1. What Would They Be Like at Full Power?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.