OR: Why the Problem of Over-Powered, Perfect Characters Is Not That They are Too Powerful But That They Have Ill-Defined Limits
We’ve all read that book or seen that movie that exhibits this negative trope: of the hero who just can’t be killed no matter what the odds.
A couple months ago, I was reading a book by an author whom I generally respect where this trope was exhibited. From page one, the protagonist was introduced as a warrior whose prowess on the battlefield could scarcely be matched. I didn’t mind how powerful he was for most of the story; but as the climax hit, and the protagonist kept beating enemies despite the impossible odds, I became more questioning of the hero’s extensive skill-set. The author had done a good job in setting the protagonist’s skill-set up at the beginning of the story so that it was somewhat believable. But by the end of the book, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the hero, in the end, was unrealistically strong.
Now, the common response to these sorts of problems in writing tends to be to fix them by making the over-powerful hero less powerful. Now, don’t get me wrong—this is an effective solution to the problem, and oftentimes can be necessary. However, what I’d like to propose in this article is that the root problem with over-powered characters is not that they’re too powerful, but that we never get to actually see their limits.
Every person has limits: your characters should too
The first thing that we need to recognize is that every character—no matter how powerful they are—is going to have limits. Unless your main character is God, there’s going to be something more powerful than him. Any character can be trounced—it just depends on how powerful the opponent is. And so you can look at the problem of the over-powered protagonist in two different ways: he might be too powerful, yes—but his opponents may also just be too weak.
The power level of your villain must be determined by the power level of your hero. This can be pretty clearly seen in Marvel movies. There’s a reason that Thor isn’t fighting villains like the Iron Monger or the Winter Soldier, even though they’re all in the same universe. It would be child’s play for him to go against them. Instead, he’s given villains who actually do pose a threat to him, such as Loki and Malekith. If Thor was put in a movie against the Winter Soldier, then yes, he could be branded as over-powered since all he would need to do to beat him is to just electrocute him with his hammer. Five minutes into the movie, and we’d already be rolling credits. But accusing Thor of being over-powered would be missing the point. The actual problem is that he’s simply not given a fair match.
The solution to over-powered characters then is not necessarily to make them less powerful, but rather to give them clear limits and then set them against villains that gently—but firmly—push those limits. To go back to the book I was reading, the protagonist didn’t necessarily need to be made less powerful. I just needed to see what his weaknesses are and what he couldn’t do. If, in the middle of the book he was set against the villain and was humiliatingly crushed, and then from there on to the conclusion he had to be rigorously training himself to be able to defeat the villain at the second matchup, by the time the conclusion rolled around, the climax would be legitimately tense because we’ve seen what his limits are and we know what they are.
Actually, now that I think about it, what I’ve actually just described here is the basic gist of The Dark Knight Rises.
So if you’re writing about a protagonist who is potentially over-powered, figure out what his limits are. Maybe he’s a good enough swordsman that he can defeat seven average soldiers at a time, but ten soldiers is pushing it, and fifteen would absolutely overwhelm him. It doesn’t have to be that numerically precise, but figure out what his limits are. And then rigorously stick to them.
In other words, don’t tell the reader that he can’t defeat fifteen soldiers, and then for the climax set him against twenty soldiers. Yes, that builds up a lot of tension and suspense, but if he ends up winning then you’ve cheated as a writer and readers will recognize that. (Granted, there are some ways to do this, such as if the protagonist finds some ultra-clever way to defeat them all, but even then you want to be careful.)
Once you give your protagonist limits, stick to them
Honestly, a lot of the time the problem with the protagonist that is “too powerful” is just this—limits are given, but they aren’t honest limits because the author has decided to fudge the protagonist’s power level instead. It’s bad to refrain from giving a character limits. But it’s worse to set limits only to break them. So be honest as a writer, and don’t lie to your readers.
Once the reader knows what the character’s limits are, what pushes his limits, and what is solidly over his limits, then the story and stakes become a lot more interesting as the character is constantly pushed to his limit. This is why you can have a character like Superman who can be extremely powerful but still used to tell a good story. Now, granted: I’m not a big fan of Superman because I feel like he still tends to be overly-powerful. But he does have clearly defined limits—the obvious weakness to Kryptonite for one, but also the less-obvious but still just-as-influential limit with regards to his moral code. Superman won’t kill. And he’ll always try to protect innocents. And, combined with his physical weakness to Kryptonite, this gives him enough limits that you can actually write interesting and suspenseful stories about him.
In conclusion, showing the reader what your protagonists can’t do will make them more readily believe what they can do.
Ultimately, I don’t think that the problem with a protagonist ever is that they’re too powerful: it’s that they’re being mismatched against villains, either by going against villains that are way too easy for them, or by going against villains that are way too hard for them (but are still defeated by the protagonist because the author cheated). By setting heroes against villains that gently but firmly push against the heroes’ previously-defined limits, effective stories can be told that are both suspenseful and entertaining—no matter what the heroes’ power-level. Readers won’t care about whether or not your hero can win until they know that he can lose. So show them that he can lose. And then the reader will care about how he will win.