipulation coupled with hypnosis/brain washing, preventing power users from using their powers on other "humans". – Alice Sep 11 at 13:15
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    Yes that is also a good example. That was a great anime. – Eridanis Sep 11 at 13:19
  • Worm was the first thing that came to mind too. Worth noting that some people have the capacity to overcome this limitation too - these were some of the most powerful characters - and some were strictly inverted in what they could effect. – Baldrickk Sep 11 at 15:05
  • @Alice s/humans/those you believe are your own kind/ – forest Sep 12 at 20:10
  • @forest Well, technically, yeah, but they believed themselves to be the only humans, iirc. – Alice Sep 13 at 7:22

Refraction index of body tissues

Magic has to be focused on its intended target to be active. Focusing requires being able of seeing the trajectory of the magic from the source to the target.

Different body tissues, like skin, fat, muscles, tendons, bones, bend the magic differently, plus it is not possible to see the deflection and correct for it.

Therefore any attempt of focusing magic on an internal organ will result in simply spreading magic around, with no net effect on the target.

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    Spotted the ultrasound technician! – user3490 Sep 11 at 15:55
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    @user3490, whoops, you got me – L.Dutch Sep 11 at 15:57
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    That could also explain why healing magic can exist - you need to come really close (even touch a body of person being healed). This way you are able to better feel the disruptions and focus enough energy to heal an injured/sick organ. In the combat that's useless but theoretically a silent assassin mages could use this also for bad purposes (just a nice fireball is far easier to summon and does the trick as well so why bother). – Ister Sep 11 at 18:34

Because of Darwinian Evolution

Once upon a time, most of the population was very susceptible to this type of "Death from a distance" power. However, as magic/power use became more widespread, those with the inherent ability to resist it had a distinct reproductive advantage. Fast-forward to today, and the number of people who haven't inherited this resistance are negligible. Of course, there still might be a handful that are missing the trait, but they are so rare that attempting to kill people by internal manipulation is not a valuable combat tactic.

Of course, this requires that you allow the majority of the population to have a mutation/power, even if it is just a mundane protection against internal damage. The exciting powers can still follow the distribution outlined in the question.

You can't attack your enemy's organs because:

  • You can't kill what you can't see

You can require line-of-sight to use the power, i.e. you have to be able to see your enemy's heart or brain before you attack them, and if you already can, then at that point you could also use a sword to finish them off.

  • You can't use your power through other matter

This one has some interesting applications outside of crushing organs. In this scenario, instead of distance or vision limiting how far you can use your powers from, the air limits it. Air has a low density, so you can use your power through air quite a distance. If you use your power through water, it runs into more matter and does not have as much range. The atoms in solids are so tightly packed that it is impossible to use telekinesis through solid objects, the range is just too short. This has some weird side-effects though. Your hero can't use their powers as far when it's foggy out (no, my one weakness!), and the hero has almost unlimited distance in space.

  • You have to move the whole, not the part

If two parts are connected, like the heart is connected to the body, you have to move everything collectively. Combine this with the next one so that you can't just throw the villain into the air and let them fall.

  • Movement costs

Every time you move something, you incur a cost. The cost can be in the form of health or energy, or something else. The cost to move something is proportional to its mass. In the book Eragon, energy costs for magic are equal to doing whatever it is in real life, e.g. lifting a pebble next to you is much easier than lifting a boulder a mile away, and you might drain so much energy lifting the boulder that you die. This is best suited to the point above, because moving a heart or brain would be pretty easy.

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    Fun fact: "You have to move the whole, not the part" was actually a major plot point in harry potter and the methods of rationality – Benubird Sep 11 at 15:30
  • @Benubird Which chapter? There are 122. – John Locke Sep 11 at 15:32
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    Many of them - like I said, it's a major plot point. In this case, it's "you can only transfigure a whole object, not a part of it", which comes up several times and ends up playing a vital part in the final confrontation. The first main appearance is in chapter 28, though. – Benubird Sep 11 at 16:11
  • In fact, in eragon they mention tha people can kill using magic to mess with organs – Antheloth Sep 11 at 18:08
  • @Antheloth That's why the movement costs idea can't be used alone in this case, because it is so easy to just squeeze the person's heart. I added that to stop people from abusing the "move the whole, not the part" idea by just bashing the enemy into the ground. Used alone, it doesn't answer the OP's question. Eragon assumes that the enemies a rider faces are other riders/magic creatures that can defend themselves with a ton of charms and spells. – John Locke Sep 11 at 19:12

A conspiracy of silence.

The highest-level practitioners of some fields know that such things can be done, but they absolutely do not teach others because it is a major advantage they'd rather keep to themselves.

Most trainers are entirely obsessed with the bigger fireballs/stronger shields arms race and never even stop to consider more subtle ways to use their power. Since building precision requires different exercises from building strength most people tend to focus heavily on strength with just enough precision to avoid hurting bystanders.

Ironically the people most likely to stumble upon the ability to do this kind of thing would be the healers.

This is rather like the way ordinary humans can kill each other via single pokes to particular nerve clusters or other vulnerable spots, but relatively few people bother to learn such methods of combat.

And for fighting other superheroes it might not be as effective as one might hope. Superheroes as commonly depicted are considerably tougher than normal humans, even the weak ones. Anyone who survives getting thrown through a wall has absorbed a major amount of shock, and because of inertia and softbody physics, the shock to their internal organs is just as great as the shock to their skin. Poking their heart might just make them mildly uncomfortable and poking their brain might just make them twitch a bit.

Where you'd actually see it used might well be less in open combat and more for stealthy assassinations where a flashy show of power is something to be avoided and a target choking to death on their food seems like an accident.

As for materialization powers, just say that the difficulty of materializing something increases exponentially with the density of the medium in which you're working. In vacuum is easy, in air is doable, in water is exceptionally difficult, and inside solids (even soft ones) is just short of impossible. This makes sense from a physics point of view since if you materialize one object inside another without either moving or dematerializing what's already there the resulting, likely nuclear, explosion would make quite a mess of the practitioner.

Line of Sight

Why not use the simplest solution? People can only influence what they have a direct line of sight to. Maybe it needs a high level of visualization to use abilities, maybe they are directly facilitated through the eyes, or travel similarly to light waves and can't penetrate dense objects. This also helps prevent other issues like tele-fragging walls, heroes needing precise estimates of distance to do anything, etc.

A couple options depending on use needed:

  • Penetration depth: Could give abilities from a few mm to a few inches past line of sight. This would be useful for transmuters being able to change an entire small object instead of the surface, etc.
  • Limited instead of impossible: Maybe impacting objects that aren't visible isn't impossible, it's just much more difficult, slower, risk of failure or disaster, etc.
  • Limited is an excellent point. Maybe magic requires the user to eyeball some mathematical equations and properties of the target, and if you cant see it then the chance of messing up is much higher. – Tyler S. Loeper Sep 11 at 15:31

The enemies are protected by wards.

It is possible to kill civilians this way, but combattants are protected by "shields" of their own magicians. To penetrate the shield, you first need to defeat the magician. When you do, you can then easily kill off all the combattants under the magician's protection.

This is the system used in The Inheritance Cycle.

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    That makes perfect sense...If you reword the actual question to "what prevents wielders of guns to destroy internal organs" you will get the same answer. Everyone carries a bulletproof vest on battle. So the equivalent ward/armour should be carried in a superpower battle. – Onofre Pouplana Sep 13 at 9:45

It kind of depends on how exactly your powers work, but if you assume they are magic or matter / reality manipulation based then my preferred explanation is that living beings automatically resist attacks against themselves. That is that sentient creatures anchor the world as it is making it difficult for your mage / hero to change things.

So a telekinetic hero can easily lift a rock or other inanimate object as there is no resistance. But once you start trying to lift living beings things get harder. A cat or a dog will have some resistance but a human will have much a much greater resistance, and can possibly train this resistance.

So unless you are very very powerful it is impossible to effect things inside a person and very hard to directly effect a person.

You can even extend this to say that a strong willed person makes it difficult to effect things around them too, so the more resistant a person the harder it would be to take an object from their hand or move something beside them.

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    This would make for a really nice "mechanic" when it comes to balancing the world! Maybe people with weaker powers (active) have a far higher resistance, and the "city-block-levelers" can be screwed with by anyone – Hobbamok Sep 11 at 12:24
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    @Hobbamok yeah, it's my go to reason for these situations. Manipulating people or their insides with this kind of magic is overpowered and this is a nice explanation for why it doesn't work, it also gives non heroes / mages a defence and ability to counter powers so there is a reason you still have ordinary people running around at all (particularly in a battle situation). – adaliabooks Sep 11 at 12:33

Life force or "souls" have a disruptive effect on the manifestation of magic, further enhanced by magical powers which passively protect.

In order to manifest magic on a longer distance in the inside of an entity's body requires tremendous power and skill. However, a powerful magic user could grab the neck of another magic user and infuse extreme heat into his body, causing immense pain and death - given the high proximity.

This would imply that if one magic user is powerful enough to infuse deadly magic directly into the body of his foes, he would be powerful enough to kill them instantly anyway with common means of magic. However, if the power difference is not big enough, it may not be possible any more and is forced to resort to common means even though he may be vastly superior (but not vastly enough!).

It would also imply that the magic user must reach a certain level of power in order to be able to do that even against "common" entities.

In addition to all of this, the ability to manifest magic in spatially and visually obstructed places may be something that has to be trained and/or studied. The usage of it may be something sadistic and brutal, like twisting a dagger in the body of someone else, something that is beyond necessity for the purposes of fighting, injuring and killing. Thus you wouldn't see much use of that anyway.

This would make manifesting magic in people technically possible, yet not feasible for combat... at least not normally. Making use of that exception and how you'd adjust the relations would be up to you.

Maybe nothing, but the enemies themselves.

In Eragon and the latter books, there was no such restriction - a magician or rider was able, and did indeed kill whole swathes of the enemy armies with little more than a thought - one described method was constricting the blood flow to the brain.

Their actions were limited by the opposition - the vast majority of the magic users time was spent attempting to defeat the magical barriers and defences of their opposite numbers. Until they had done so, they were unable to target the army lest the enemy magicians target them and take them out.

So you can have one or many parties providing active protection against attack. In your world, you could feel free to be able to charge protective charms that would do the job in lieu of magic users constantly protecting, or you could have magic guards situated around towns etc. to protect the populace.

You could structure your magic on the concept of ownership.

Everyone "owns" the matter within their bodies. This allows the owner control over their matter. This is the essence of the life force, the ability of something meta-physical to control the physical.

The essence of telekenetic's power is that they have varying level on control over "unowned" matter. Matter that is outside of any other entity that would establish ownership. The telekinetic cannot access matter that another entity's life force has established ownership over.

Maybe some very powerful classes of telekenetic's CAN access matter that is owned by another. They can either have this trait, and be ignorant of it. Or this trait could be trained for, with varying levels of success, and varying levels of ability to counteract the control over the owner of the matter.

Psychology/morals would prevent this sort of tactic from being used often, even if it is possible. Most people aren't murderers and many are squeamish about anything related to a person’s insides. Therefore even in a fight, the majority of the population is not going to escalate to that level of brutality. This makes people with superpowers effectively the same as most gun owners in our world. They are technically capable of killing people, but it is incredibly unlikely that they will ever choose to do so.

As for those people who are murderers, issues inherent to aiming without line of sight could still prevent internal attacks from being common. Targeting something that you can’t see is difficult, especially if that target is moving. So, in open combat it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort to aim internally most of the time. After all, an ice spike through the heart will make a person equally dead whether it came from inside or outside.

Obviously, there are exceptions to these principles, but they should be enough to explain why people aren’t dying from literal heartburn on a daily basis. They should also be applicable regardless of the specifics of how the powers work.

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    That might be a valid point, ad I'm giving you a plus 1 on that basis but I don't have your faith in human nature. – Ash Sep 11 at 19:22

Lack of focus/power, the finer the point of attack, like "that guy's spleen" as opposed to "that guy there" the harder an attack is to aim and maintain. Since attacks have three components - finest, range, and strength - each if which needs a certain amount of power, and a given individual can only expend a certain total amount of power on a given attack, finely aimed attacks can only be made at very short range if they are to be powerful. This effect is compounded if finely aiming attacks takes a greater relative amount of energy compared to increasing the power or range. It's not that people can't use internally targeted attacks but they're expensive and relatively ineffective at the same range with a much coarser attack.

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    In other words: "Control, Distance or Power. Pick two" – Ruadhan Sep 11 at 13:54
  • @Ruadhan Yes and no, I was thinking that past a certain point you can have control or distance and power. – Ash Sep 11 at 14:01
  • The usual model is a triangular chart where you have to pick a tradeoff of the three. you can be in the middle, but then you're sacrificing quality for versatility. – Ruadhan Sep 11 at 14:47
  • @Ruadhan Yes I'm familiar with that model; I'm proposing that this model should be somewhat truncated in favour of using considerably less control. – Ash Sep 11 at 14:50
  • Ah, that does make sense :) – Ruadhan Sep 11 at 15:06

Relativity of Magic

The ammount of effort to perform a change is inversely proportionate to the number of wills/minds that you need to "convince" or "overwrite".

Therefore, magicians try always to slightly change reality over make impressive demonstrations of power (is more plausible to any external witness a gas explosion than create a fireball from thin air).

In other words, to create magic you need to "force" your alternate reality uppon all observers within the time/space of the effect. This have the following consequences:

  • Persistent and public changes are more costly
  • Trying to "overcome/force" someone internal body perception can be very hard (but can still be open to exploit existing diseases or wounds)
  • Cheapest magic are isolated and temporal

You can have variable amounts of power and precision with every superpower. Additionally using a lot of power decreases your precision.

So you need Little precision to telekinate a human body to the ceiling (a lot of power) but a lot of precision to affect its internal organs (much less power needed). It would require lots of precision and multitasking to affect internal organs of a whole army, and much more power (= less precision available). That would be a terrifying supervillain!!!

Then when you use your powers in such an intimate way you can "feel" the damage you are doing, it is like using a knife to vivisect instead of using a gun to kill. How much of a psychopath is your hero?

Tactile feedback. Humans are capable of gouging out other people's eyes, biting their throat out, breaking their necks, punching their noses into their brains, strangling them, bashing their head in with their fists.

The majority of murders are committed using tools, projectile weapons, poisons, humans (war is basically predicated on that). Stuff that actually does the dirty work of killing.

If your superpowers are as much a part of you as your natural powers, they may come with comparable inhibitions and ickiness. That won't work with villains where the sociopathy extends not just in their plans of world dominion but also to the enjoyment of killing individually.

But those don't make for great superhero movie villains when they just enjoy wading through corpses one by one. Because that works without superpowers.

For most elemental powers, it could be the laws of thermodynamics. You cannot just create an element to shoot at people, you have to source it. Thus, you need some source of flame to create a fireball or a hunk or rock to control earth, or a water source... and... can't make air in a vacuum... For more fluid elements like Water and Fire (and air, but that's invisible) you could also require some part of it to be in contact with you. Air is easy to say it was because you're always in contact with it. Fire and water always touch your palm as you toss it around.

If you generate it, it is always generated from you own body or something you are in physical contact with... so you could burn someone's innards... but you would have to touch them to do it... which means a ranged fighter wouldn't be able to do it... but could still lob a fire ball at them.

Only their will in most cases. They choose not to use their powers in such a way. I say this since in every super powered universe you always have powers who disregard every rule above except personal will. You have a few examples that show this could happen and indeed everyone who could do it would have the upperhand in relation to every hand to hand combatant. Like in marvel when the marquis of death turns dr. doom's blood into acid and his heart into stone with a thought or something like that. Altho usualy they save such actions for the really really strong entities sugesting there might be a threshold of power you need to cross in order to be able to control someone's insides

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I have a couple of in-universe explanations, other than those mentioned by others about magical self preservation and shields, but I'll get to that later.

I do have an out-of-universe explanation, though, and it's probably the most important reason, which is: It's just too easy or unimpressive.

Would Darth Vader seem more or less dangerous if he clamped the carotid artery and the victim just slumps over dead with no hand gesture? Instead, we see that same guy struggling to breathe for a while and Vader looking like he's strangling the guy from across the room? Use the Force to knock someone 10 feet in the air and 30 feet away, or rupture the diaphragm of 20 Jedi?

If you can kill your opponent by teleporting a pebble into your opponents brain so they instantly fall down dead, it's not much of a fight scene.

In Mission: Impossible 3, they had a tiny explosive in the brain that killed someone in the first few minutes of the movie. The only reason it was tragic is because it was a rescue mission as well as a beautiful, young woman who died. Totally unimpressive, visually. They did the same thing in Kingsman, but made it blew people's heads off in a mini mushroom cloud. It was much more impressive, even though I didn't like it.

Readers and watchers want something they can "see" or see. If you can make it visual, then whatever you do will work. I can't remember the name of one specifically, but I've seen a couple movies that show internal repercussions of fights through a quasi-X-ray/MRI CGI. It was probably done because of the increased gore factor, but it helped illustrate just what a punch, broken bone, or bullet wound does to a person. I think the CSI shows use the same type of tech to illustrate similar effects during the characters research, but the movies I watched showed them "in real time" during the fights. (One was a Jet Li movie, but there were a couple others.)

The Watchmen is another example of overdone "magic" to be visual. Doctor Manhattan could just scramble people's brains easily enough, but instead makes them blow up. It's disgusting, disturbing, and visually stunning. I think in this context, it's done to make other villains/combatants want to cease violence, but that's only speculation. He does the same thing to Rorschach at the end of the movie, but again, that serves a dual purpose of turning him into a Rorschach-esque splotch.

So that brings up a minor reason why internal damage to enemies isn't used: it can't easily be used to deter other enemy. Seeing a guy slump over isn't as scary as something more visual. Even a bullet that isn't seen is less scary than the effect of a shotgun or grenade. Fear is what prevents people from attacking, not self preservation.

I call it "minor" because if you can use the same energy to blast a fireball at someone as incinerate 12 people's frontal lobe, it'll be much more efficient to kill a bunch of people than try to make them run away and maybe fight you again another day. So, which is more impressive: the 12 people dead of internal injury, or a fireball that maybe damages one person and scorched some hair off 2-3 other people? Also, which is more impressive when? The fireball is impressive during the fight, but the 12 dead is impressive only afterwards.

A story generally needs something with a little more flair than efficient to keep people interested.

Also, to be able to target something you can't directly see may also take a considerable amount of skill. Almost anyone can shoot a gun, but a sniper has spend years (or decades) getting as good as they are to hit as small a target from as far away as they do. Same thing can apply here. Sure, that pebble in the brain might not need super precision, but clamping an artery does.

Knowledge requirement.

The cost of magic is inverse to your ability to understand and reasonably explain the phenomenon.

Creating a rock out of thin air is possible, but unless you can reason out some plausible quantum physics explanation that could cause such a phenomenon, the energy cost is extremely high. For it to appear exactly in the person's head, rather than a couple meters in any direction, even more so.

It can explain the various powers people have, simply as them having the particular knowledge for that ability. It also gives a weak person the ability to grow stronger by studying, possibly even learning new abilities.

Something similar was done by Larry Correia in the Grimnoir Chronicles.

Maybe TK works by creating a relatively weak inertial gradient over a large volume.

Imagine levitating a human sized target. You would focus on a single point in space. This would create a spherical field where the force acting between any two points within that field is proportional to their distance. (or possibly the square of their distance.)

When the target rises, there will be a noticeable upward force all around it that decreases with distance. If the ground is loose soil, large clumps may rise as well.

Training and ability would determine how strong the gradient is, the directions it can flow in, and possibly how many point sources could be controlled at once. Maybe master level practitioners could create shaped fields.

The ability to injure someone internally would be dependent on how tight a gradient the practitioner can apply. Maybe powerful practitioners could do some damage.

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