1. Social Authority Stops Mattering
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
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
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
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
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.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?