So what’s a storyteller to do, short of making every character the same level? Fortunately, a multitude of options are at your disposal.
1. Don’t Make the Story All About One Skill
In short, be as little like Dragon Ball Z as possible. That show is all fighting all the time, so fighting power is the only thing that matters. If you like any characters besides Goku, too bad. They don’t matter.* Even being a good strategist doesn’t matter in DBZ, because all the fights are one on one punch fests. Rurouni Kenshin has the same, if less extreme, problem. The show is all about sword fights, and the titular character is the only one who can swordfight worth a damn. Too bad if you thought Sanosuke was a cool character; he matters less and less as the story advances.
Fighting isn’t only one way this problem can manifest. In the show Supernatural, it’s very important for the characters to have knowledge of whatever monster they’re fighting each week. Originally, the main characters Sam and Dean both contributed to the knowledge pool, but that changed as the show went on. Dean knew more and more, to the point where Sam was no longer helping. Because Dean was also better at fighting, it was hard not to question why Sam bothered to come along.
On the other hand, Madoka Magica doesn’t have this issue. Homura Akemi is clearly the most powerful character, but unlike Goku or Kenshin, she doesn’t make all the other characters seem inconsequential. Her power is kept somewhat mysterious for most of the show, but it goes deeper than that. Madoka Magica is about more than fighting. It’s an emotional drama that explores themes of love and sacrifice. The fights are just one way to express those themes.
Focus on more than the level of skill a character has. If there’s an emotional core to your story, it won’t be exclusively about who has the strongest energy blast. If there’s variety in your plot, then less powerful characters will get a chance to be relevant. DBZ is particularly bad because its fights are about nothing except the fight, and fighting is all that happens.
2. Make Your Characters Deal With Different Problems
After training with Yoda, Luke Skywalker spends most of his time away from the other main characters. Watching the Sail Barge fight, it’s clear why. He’s become so powerful that he makes his friends seem unimportant. If he’d been present on Endor, it would have been one long sequence of lightsaber swings while Han, Leia, and Chewie looked on in awe. Fortunately for us, the filmmakers knew how lame that would be and shunted him off to deal with some sith lords instead.
This method works, but it’s a blunt instrument. It assumes that your story can support multiple POVs and that you’ll always be able to justify having your characters apart. If your characters’ roles are specialized enough, you can have them dealing with different problems while still being in the same location. In Deep Space Nine, Odo is a shapeshifter. He’s more physically powerful than his crewmates, because he can turn into a giant monster any time he likes. However, Odo’s job is security, while other characters are in charge of the engineering or science departments. Because he has specific duties, Odo doesn’t compete directly with his colleagues.
Be careful, though, because this method isn’t foolproof either. In several fist fight scenes on Deep Space Nine, Odo should really have used his shapeshifting to immediately win, but for some reason he doesn’t. The writers wanted to show that other characters like Sisko and Kira were also good in a fight, and the only way they could do that was to momentarily forget Odo’s ability. No matter how much you try to compartmentalize, your characters are still part of the same narrative, and they’ll have to deal with the same problems sooner or later. Make sure your story can handle that.
3. Give the Less Powerful Characters Something Unique
If you ask which Avenger would win in a fight, Black Widow probably isn’t high on your list. As a regular old human, she’s objectively less powerful than any of the big four.* Even so, she’s a great character and never feels overshadowed in the film.
Black Widow brings a level of stealth and subterfuge that none of the other characters have. She can sneak just about anywhere, and she’s such a smooth talker she cons Loki into revealing vital information. It’s clear why she’s on the team, despite not having superhuman abilities.
In the same movie, Captain America does not fare so well. While he has some funny lines, it’s not clear what Steve Rodgers brings to the team. He’s significantly weaker than Ironman, Thor, and the Hulk.* He’s not the group’s leader or its moral compass. Both of those roles go to Stark, with his room filling personality and constant questioning of Fury’s plans. The film struggles in a number of scenes to find anything for the Captain to do.
A character’s unique contribution doesn’t have to be a skill. Sometimes, a unique point of view is enough. In the cartoon Steven Universe, Steven lives with a group of super powered aliens. While they always take the lead on world saving missions, Steven is the only one who understands how to order takeout from the local Pizzeria. He understands human culture in a way his alien friends, the Crystal Gems, do not. He also cares about social interactions with other humans, unlike the Gems. His unique status gives him plenty to do in the show, even though he lacks any special powers until later in the series.
4. Give the More Powerful Characters a Weakness (or Two)
Most characters should have some kind of weakness, but more capable characters require more debilitating ones. Many of these weaknesses can be physical, but you’ll want something more organic than green kryptonite. Take Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. When the other characters first meet her, she’s more powerful than even Aang, and he’s clearly the chosen one. With less capable writers, Toph could easily have overshadowed the other characters.
Instead, Toph’s greatest strength is also a weakness. She relies exclusively on her earthbending to see, granting her lightning fast reflexes. However, without her earthbending, she’s blind. In combat, she can’t track opponents who aren’t touching the ground. Aang unintentionally uses this weakness to defeat her when they first meet. Toph also needs another character to read text or describe two dimensional images. This means that despite Toph’s awesome power, she never makes the group redundant.
For emotional weakness, look no further than Eddard Stark from A Game of Thrones. Early in the series, Eddard outclasses every other character except perhaps Jamie Lannister in terms of ability. He’s a deadly fighter, a master tactician, and he’s even a smart politician. It seems like he’d make anyone else on team Stark completely redundant.
Eddard’s weakness is his sense of honor. Specifically, his faith that others share that sense. He passes up a chance to soundly defeat the Lannisters because he believes they’ll be as merciful is he is. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work out that way. Like Toph’s blindness, Eddard’s honor is central to his being. His certainty that things can get better if his actions are just is what keeps him going.
5. Let the Less Powerful Characters Grow
Instead of letting a less powerful character languish forever on the back burner, grow them into something more capable. If the less powerful character is your protagonist, this is easy. It’s basically the hero’s journey. For side characters, it’s a bit more challenging.
Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a number of emotional arcs, but he never really gets any more capable.* Seven seasons and the guy never so much as took a karate class, despite being in near-constant physical danger. It’s a disappointment that such a long-running character never really comes into his own.
You want your characters to be more like Gabriel from Xena: Warrior Princess. She starts off as one of the many helpless people Xena has to rescue, and by the end she’s become a powerful warrior in her own right. Through adventure and Xena’s tutelage, she learns how to fight, how to be a diplomat, and how to do yoga for some reason. After a few seasons she’s no longer someone Xena has to protect and can fully participate in each week’s adventure.
The mentor-student relationship is a great way to include characters of differing power levels, because it has a built-in way of closing the gap over time. It also assures the student has a role in the story beyond fighting. They are there to learn, which justifies their presence even if they can’t put a dent in the main bad guy.
The trick is to make sure your characters advance at a credible rate. It can be tempting to make them into grandmasters over night, but you must resist. In the show Heroes, it was really silly when Hiro learned how to use a sword after ten minute’s practice with his dad,* and training montages are considered cheesy these days. It’s ok to take your time, so long as they get better eventually.
Characters don’t always have to be equal in capability, and it would be boring if they were, but you have to keep in mind the challenges this will create in your story. It’s easy for a less powerful character to get swallowed in the shadow of a more powerful one, unless you make a concerted effort to keep them relevant.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.