Storytelling

Five Questions to Diagnose an Overpowered Hero

Krillin from Dragon Ball Z making an annoyed face.
Here at Mythcreants, we talk a lot about overpowered characters and the consequences they can have for your story. If you’ve read our previous articles, then you already understand the issue, but how you can you spot it? After all, few storytellers set out to create an overpowered protagonist. Fortunately, the next time you go over your manuscript, there are several questions you can ask that will help you diagnose this problem before it becomes terminal.

1. What Would They Be Like at Full Power?

Fred aiming a crossbow on the TV show Angel.

A lot of characters start the story well below their full power, setting up an arc where they gain strength as the plot unfolds. The character might sharpen their skills, gain new abilities, or overcome barriers that hold their power in check. This is a perfectly legitimate trope, but it does have a prospective downside: What happens when the character reaches their full potential?*

If you follow these growth arcs to their natural conclusion, you’ll often discover that the character’s end state is way too powerful for the story to contain. That can be fine if it only happens at the very end, as with Neo in The Matrix. Sure, he’s effectively all-powerful as The One, but the movie’s over, so there’s no problem.

Except sometimes the story keeps going. In the rightly panned Matrix sequels, Neo’s powers are notably lacking from what Morpheus and the Oracle promised because otherwise the story would be immediately over. This can happen in an ongoing story too. In the TV show Angel, Fred has nearly godlike intelligence, held back only by a lifetime of trauma that makes it difficult for her to act rationally. But as Fred learns to deal with her trauma, her divine intellect is suddenly nowhere to be found.

This question is most relevant in stories that are intended to continue past the point when the character comes into their powers. Just because they’re balanced at the beginning doesn’t mean that they’ll be balanced later, which is something you need to consider as you plot the story. That way, you won’t get stuck with a character you can’t handle.

However, it also pays to ask this question even when you think the story is going to end before a character’s full power is a problem. You never know which of your stories is going to be popular enough to warrant a sequel, so it’s always best to leave yourself room to grow.

2. Do They Hold Back in Conflicts?

Gandalf facing down the Balrog from Lord of the Rings.

One of the most common symptoms of overpowered heroes is the feeling that they could have won a fight, or won the fight much more easily, if they’d been trying their best. These characters are holding back and not using their full strength when it counts. This is clearly done to create a more dramatic situation rather than because it makes sense with the hero’s motivation, so it will almost always feel contrived.

The contrivance is especially strong when the story doesn’t acknowledge that a character is holding back. Thanos is an obvious example, as he can apparently turn his enemies into slinkies at any time, but refuses to do so for unknown reasons. Thanos is hardly alone, though. Most of the time, Gandalf seems about as strong as Aragorn or Boromir, then suddenly he can wrestle a Balrog to death. The list goes on.

To spot this kind of character, you have to imagine how a rational person would use the abilities in question. People are generally quite good at utilizing the resources at their disposal, and your characters should act the same way. If you’re having trouble, some experience with roleplaying games can really help. Players are incredibly good at maximizing the usefulness of their powers, and they won’t stop just because it’s inconvenient for your story.

It’s also possible for a story to acknowledge that a character is holding back, at which point you need to consider if the character’s reasons are sufficient. In most cases, they aren’t. Characters who hold back because they “want a good fight” or something similar will usually seem incredibly contrived. If you’ve successfully set up important stakes, then your audience won’t believe that a character is passing up the chance to win just to make the battle more interesting.

Despite that, it is possible to set up situations where it makes sense for a character to hold back. In the anime My Hero Academia, the dark and broody Todoroki only uses the ice half of his fire/ice powers because the fire half comes from his abusive father. Todoroki’s motivation to not use his flames is strong, and the only time he’s in a life-threatening situation, his ice power alone is enough to handle it. This is a lot more compelling than if he just wanted to draw the fight out over a few more episodes.

3. Do They Only Have Problems Because of Bad Decisions?

Kvothe looking at a city far off in the distance.

A key indicator of your hero’s power level is what kind of problems they have and how they deal with those problems. For a story to be compelling, it must feel like the protagonist has overcome true obstacles. If it ever feels like those obstacles are only there because the author has decreed them, that’s a good sign the character is overpowered.

Consider Kvothe, main character for the novel The Name of the Wind. For at least the second half of the story, Kvothe’s problems mostly stem from money. Namely, he doesn’t have enough of it to attend mage school, which sounds like a great conflict. The problem is that Kvothe is so smart and so skilled in both music and magic that he could easily make the money he needs, given a year or two to save up. The only reason he has money problems is that he insists on incurring a bunch of costs immediately, despite having no reason to do so. He even has a rich mentor he could ask for money, but he conveniently forgets.

This is a classic example of an overpowered character, even though Kvothe can’t fly or shoot lasers from his hands. He’s too competent for the problems he faces, so the author has him make terrible decisions in order to maintain conflict in the story. Just like with characters who hold back, this is really frustrating for the audience. They expect characters to act in their best interest unless there’s a strong justification to the contrary.

This is another situation where an RPG mindset can be really helpful. For a moment, don’t think about what you need to happen for your plot to work. Instead, think about what you would do in a situation like the one your hero is in. You probably wouldn’t sabotage yourself, at least not on purpose. You’re smarter than that!

Of course, it is possible to have a character act against their best interest, but you need to set it up properly. It has to make sense with the hero’s motivation, and just as importantly, it needs to be sympathetic to the audience. It might be part of a tragic hero’s downward arc, or you might use it to demonstrate the need for your hero’s emotional growth. Either way, it can’t happen just because you couldn’t think of another way to create serious obstacles.

4. Can Their Power Be Used in Downtime?

A bullet with a Devil's Trap carved into it.

Storytellers tend to think in terms of immediate conflicts, be they exciting sword fights or emotional arguments. Normally, this is a good thing, as those conflicts are what drive our plots. But sometimes this trait can also lead authors to only consider how character powers can be used in a life-or-death battle, with no consideration to all the time the hero spends outside of those battles.

This is a common problem with characters who have creation-related powers like Momo from My Hero Academia or Supernatural’s Sam and Dean once they learn how to make devil traps. It’s one thing to balance those powers in a fight, but given a little time, Momo could easily create an arsenal of weapons, and the Winchester boys should have so many devil traps that no demon could ever get near them.*

Any ability that lets characters accumulate power over time can be an issue here. If you successfully create a compelling conflict, your audience will wonder why the hero isn’t doing everything possible to prepare for it. Saying that your hero is a lazy slacker isn’t likely to work either, because it’ll just make them less likable to your audience.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have powers that are useful during downtime, but it does mean you have to consider the usefulness of those powers very carefully. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, earthbenders can create impressive structures given just a little time, which is useful but not overpowered. In Madoka Magica, Homura’s powers let her amass a huge armory, but she can still only use one weapon at a time.* At the same time, both powers are still shown to be very advantageous. The Earth Kingdom has the strongest fortifications out of all the four nations, and Homura later uses her arsenal to set up an ambush for a particularly powerful enemy.

5. Are Other Characters Still Relevant?

The girls of Class 1A from My Hero Academia.

Perhaps the most obvious and harmful effect of an overpowered character is that the other characters get sidelined. They no longer offer any meaningful contributions, so they aren’t important to the story. This is a great way to lose your audience, as anyone who was attached to the now-irrelevant characters will likely go elsewhere, searching for a story that treats their precious babies better.

Lots of stories have this problem, but Shounen animes are often the worst offenders. Cartoons like Dragon Ball Z, My Hero Academia, and Blue Exorcist are all about fighting, but they can’t resist making some characters* so powerful that the rest of the cast becomes irrelevant. Did you like Tien, Piccolo, or Krillin? Too bad, because Goku’s the only one who matters most of the time.

Fortunately, diagnosing this problem is a fairly simple process. Go through the story’s major conflicts and see what would happen if the less powerful characters just weren’t there. If the plot remains virtually unchanged, then either the weaker heros need a boost, or the stronger ones need to be taken down a notch. If you haven’t published yet, this can be handled with revisions. If you discover the problem with an ongoing story, then I recommend engineering a time jump, during which you can explain how the other characters got strong enough to be relevant again. That way, you avoid the jarring problem of their power levels spiking overnight.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that all of your characters need to have the same power levels all the time. It depends on what role they play in the story. In The Witcher TV show, Jaskier the bard is really weak compared to the monster-hunting Geralt, but that’s fine because Jaskier isn’t there to help with fighting. Jaskier’s main contribution is to attract more customers for Geralt and to lighten the mood with catchy tunes.

Similarly, it’s okay that Madoka Magica’s Sayaka is significantly weaker than the other magical girls. Her story arc is specifically about being taken advantage of and thrown into a conflict that she can’t handle. For that, having a lower power level works. However, it’s important to note that Sayaka gets a power boost in the sequel movie, Rebellion, since that story is all about the magical girls working together.* If Sayaka were still obviously weaker than the other characters, that story wouldn’t have worked.


Most storytellers understand the problems with overpowered characters, but they slip past all of us occasionally. That’s why it’s so important that we honestly appraise our stories and see where the problems are. Eventually, you’ll want an editor’s help with that, but you’ll save both time and money by fixing what you can on your own first.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I often have a problem with characters who hold back and don’t use all the power they could because said power is “dark” or would make them “evil” or what-not.
    I mean, it’s fine if the consequences are spelled out clearly enough. Slightly different context, but in Stoker’s Dracula, Mina says she’d rather die than be turned into a vampire. We see that in this universe, vampires lose their previous personalities and values and become remorseless killing machines, plus they suffer horrible mental pain all the time. Ok, makes sense that Mina would rather die, even though vampires are immortal and have a bunch of powers. But if it’s just vague, like oh no, that would turn me DARK, or that would make me BAD, it’s annoying.

    In my story, there’s magic that can be chanelled through rituals involving self-harm, and the MC and her fellow mages have all done this in small ways, and are pretty used to it. But then there’s this Big Bad that can probably be taken down by the MC through a ritual where she saws her own arm off. And she’s VERY reluctant to do that (and eventually finds another way).
    I just wanted something that immediately made sense, and wasn’t vague. Would I use stronger magic than usual to defeat a Big Bad if it meant… becoming… DARK? IDK, maybe. Depends. Would I do so if I had to saw off my own arm in the process? NOOOO! At least I’d have to be the most desperate of the desperate.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah there are lots of irritating examples where stories try to make a conflict over giving a character new powers. My personal favorite is in Umbrella Academy, when we get a flashback where Luthor is dying, and the only way to save him is by giving him some super power juice that will make him even stronger than he already is and also grow a bunch of body hair. That sounds like a pretty obvious yes, right? But instead they’re all like “do we dare?!?”

      • Cay Reet

        If Luthor were a girl, they would not have dared … Imagine, a woman with BODY HAIR! The very horror of it.

        Honestly, there’s a lot of difference between using powers which could be considered dark and becoming dark. I have a necromancer (and the power to raise the dead is surely dark), but she’s not evil, although she sometimes has a rather Utilitarian view of the world. Dare I raise that dead person so he can tell me who killed him? Hell, yes. The only thing which keeps her from succeeding is a guard at the morgue who is not understanding the need of performing a necromantic ritual in the place…

        If you want to make a power which is strong, but not used lightly, give it a high price. Either ingredients which are hard to get or energies which are hard to recover.

        • Dernhelm

          Your example with hairy girl-Luthor just made me think of the movie Seven, where the killer cut off a woman’s nose and she immediately decided she was too ugly to live and took her life.

          It just struck me as bizarre that someone would kill themselves over that considering we’ve had the technology to put skin grafts over a severed nose since the romans, but I guess it makes sense if you think a woman is better off dead than being ugly for however long time it would have taken to find a surgeon.

          • Cay Reet

            Nose prothetics are actually a thing – have been since the high time of syphillis, but certainly are very realistic by now. Losing the nose might make smelling harder, but it won’t disfigure her forever, so that action is way off. (Unlike a certain late-Victorian genius going by the name of Erik, who is forever without a nose, but I digress.)

          • Dernhelm

            Yeah, it’s kind of sad just how many movies depict women as becoming permanent monsters because of pretty banal scars, it’s pretty telling that when Deadpool showed a man with the dilemma of living with a face disfigured by scars, it was treated as him being over-paranoid and his love interest immediately stated that she still loved him when she saw his new face.

    • LazerRobot

      This was mentioned in a previous Mythcreants article somewhere, but it’s like in Star Wars when they say lightning is a Dark Side power and good guys can’t use it without becoming evil…like, why though?

      • JV68

        As I understand it, at least in the original pre-Disney/Abrams canon, it’s not so much that good guys can’t throw Force lightning without becoming evil, it’s more that in order to be able to use Force lightning, one has to already be really deeply versed in the dark side. It’s described in several ‘Legends’ sources that Force lighting is essentially channelling pure hatred as a weapon. Jedi presumably can’t get anywhere near that emotional extreme without being corrupted by the dark side, so they’d never even be able to learn how just by reading the Jedi Book of Spells.

        There’s a similar thing happening with the Cruciatus and Killing Curses in Harry Potter: you have to really, REALLY hate someone to even get the spell to work. Just pointing your wand and saying the words (or fingers with Force-lightning), won’t do. When Harry tries the Cruciatus, it doesn’t even work the first time, and only for an instant the second, because he lacks the sheer malice necessary to sustain it, compared to someone like Bellatrix, who revels in torture and violence.

        But…then Rey throws a bunch of Force lightning in Rise of Skywalker by sheer accident and I was just like “Welp, thanks for breaking the rules of the universe, J.J.” That I chalk up to bad writing.

    • Dernhelm

      This fear of using dark powers just before they are “dark” strikes me as a rather Kalvinist viewpoint, what with the idea of some people just being doomed forever if they falter, which I suppose could work for a character like Javert in the musical version of Les Miserables; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXsJ3Q5Z7cM

      HOWEVER, It works considerably less well if the character isn’t religious and there’s no lore actually outlining any consequences for using dark magic, or even what makes it dark.

  2. Shamanka

    For picking up more subtle levels of overpower, maybe try asking “How contrived would it be for someone who knows nothing about them to generate a perfect counter to them?” I once had a character whose power was psychic bee control, and unless his opponents had enough forewarning to bathe themselves in insecticide there was barely anything in the setting that could counter him. Since flooding the world with barrels of insecticide and honey badgers would be unrealistic, I changed the nature of his powers so that he was a bee-based hive mind, making each bee effectively a brain cell, and him far less likely to risk them in combat, especially considering what happens when a bee stings people. (This had the side effect of helping the other characters become more relevant, as he became more of a voice with internet connection while they did the actual fighting.)

    • LazerRobot

      Your bee guy sounds awesome.

    • Petar

      Like LazerRobot said, this sounds like an awesome superpower. Reminds me of Taylor Hebert from Worm and her ability to control all insects in a range of a few hundred meters.
      The only reason this wasn’t broken was that she kept running into people with armor, invulnerability or fire powers: All notoriously good at keeping insects at bay.
      Really shows how overpoweredness often depends on context.

    • Dernhelm

      It’s a pretty cool idea, though you forgot another counter to bees; body-covering suits from a thick material and a face mask, which depending on the setting could be fairly common gear among workers and soldiers.

  3. Mike

    It’s possible for a character to hold back if they’re fighting someone they don’t actually want to hurt. Maybe it’s an ally under mind control, or maybe they have a personal connection to the villain and would much rather take them alive. Then, the character resorts to weaker powers and strategies to avoid the risk of killing their opponent.

    Of course, that excuse would probably only work for one fight. The protagonist might not want to hurt their estranged brother, but they couldn’t care less about hired goons.

    • Dernhelm

      It could work for all fights if they have a “no kill” rule like Batman, and Superman and his peers also holds back in order not to hurt civilians caught in the crossfire if he fights a villain in a populated area.

  4. Erynus

    My MC, as a veteran Spec-Ops operative is overpowered but just on open warfare and sabotage, backed up by intel and supply chains from several parts of the regular army.
    But by going undercover and severing his ties to his resources is in fact limited to a scale that he is unfamiliar with. He can’t turn a city into an all out war zone, or even blow up his target defences without bring the attention from police, army and so on, so he need to be more subtle.

    Later he will learn how to use magic, but since a very bad experience while experimenting, he will be keep using a couple of tricks, don’t daring to experiment too much again, what prevents him to reach the upper limits.

    My point is that whenever my character becomes too proficent on a way, i change his setting to make him evolve. The best soldier becomes a spy that becomes a wizard….

  5. Cay Reet

    I just watched the Maven of the Eventide review of Hellsing and she makes an interesting point in it (she makes several interesting points about the series, it’s a good review).
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H51ce8QqpPE

    Alucard (the vampire lord in it) actually has Eldrich Horror from Beyond the Stars level powers. We see that in several situations where he takes damage far beyond what even another vampire in his world is capable of surviving. He can reshape himself as he wishes and he is basically indestructibel. Yet, he fights most fights with guns. Regular guns, as it were (though pretty heavy ones).
    The real reason for that is, of course, that his creator wanted cool guns in his series. The in-world reason, however, is Alucard’s character. He’s clearly the most powerful vampire in this world (although it’s unclear whether he’s the oldest at 500+ years) and he’s bored.
    He doesn’t work with the Hellsing organisation because he has to, because he has been enslaved (because they couldn’t really enslave him). He does it, because he’s spoiling for fights, good fights, and the organisation guarantees fights against powerful and dangerous monsters he can then kill as brutally as he wishes. He also has a certain death wish, but refuses to be killed by a monster. Only a human may kill him (and even if it’s not said in-universe, it’s not a hard connection to make that the only person we see in the series who would have both the inner strength and the skills to do so is his mistress Integra), never a monster. Alucard doesn’t care about humans, he lets the soldiers run into their doom, if he doesn’t think the fight is worth his time, but he cares about fighting (and, strangely enough, about the only two recurring female characters in an asexual way).
    Because fights are more fun when he’s challenged by the enemy, he has several levels of bonds on his powers which he unlocks as he sees fit. Not Integra, whom he serves willingly and consesually, decides on that but he does. He’s in no way really under her control, unless he wishes to.

  6. Jean Willow

    I have a character who’s very powerful and doesn’t hold back (with the ability to control blood). She’s definitely OP, but I’m hoping it won’t matter much because most of the story revolves around people trying to control or manipulate her (which isn’t hard to do as she’s a child)

    • Cay Reet

      That might very well make her a MacGuffin, though, which is not a good thing. Having a character without agency isn’t ideal – they often could be replaced by inanimate objects and that then bears the questions why they’re not inanimate objects.

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