The Problem With Powerful Characters

Hello, internet! I think it’s time for another writing-related post. Now for… a pet peeve! Anyone who knows me well should know that I tend to get really annoyed by over-powered characters in stories. Most people shrug it off and don’t think it’s a big deal. I, however, see it as a major and pervasive problem, especially among the young and mostly unpublished writers who are my peers. What’s the big deal? people say. Really powerful characters are cool. And, sometimes, they are. There is something pretty cool about a character who can control storms and shoot lasers with his brain and bring the dead back to life and go for years without food. Does that character make for good storytelling? I really don’t think so, unless–and here’s the important part–unless everyone else in the story has a comparable level of power. The reason is that having a main character who is so much more powerful than most everyone else is a sure way to ruin conflict. If your character can get out of any trouble he’s in with one hand tied behind his back, then you have a serious problem. Such a powerful character usually results in a boring story, a story where there is no suspense because the reader is never in any doubt that the character will escape alive and mostly unscathed. It’s lazy. A character with brains instead of ultimate telekinetic powers is going to be a lot more interesting to watch, simply because he has to think a lot harder to get out of trouble.

 

What if the overpowered character is not the hero, but a side character? The best situation in that case is for the overpowered character to be a villain. Someone so dangerous that it seems there’s no chance the hero could ever win. Even then you have to be careful, because this can lead to lame cop-outs on the part of the author when the hero finally has to win the day. If the character isn’t a villain, then he usually doesn’t work as well. He can still keep everyone safe. The suspense is damaged because of that. It is especially frustrating when such a character chooses to interfere in conflicts between others and always tries to keep the peace. Given the power to enforce a busybody nature, he can be the most deadening influence on conflict imaginable. If the character doesn’t use his power to help the heroes, then you’re forced to wonder why he isn’t helping, and all too often the explanation is contrived or doesn’t make sense.

 

Finally, I often see issues with the way these characters are made. A more common problem is a really powerful character who doesn’t have a major flaw. By this I don’t mean a personality flaw or a scar or something like that. I mean a flaw in his power, a key to defeating him. If the only person who can take advantage of a weakness in the hero’s power is a demigod, then you have a problem. (this seems to happen a lot in anime) I don’t think the consequences of having that kind of power are usually explored very well, either. Such vast powers would have a huge affect on a person’s psychology. Power corrupts, which is an old maxim but one we can see in action every day.

 

I think that the best way to handle a character with huge powers is to treat the power as a curse. Explore its detrimental effects on the hero and don’t glorify it. Don’t treat it as “cool.”

 

There, my two cents. I think I might be able to explore this subject further  in the future, but for now, a simple overview of my issues with overpowered characters. Peace!

 

~ Jared

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9 thoughts on “The Problem With Powerful Characters

  1. Dude, yes.

    What is your opinion of having one very powerful character (neither the mc or the villain) who purposefully chooses not to use his powers at all, even though both the hero and the villain are trying to convince him to side with them? I think that would be interesting to watch.

  2. Ah, this came at the right time. I’m developing, um, *counts on fingers* six stories right now, five of which have at least one excessively powerful character in them. This is all good stuff to keep in mind, so thank you for reminding me. :D Yay
    Now, disagreement! I do think power should be treated as cool. Because it IS cool! Yes, it’s still a curse, it still has consequences. It makes the character’s life more extreme. Which is just stressful for the poor character, really. I don’t think it’s worth it, but I have a bunch of characters popping up now who disagree. Power is going to be seen as glorious whether it should be or not (proof: Loki fangirls), so why not exploit it and also show the consequences of the _characters_ thinking it’s cool too? >:D (Not a complete disagreement, eh.)

    Hey, what do you think of this situation: In one of my stories, every character _except_ the hero is extremely powerful. This includes the villain and the damsel-in-distress-oid. (Most of the characters are personifications of things like Time, Death, Chaos, Public Transportation. Lowercase-g gods, basically. The hero is a normal preteen boy.) The hero is dependent on some plot device I haven’t decided on yet and/or his mentor to keep him from being vaporized by talking to people, but of course those are going to get taken away. And he’s going to have to win anyway, or bye-bye human existence. Does that make for a good story?

    1. Oh, I like the idea of exploring the consequences when the characters fall in love with the coolness of their power! (and you’re right, there is something that’s at least superficially cool and attractive about power)

      I think that’s a legitimate use of really powerful characters and would make for an interesting story! I’m a sucker for weak heroes.

  3. Have you ever noticed that this sort of character gets used as a Mentor pretty often? At least, that seems to be the place I see them in stories second-most often. (They are most often seen as heroes, which is a shame.)
    But whenever I see them as mentor’s, I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just go out and beat the villain themselves. In other words, this pet peeve of yours? Totally justified.
    There was only once when I saw this type of character as a mentor and liked it. In that case, they gave a good reason: the mentor just didn’t want to. That reasoning came off as hilarious and perfectly justifiable to me, for some reason. In any case, that’s one of the few cases I’ve seen of this where I thought it worked. Just something to think about.
    I do like a couple of the idea’s in the comments above, though, such as CommanderKip’s. Cory’s story sounds like fun, too. :)

    1. Do you remember which story that was? It sounds like something I might enjoy, intractable mentors are great fun when they have good reasons for being intractable and it isn’t done in a cliched way. :D

      1. It’s from one of my favorite stories of all time, a manga called “Rurouni Kenshin”. The mentor doesn’t show up until pretty late in the game, but that isn’t so regrettable. After all, he’s hardly the best part of the story.
        But while we’re on the subject of this kind of character…I just realized that there’s one other example I’ve seen where this type of character was used and I greatly enjoyed it. In “Legend of the Sun Knight”, the main character is a person who is incredibly powerful in pretty much every respect…except for his chosen profession. He makes a terrible knight, and he knows it. If he could switch to being a mage or a necromancer or a cleric or even a demon king (which isn’t at all far-fetched for him…) it would have been a better career choice. But in starting out, he just so happened to choose the one job which he could never succeed at. This works out hilariously. This novel is one of my favorite reads. Incidentally, both this and RuroKen can be found and read online. Though the former is a manga, not a novel.

      2. Ah, yes, I love RuroKen! Read the entire manga a year or two ago. I don’t quite remember that mentor character, but I think Kenshin himself is a good example. He’s extremely powerful, almost never loses a battle, but he was done in such a sympathetic manner, and the story focused more on his internal struggles than his outer battles, so it worked out really well.

        Legend of the Sun Knight sounds quite entertaining, I will have to check it out. :D

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