Storytelling

Five Consequences of Overpowered Characters

Goku from DBZ charging his spirit bomb.

Technically, every DBZ character is useful because they can contribute to the Spirit Bomb.

Here at Mythcreants, we talk a lot about how you should avoid overpowered characters, but what happens if you don’t? What if you just decide it’s fine to include a protagonist who can break worlds over their knee? I’m glad you asked.

1. Social Authority Stops Mattering

Sunny from Into the Badlands blocking four axes at once. He just wants to axe them a question.

In the real world, power and authority are almost always derived from other people doing what you say. In groups of more than a few dozen, physical strength stops being a factor, and it all comes down to obedience. A general isn’t powerful if soldiers won’t follow orders. A billionaire isn’t powerful if no one will take their money. Even an evil overlord with an army of robots probably needs people to maintain and equip them.

This dynamic falls apart if a character is too powerful. Exhibit A is Sunny from Into The Badlands. Sunny is a martial artist of the wire-fu tradition, able to make amazing leaps and backflips that you just wouldn’t believe. He’s so good that he can take on dozens of skilled enemies and come out on top.

This is fine until Sunny gets into a conflict with his social superior. You see Sunny lives in a post-apocalyptic setting where soldiers swear to have no family but their Baron. So if Sunny ever has a kid, he’ll be killed. Naturally, his girlfriend gets pregnant. This puts Sunny in a real bind, or it would if it felt like he was in any danger at all.

The conflict here is that if the Baron finds out about the child, he’ll have Sunny killed. But how would he do that? Sunny is so powerful he’s practically a demigod. Any attempt to execute Sunny would just result in a bunch of dead soldiers. After a few episodes, it’s revealed that the Baron is also a wire-fu master, so perhaps the idea is that he’d kill Sunny himself.

But if the Baron is so powerful, why does he need an army at all? That’s a lot of logistics to deal with when he’s practically an army in his own right. Having such extremely powerful characters works fine when the story is just about a handful of fighters trying to win a martial arts tournament, but it does serious damage to the credibility of a more socially or politically oriented story.

2. Other Characters Are Marginalized

Chaozu, Krillin, Piccolo, Tien, and Yamcha from DBZ. We promise we’re important.

Good stories are about some kind of conflict. Whether it’s a physical conflict, like beating up vampires, or a social conflict, like getting the best date to prom, it’s conflict that drives the story. Ideally, the protagonist will be best situated to drive the conflict, but secondary characters will have important roles to play as well. Overpowered characters mess with this dynamic. If one character is far superior at dealing with the conflict, other characters will matter less and less.

For an extreme example, consider Dragon Ball Z. That show is entirely about fighting, which isn’t automatically bad, but it becomes a problem when some characters get way better at fighting than others. The further into the show you get, secondary characters like Tien or Krillin matter less and less to the plot.

By the show’s final arc, only two or three characters are still relevant, and yet it wouldn’t make sense for the secondary characters to just disappear. So, they stick around, taking up screen time even though they don’t matter.

Marginalizing characters like this puts you in an impossible position. On the one hand, people who care about the main conflict will be annoyed by spending time with characters who don’t affect it in any way. On the other hand, simply cutting out all your secondary characters will anger anyone who liked those characters for their personality or humorous quirks. Plus, now your overpowered character will have no one to talk to.

3. The Story Becomes Inconsistent

Spock uses his mind meld power through a wall.

In longer stories, the characters will get into trouble more than once, and audiences will expect some consistency on how that trouble is dealt with. Overpowered characters often violate that expectation, and the result is an audience that’s confused, angry, or both.

This can happen in one of two ways. The most blatant is when an overpowered character demonstrates an ability they previously lacked. In the Star Trek episode A Taste of Armageddon, Spock is able to use his psychic powers to knock a guard out, even though there’s a wall separating them. Before this episode, Spock’s powers had been limited touch, so this was a dramatic shift.

Of course, Spock and friends had gotten themselves into many difficult situations before A Taste of Armageddon, and a long-range psychic attack would have been useful in any number of them. While this power was only one of several qualities that made Spock overpowered,* it was introduced in such a jarring manner that it sticks out badly.

The second way an overpowered character can break consistency is when they use an overpowered ability once, but then never again. Surprisingly for a show with so little continuity, Star Trek’s writers actually remembered Spock’s ability, and he used it at least one more time. For an example of this second problem, we must look to the show Merlin.

In Merlin, the titular character starts off being able to freeze time with nothing but a strong look. Obviously this is incredibly overpowered, which is presumably why he stops using it after the first few episodes. From then on, the audience can only wonder why Merlin bothers with much weaker spells that also take longer to cast.

4. The Overpowered Character Loses Sympathy

Henry Cavill's Superman standing in the rain.

It’s vitally important for the audience to connect with your characters on some level. You can accomplish this a number of ways, but if a character is going to have a significant amount of screen time, the audience must be able to understand them on some level.

When a character is overpowered, it damages that understanding. Overpowered characters can do anything they want without working for it. That doesn’t match any actual person’s experience. Your audience will have a hard time sympathizing with someone who never struggles to get what they want.

Worse, it’s easy for an overpowered character to come across as self-righteous. This is a big part of why so many people dislike Superman. Superman’s morality is iron clad, which is no problem for him because of his flight, invincibility, super strength, etc.* A normal person would have to make hard choices, but Superman rarely has to compromise on anything to get what he wants. When he does, it feels incredibly forced.

It’s easy to think of characters like Superman as overpowered, but this can happen to any character whose ability outstrips their challenges. In the anime series Princess Tutu, our titular character is so good at dancing that she can literally use it to solve any problem. Whatever issue is going on, it’s only a matter of time before Tutu* shows up and dances so beautifully that all the problems go away. It’s not until late in the series that enemies give Tutu trouble.

5. Conflict Loses Its Tension

A close up of Kenshin's face. Why… Why is he putting the sharp part on his shoulder?

Tension is an absolutely vital element of conflict, and that tension usually comes from not knowing how a conflict will turn out. Even though most people intellectually know that the good guys will win, especially if it’s a story’s climax, the trick is making them unsure in the moment.

Overpowered characters make that much harder. If a character is consistently shown to be far more powerful than their opposition, then there’s not even an illusion that the character might lose. Any conflict they get into becomes meaningless.

Consider Kenshin from the anime of the same name. He’s good at sword fighting. Really good. Just so good you won’t believe it. Of course, his anime is primarily about sword fighting. The formula goes something like this: a new bad guy shows up, Kenshin fights him* and struggles a lot, then wins. Each new bad guy is more powerful than the last, but Kenshin somehow always wins even though he never actually gets any stronger.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Kenshin will always win whatever fight he’s in, no matter what. Even though the characters always act like this fight is extra difficult, it’s impossible to forget that they did the same thing for the last fight, and the fight before that. By the time of the climax, watching Kenshin fight isn’t fun anymore; it just feels like he’s running out the clock.


Overpowered characters aren’t merely an abstract concept. They have concrete effects on your story. Keep those effects in mind the next time you’re considering giving your protagonist another magic power. No cool power is worth damaging your story.

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Comments

  1. liber

    Overpowered characters don’t ruin stories by themselves tho, it depends on where the story’s conflict resides. Both in One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100, the main characters are incredible overpowered, but they escape most of these pitfals by either a)presenting it as flaws (authority doesn’t matter? he, good luck with the villains then) (other characters are marginalized? hello inferiority complex) OR b)making the story about the conflict the op-ness presents (Saitama wants to fight, but he’s bored that nothing presents a challenge anymore) (Mob has a serius problem for feeling like a constant danger to others)

    I know the article is about the pitfals of op characters, not that being op is forbidden in storytelling. But i had to mention these two series. Because damn, i sure love the inherent drama that powerful characters represent, but they rarely exploit that in fiction, as filled with op-ness as it is…

    I also have to mention that both of those animes are made by the same author. He sure knows how to handle overpowered characters. And i highly recommend both of them

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So the trick here is that Saitama isn’t overpowered. Overpowered, by definition, means too powerful, and he’s as powerful as he needs to be for his role in the story, which is to make fun of animes and superhero comics with an overpowered hero. One-Punch Man is an intentional parody so the rules are different there.

      Similarly, Superman isn’t overpowered in the Justice League Animated series, because the main drama there isn’t about if Superman can out punch the bad guy (it’s assumed he can) but if Superman can maintain his morals.

      • liber

        that’s a good way of saying it. I always saw the definition of “overpowered” meaning “a character so powerful that all their problems become meaningless” and i translated that to an in-universe problem: “this character is the strongest, therefore the villains can’t pose a threat to them”. But you’re right: it’s a meta problem, not an in-universe one

        That’s the thing with watching so many stories focused on fighting…

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, the problem is not having a very powerful character, but having a character who is breaking the story with their powers.

          Dragonball didn’t have that problem in the beginning, but Son Goku became extremely powerful over the long run of the series and few characters (apart from his sons, Vegeta and his son, and Piccolo) managed to at least match up to a certain degree. It’s also one reason, I think, why so many of the evil guys turned good in the series … they could at least match up with Goku for a little while.

          If your story focuses on fighting, having a character so powerful nobody can beat them is sure to break the story at some point. If you focus on something else (like Justice League with the moral aspect), an unbeatable character like Superman is much less of a problem storywise.

      • Sam Beringer

        Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too. I was thinking of Superman vs. The Elite, though, which also has a moral quandry at its core rather than “will the hero defeat the villain and save the day” question. Also, when the narrative isn’t putting Lex Luthor into battles, it’s more interesting to watch Supes have to use his wits to take down Luthor since he can’t just fly into LexCorp and punch him.

        It’s also the reason I’m more interested in the “how” than the “will” in a story. Seeing as there aren’t many stories where the protagonist fails (unless they’re thrillers or horror, where survival is optional), it’s become a given that they will succeed, especially if it’s a series. But if an author makes the protagonist’s method of success interesting, whether it’s doing something really clever or awesome like Dipper jumping into the Gid-bot to fight Gideon and save Mabel or something that’s going down a dark path or will have major consequences like Harry Dresden taking up Mab’s offer to become the Winter Knight (and that’s not getting into what else he does in Changes), then it can more than make up for the predictability.

  2. SunlessNick

    #4 is part of the reason I find Supergirl an order of magnitude more interesting than Superman. Unlike (most versions of) him, she remembers Krypton and had a life there before it was destroyed – and that greater magnitude of loss puts conflicts in her that no amount of power can help with.

  3. Carly

    I actually disagree on Spock. He might have a lot of powers, but he’s an officer and pretty strict about following rules so most of the time, he doesn’t want to break them, particularly the Prime Directive.

  4. DanielV

    That is the main reason that I stop watching Dragon ball, it became predictable, it become boring, their recipe is: new enemy stronger than ever + goku trains or develop a new technique te beat them and finally beat the “most powerfull enemy” (until comes a new one). it is a boring cycle, the first series of Dragon ball, has many storylines and many charachters that has balanced powers, but in the next series, it was ruined by the endless cycle of new enemies and who only goku could beat them.
    all the other charachters became just become meaningless and remain there to have something to fill the episodes.

  5. R. H. Rush

    I can think of one type of story that would work for an over-powered character, but only one: a “character vs. themselves” kind of story. To use Superman as an example (and this may have been done in the movies; I’ve never been a fan because of the over-powered character problem, so I haven’t been following the movies), if he can solve anything without really trying, then what’s to stop him from doing so? And he’s so good at solving his problems, why not solve other people’s problems? Why not solve everyone’s problems? Sure, some people are trying to keep him from taking over the world, but those are Bad People. If they weren’t Bad People, they’d realize that he can do things better than anyone else, and they’d fall into line behind him.

    And after he’s Dictator of Earth, he might start to wonder why his friends have turned against him, why Lois Lane is leading the Resistance. If he does come to some sort of realization (I struggle with flagging middles, sorry), he could end the story by becoming something like Terry Pratchett’s wizards: demonstrating his strength by his ability to not use it.

    But once that story is done, it’s done. It doesn’t lend itself well to sequels.

  6. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I removed a comment for being insulting to people who had a different opinion of Superman.

  7. Richard

    With regards to Superman, I refer you to this excellent essay by Joe Posnanski, “Superman v.”

    http://joeposnanski.com/superman-v/

    “He’s good. That’s his real superpower. He does not have delusions of grandeur, does not long for revenge, does not feel underappreciated. He’s Superman. He’s utterly incorruptible, thoroughly kind, intensely decent. Those seemingly silly gags of Superman coming down and saving a cat from a tree are important because that’s Superman — his singular purpose is to help people. He will use his Superpowers to save a cat so that a little boy or girl will be happy. That goodness is wired into his kryptonian DNA. The world’s problems, every one of them, are his problems….

    “I want a Superman in bright blue and red who wants to not only catch the bad guy but one who will do everything he can to make sure no one gets hurt along the way. I want a Superman who laments every loss, even among the so-called bad guys. I want a Superman who loves Lois Lane, sure, but one who knows that his greater purpose will prevent him from ever fully embracing that love. I want a Superman who realizes that his greatest weakness is not kryptonite, but that he is only one man and cannot be everywhere, and so has to inspire others to be their own heroes too….

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, that is the real challenge for Superman. Knowing that even with his powers, he can’t be everywhere and prevent everything bad from happening. A person who realizes that despite his god-like powers, he still has limits, just not in strength, endurance, or speed. A person who knows that he can’t solve every problem with his powers, either.

  8. That Dave Guy

    I wrote a game about this dilemma for the 200 Word RPG Challenge 2017. It didn’t make the first cut, but it does attempt to address the question of “if you’re powerful enough to do anything you want, what kinds of problems can’t you solve?”

    Here it is, if you’re interested: https://200wordrpg.github.io/2017/rpg/2017/04/16/Heliophage.html

  9. Hotaru

    On the whole, I agree with this article. It’s a problem so prevalent in today’s fiction, I’ve reached the point of shrugging it off if I like the work as a whole. I’m careful to look out for it in my own works, though.

    On a separate note, I hate to be one of ‘those people’, but the title you noted as “Prince Tutu” is actually “Princess Tutu”. Props to you for noting her OP status – I was too busy trying to keep up with all the other crazy things in that anime to question it. Or maybe I’m just used to anime tropes? Anyway, it’s nice to see unique titles like that one getting a mention here, even if it serves as a cautionary tale.

  10. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    This is a good article and great points on the social power situation, that’s one I’ve run into in an original story I am working on. I am hoping to counteract with the fact most of the people in charge are also absurdly power and skilled, often more-so than the heroes. Plus there are other ways around their powers and many different types of powers, so different groups can pose a threat. Additionally many of the conflicts are intensely personal so its not just a struggle with a strong foe, its a struggle with one’s family, one’s counterpart, one’s own villain who controlled & characterised them against their will.

    Sailor Moon is also a pretty good example, early on the Senshi were useful and played key roles in battle but steadily it just became Usagi’s power saves the day & they’re just kind of there, usually to die dramatically.

  11. GeniusLemur

    Is there going to be a follow-up about the consequences of underpowered characters? Off the top of my head, I came up with
    -Makes it obvious the author is cheating on their behalf.
    -Hero must triumph by sheer luck.
    -Challenges the hero can realistically overcome are underwhelming.

    • Cay Reet

      I hate heroes who triumph through sheer luck … it’s so unsatisfying. Yes, they can have some luck on their journey, luck to find the right path once or twice or luck to meet the right person, but their triumph should come through their own abilities (I include making friends who stand by you in the big battle as an abilitiy).

      A follow up on underpowered characters would be great.

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