Storytelling

Five Characters That Are Too Powerful

Dark Willow

Creating a spec fic character isn’t always like creating characters in other genres. One of the unique challenges we face is preventing our characters from becoming too powerful – and dealing with them when they do. But what exactly is too powerful? Allow me to demonstrate by showing you a character that is NOT too powerful.

Just Powerful Enough: Q From Star Trek: TNG, DS9, Voyager

Q

Q is the most powerful character. He can snap his fingers and make anything happen in the past, present or future. The best you can do to stay safe from him or his peers is lie low and hope they don’t bother with you. But that’s okay – he’s not on the side of the good guys. He’s at best a nuisance, and at worst a serious threat to humanity. Giving him more power just adds more tension and bigger challenges for our team of heroes to face.

But when you make a hero powerful, problems become too easy to solve, decreasing the conflict of the story. Time and time again, writers have blundered into making their heroes too powerful for the antagonist to be a threat, and then had to write their way out of the quagmire. Here are five such heroes, and how their writers tried to keep them in check.

Spoiler warnings: Buffy Seasons 6 & 7, The Matrix and Matrix: Revolutions, Heroes seasons 1-3.

1. Gandalf From Lord of the Rings

Gandalf

Gandalf can fight ancient demons and summon mounts to whisk him away in a time of need. We’re not sure about everything he can do, because his powers remain mysterious and plot-convenient, but he saves the day enough times to tell us it’s a lot.

Luckily, Gandalf is more like an NPC than a player character. He’s a tool the GM uses to get all the characters going on their heroic journey. So when it’s time for some action and conflict, he is suddenly needed elsewhere, leaving the real heroes to fight on their own. However, we’re left wondering why he needed the hobbits at all. He’s a super powerful benevolent entity, why couldn’t he use his amazing powers to remove the threats he was worrying about?

2. Data From Star Trek: the Next Generation

Data

Data can lift large metal anvils and fallen beams, compute complex equations at lightning speed, distinguish individual voices from a throng of thousands, and play the violin with perfect accuracy. He doesn’t age, and he’s immune to radiation and other biological toxins. His only weakness is his social awkwardness, and that’s more endearing than it is problematic. Basically, he’s a character with STR 20, CON 20, DEX 20, WIS 20, INT 20 and CHA 8.

He was given every power a robot could possess, but none of the weaknesses. Why didn’t his positronic brain ever freeze during an emergency and require rebooting? He doesn’t even plug into a charger, and yet he never shuts down because of a dead battery.

Star Trek: The Next Generation uses a balanced approach to address how powerful Data is. Sometimes, threats to the biological characters on the ship also affect him. We’re never sure why, but Data seems to know. Other times, Data himself is the threat – once he even hijacked the ship. But often, the writers just say, “forget technobabble, let’s just have Data save everyone.”

3. Willow From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

willow

Buffy is pretty powerful herself – but by the end of the series Willow can give her a run for her money. No longer needing any spell ingredients or special incantations, Willow just waves her hand and makes whatever she wants happen. There is one time she runs out of magic and is temporarily unable to cast spells – but it never happens again.

The writers’ first answer to this problem was simple: make her evil. She develops a magical addiction, and then descends into a vengeful rage, becoming the end boss for season 6. She makes a fantastic Big Bad, but then what do you do with her in season 7? Well… she can be really timid about using her powers because she could become evil again. It’s a temporary fix, but by the time she gets over that and starts using all her powers as a good guy, the show’s over! Buffy’s all done, phew. Now she can just visit Angel when he needs someone to carry the day.

4. Neo From The Matrix Sequels

Neo

During the first Matrix movie, Neo struggles with the question of whether he is the chosen one. He has an unusual level of talent, but is still confined to the laws of a fictional reality in cyberspace. At the end of the movie he breaks free of those constraints, making him invulnerable while inside the Matrix. There’s nothing wrong with this ending; it makes for a great triumph over an adversary that was previously unbeatable. The problem occurs in the sequels, where now-invulnerable Neo is still the protagonist.

Taking him out of the Matrix and into the real world where he was just like everyone else was a great idea, but most of the battles still happen in cyberspace. So instead, the writers made a classic move: buff the villain until he’s a threat once more. They also provided a great example of what can go wrong with this method.

mrsmiths

It gets ridiculous.

5. Peter Petrelli from Heroes

Peter Petrelli

There’s no better example of a bad idea and a bad fix for that idea than Peter Petrelli’s character arc. The world of Heroes is much like Marvel’s X-Men: a few rare people have mutations that give them a specific ability. Most of these abilities are simple things like “fly’ or “heal” or “super strength” – but Peter’s ability is to permanently gain all the abilities of people nearby. With my four previous examples, it’s easy to see how writers blundered into “too powerful” territory. But how could anyone have thought this was a good idea?

In season one, his ignorance of his powers and failure to control them kept him in check. But then he learned how to use them much too quickly. By season two, something else had to be done. So they made him a bad guy… sort of. Peter’s a kind and likable person, so any sort of villainy would be out of character. The best they could do was make him confused about which side was good and which was bad. It came off as contrived and failed a basic believability test. Then in season three they temporarily removed his powers… twice. I don’t know what they did after that because I stopped watching.

Methods of Fixing an Overpowered Hero

There are ways to fix OP characters, but they trend towards predictable, contrived, or just unbelievable. That’s because as soon as you make your hero too powerful, your audience already knows you’re going to pull one of these out of your hat.

  • Give the hero a personal weakness that prevents them from applying their abilities to real problems. This often manifests as lack of control or an emotional inhibition. Any good character arc would include overcoming these problems, so it’s only a temporary fix.
  • Turn the hero to the dark side. This is a usually a temporary condition and therefore only a temporary solution. It’s generally done via either a tragic event that creates a desire for revenge, or some form of brainwashing/mind control by a true villain. Similarly, an accidental misuse of the powers can turn the them against the good guys for a short time. Regardless of the method, having a powerful hero act as an antagonist benefits the story substantially by providing a compelling threat.
  • Make the villain more powerful to compensate. This can create a permanent solution, but should only be used with heroes that are just a little too powerful. Otherwise you’ll end up with Dragonball Z.
  • Get rid of the hero or their powers altogether. If it’s the end of the story, make the sequel about someone else. If it’s not, you can have them ascend to a higher plane, leaving the other characters to fix problems on their own. Or fall from a higher plane, losing most of their magical powers.

Whatever you do, don’t make up a miscellaneous reason why your hero can’t use their powers every time a situation calls for them. Doing so will make your story contrived, predictable and unbelievable all at once.

There’s only one fix that avoids all the pitfalls of overpowered heroes: refrain from making them really powerful in the first place.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Jack Marshall

    You could also discover a major weakness that could be exploited, balancing the hero. Example: Superman. Oh, boy, did they ever overdo that guy. As if flight, invulnerability, super senses, and super-strength weren’t enough, they had to add heat vision, a freezing breath weapon, and then let him go back in time. Yeesh!
    The answer? Kryptonite!
    Of course, we had to stretch believability to imagine that Krypton meteorites that should have been infinitismally… infitissimally… infintissimly… impossibly rare were suddenly all over the map, but hey!
    Option B (less satisfying): Don’t get rid of the powers, just nerf, like Silver Surfer. It’s just yucky to have a semi-burned-out character floating around.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yep, Superman is the original OP hero. And I think you’re right that there are physical as well as emotional weaknesses you could add to solve the problem. Instead of kryptonite, they should have given him a physical weakness such as having to sleep at least 15 minutes after spending an hour awake, now that’s something that will naturally cripple him in any situation, and could affect the plot in a variety of ways. No more:
      “Mwahahaha! I have kryptonite!”
      “Shocking! The last villain had kryptonite too – what a coincidence!”

      • Because I Can

        I think what usually makes Superman a compelling character DESPITE his OP status is how he struggles to do the reverse of every other Human character. He has to constantly hold back because of the damage he could do otherwise. It’s such a difficult thing for him to do it day-in/day-out and have the Batman Dilemma of “I could kill these villains and end the problem here, but what am I then?” Superman’s struggle to let the justice system do its job and keep himself in check is what makes the character enjoyable for a lot of people.

        Your character can be OP and still be enjoyable if you make sure they have some kind of flaw or weakness that prevents them from taking over everything.

  2. Emily Buck

    I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I didn’t like about the second and third Matrix movies. (I watched them before I started doing serious media critique.) Your reasoning pins down the major problem with those two movies. Thanks!

  3. S. Alex Martin

    I’ve never thought about heroes this way before. Usually I have complaints about the villains, what with their ridiculous powers or robotic, instant off-switch armies. But you’re right, there’s a line to be drawn with the main characters, too.

    And I totally agree with the first commenter about Superman. I’ve never been much of a Superman fan (I still haven’t seen “Man of Steel,” somehow…) but yeah. Superman is so far-fetched to ever be defeated. I know, I know…Bruce Wayne beats him. But come on, take Kryptonite out of the equation and he’s invulnerable.

    I have a couple posts about Main Characters and Villains you might be interested in. I talk about their development and how to “level the playing field.”

    How to Create a Vile Villain
    http://salexmartinauthor.blogspot.com/2014/07/how-to-create-vile-villain.html

    How to Create a Magnificent Main Character
    http://salexmartinauthor.blogspot.com/2014/07/how-to-create-magnificent-main-character.html

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi there, Sorry about the wait. When there’s links in a comment it usually gets put in moderation.

      I think you have a good point about villains that are so powerful, overcoming them feels unrealistic. I have seen one example of the insta-switch robot army working well though: in Best of Both Worlds, the famous two parter in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that case, the protagonists had to struggle to find the off switch. It wasn’t just “There’s the command center, destroy it!”

      As for Voldemort’s horcruxes, I think that still had a slight ring of plot convenience to it, but it was a good implementation and I personally enjoyed them.

      We have a couple villain-related pieces you might be interested in:
      How to Make Your Dastardly Villain More Memorable

      How Team Rocket Villains Ruin Stories

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The question of how they defeat the borg becomes a really serious problem in Voyager, when the Queen passes up multiple chances to destroy Voyager because… Well, no one is quite sure.

  4. Autumn

    “But when you make a hero powerful, problems become too easy to solve, decreasing the conflict of the story. ”

    This specific part of the article is why I have a problem with number 3.
    You worded the section as though Willow became powerful and they said, “Well, we don’t know what to do with this!” and that’s not what happened.
    She was addicted to magic, but that doesn’t make her evil, it makes her an addict. She was quitting for her significant other and then something happened and the only way she knew to fix it was to use magic. When that didn’t work, she quite literally went crazy, and in order to fuel her revenge rampage she needed to become more powerful.
    The reason she runs out of power is because she didn’t have a source other than herself at the beginning to get the power from. There is no lack of sources after that because she taps into where magic originates.
    Finally, the only time she visited Angel was while Buffy was still a show, and the series didn’t end after Willow was able to use her powers again. It’s now a comic book series.

    • bobkat

      Thank you; said it much better than I could

  5. Amira

    Another solution is to challenge your OP MC with something completely different. E.g. a superhero became so powerful that he single-handedly defeats the boss of the bad guys, and no enemy is any longer a challenge. But then he falls for this boss’s daughter, and in order to win her heart he’ll need to learn to see her people in a new light, and to convince her that he isn’t an enemy. Too bad he’s no good at diplomacy! His OP strength won’t help him here.

  6. LoopTheLup

    There are a couple of ways of looking at why Gandalf couldn’t just save the day himself:
    1) the long-winded version is that Gandalf and the other Istari were told to limit themselves in what they could do by the Valar (sort of the top-level not-quite-gods of the world), forcing them to cloak themselves in the guise of old men who wandered the earth.
    2) the shorter version (that doesn’t require three side-books and a wiki): look what happened when Saruman tried.

  7. Hannah

    This is a good list, and I like how you gave Q as a good example, even though he was incredibly annoying. But I can think of a number of times when Data was hooked up in engineering because of a bug in his system, or because he downloaded something nasty and his brain shut itself down. And there’s that time when Lor took advantage of him and shut him off. So while I think they definitely did take advantage of his android power a lot, I also think that they explored his less invulnerable side in several episodes as well.

  8. JustPassingBy

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this website. Another example of overpowered characters are the saiyan heroes from dragonball z. They solve every battle by getting ridiculously strong instead of thinking about clever ideas or making the other characters relevant too. Don’t get me wrong I love Dragonball and other animes but the series, it’s just filled with plot holes.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I remember the first time I watched DBZ. It was during the Cell Saga, when Cell challenges them all to a martial arts tournament, and my thought was “wait, they know where he’s going to be, and he’s a bit stronger than any of them, why don’t they just all go there and fight him at once?”

  9. Jesse F

    I’m not sure if you got far enough into Heroes to see it, but I think Peter’s final balancing was actually really well done: (NOTE: SPOILERS)

    After his father took away his powers, at the very end of season… 3, I think? They had that drug that would give people powers back (I don’t remember why they had it or how it worked, it’s been years). Anyway, Peter took that, and got his absorbing power back, but it was much more limited: He had to touch someone to use their power, and he could only hold onto one power at a time.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you, I didn’t. I abandoned Heroes in the third season after everyone lost their powers.

      That sounds like a strong choice on their part. Not ideal, but certainly making the best of a bad situation.

      • Mari

        The writers’ strike destroyed that show. Very disappointing.

  10. Laverne

    “But when you make a hero powerful, problems become too easy to solve, decreasing the conflict of the story. ”

    I like powered characters who are flawed, so they are the ones I enjoy writing. Maybe they have a martyr complex, or even an inferiority complex despite the fact that they have all that mojo. Otherwise, like you said, things are too easy and I believe readers have a hard time relating to them. Creating a super-powered being who is his/her worst enemy is more entertaining than one who is perfect, solves everything with a snap of their fingers and delivers monologues all the time.

    I don’t have a problem with Superman. He’s supposed to be a Big Blue Boy Scout. What I did like about Man of Steel (and what I believe a lot of people missed) was that Supes was on a learning curve in that movie. He was learning his limits, what to do and what not to do. He didn’t show up all slick and all-knowing like Christopher Reeve’s version did, which is not a knock against that Superman. I thought it was more interesting to watch Kal-El fumble.

  11. Krssven

    I’d also disagree that Willow is somehow a ‘too powerful’ character. Her journey is one of slow magical awakening to having genuine power but not the moral responsibility or true maturity to use it responsibly. Willow’s magical meltdown is hinted and foreshadowed many times, but even in late S5 there was a limit on her magical abilities. She was very capable and powerful, but only in short bursts, and it still wasn’t enough vs. Glory. In S6 when she snaps and becomes a villain, she immediately goes to the nearest magical sources (magical books, and another sorcerer) and sucks them dry of magic, making her rampage realistic. She makes sure she gets the power she needs to keep going (and even then eventually ends up using it all and needing another boost). Once she’s talked down, she becomes very cautious, for good reason as while on her vengeance kick she killed several people (this is disputed by the comics later, but it’s pretty clear those people are dead in the show) and doesn’t want to do it again.

    This wasn’t a sudden change. Willow’s arc was one of the more well-handled, up to a point (the drug metaphor being a low point, but it moved things in the right direction).

    • bobkat

      My take on Warren in the comics was that Amy was either wrong or lying, a nd the ruler of whatever Hell-dimension warren was in sent him back to w ork mischief.

  12. Rand al'Thor

    Gandalf’s player (if he was a PC) missed a ton of The Hobbit sessions.

  13. Sophie The Jedi Knight

    I have started reading the Halo trilogy (finishing up the last book) and I think the author made a mistake when she was writing the world. Basically, there are these three angels who have come from heaven to try to help the world against armies of darkness (demons from hell) and the most human one, Bethany, falls in love with a human and then it’s just really pathetic romance. When the author wrote this, she had a real God, but his lack of power is pathetic. In the second book, Hades, when Bethany is kidnapped by a demon and dragged into hell, the reason she stays there for the whole book is because apparently, the angels are trying to break her out but hell is a different sector, so they can’t do anything except somehow save her from a fire FROM HEAVEN and then wait just before she’s raped for the angels to break through and save her. In the last book, Heaven, Beth and her boyfriend are married (they’re eighteen but it’s TRUE LOVE!) and these angels try to kill them. Why doesn’t God save them from the angels? Because A. God can’t control angels (or demons) and B. he’s too busy. God is supposed to be omnipotent and omnipresent. Adding God as a character was a bit of a buzzkill for the story.

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