Let me set the scene. The main character steps up to his final showdown with the Big Bad. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. And as the battle starts, the Big Bad immediately gets a leg up on the main character, knocking the weapon from their hand… Except, wait, why is that a problem? The main character has telekinetic powers and can just summon their weapon back into their hand. In fact, why do they need the weapon at all? Can’t they just toss the Big Bad around with their powers? It isn’t like the Big Bad has any powers of their own, or at least not any more than the main character. Really, where’s the tension? This final battle kind of blows. Let’s go get Starbucks instead of watching this shit show…
Overpowered characters. They can suck any and all tension straight out of your book, like a biblio-vampire. I’m sure you can see, then, why you don’t want your own main character to be overpowered. So, today we’ll be discussing how to avoid writing an overpowered main character. But first, I want to remind all of you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.
For today’s post, I’m going to give you some ways to avoid writing an overpowered main character. You could use one of these suggestions, or combine a few, or even use all of them. Whatever you need in order to make your story work the way you need it to work.
So the first way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give their powers some limitations. You can’t just say, “They can do everything and they can do it perfectly with no issues and wow aren’t they the coolest?!” First of all, that’s stupid, and will leave your readers rolling their eyes. Main characters like this are the biggest giveaway that an author is an overenthusiastic amateur who wants their character to be the next Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool all rolled into one. Second of all, this leaves zero room for tension. If your main character can do everything and they can do it perfectly then why should I be worried whenever they come up against any obstacle? Obviously they’ll get through it no problem, because there’s nothing they can’t do. There’s a reason Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool can all do different things instead of being able to do everything. They wouldn’t be nearly as fun to root for if there wasn’t some chance that they might not win. I mean, hell, even Superman has limitations to his powers: He’s weakened and can even be killed by Kryptonite.
A good bookish example of a character who could have easily been overpowered but was given some limitations to their powers is Harry Potter. (The most minimal of spoiler warnings. If you do not want spoilers for this series, jump to the next paragraph.) I mean, magic can basically do anything in J.K. Rowling’s magical world, right? But in Harry’s case, he didn’t know anything about magic when his adventure started. Over the years he learned how to use his magic, but even by the time he had his final showdown with Voldemort he didn’t know everything. This absolutely added to the tension of every single book in that series, because it left the reader wondering, “How could a magical student stand a chance against one of the darkest, most talented wizards of all time?” Sure, in the end there were always a lot of lucky breaks and coincidences involved in his victories, but as far as his powers went, Harry never felt overpowered.
So find where weaknesses might lie for your own main character. It could be in ignorance of how to use their powers, or in an object that might have the ability to weaken their powers, or maybe their powers drain their energy every time they use them. Use your imagination. Get creative. And make sure it makes sense in the context of your story. You don’t want to give your main character a weakness that could interfere with the plot in a negative way, like making them unable to cross bodies of water but then needing them to somehow get to Ireland from America.
The second way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give them incentive to not use their powers. This will prevent ex-machina moments, where the main character uses their powers to solve all of their problems. I mean, it just isn’t interesting if every roadblock you throw up for your character can be solved in a matter of seconds. So, for example, say your main character’s powers drain their energy every time they use them. In that case, they may want to save their energy for when they’ll really need their powers. Another example is if their powers could somehow give away their position. Maybe there’s a spell or some kind of technology that can pinpoint where these powers are being used. That would definitely give your main character good reason to go about solving their problems the old fashioned way.
Let’s look at Kell and Lila from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. (Very slight spoiler warnings. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the next paragraph.) Not only does Kell have a lot of magical powers (he’s able to control all of the elements, plus he can also control blood magic, which is super powerful), but he and Lila also get their hands on a magical stone that can literally create or do anything. I mean, hellooooo convenient plot device, right? And it would have been so easy for Schwab to use that stone to solve every single one of the problems Kell and Lila ran into during their adventure. Instead, though, she gave them a reason to avoid using it at all costs: The stone’s dark magic was dangerous and negatively affecting them each time they used it. By adding this element to the stone, it meant the two characters were able to use the it whenever there was no other option, but that in all other instances they would find other ways to solve their problems. Plus, the danger element of using the stone created amazing tension throughout the novel. Pardon my pun, but it really was two birds, one stone. *ba dum, tiss*
The third way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to prevent them from using their powers in some way. Maybe the Big Bad is immune to their powers. Maybe their powers have been taken from them somehow. The key is to force your character to figure out new, innovative ways to get out of whatever kind of trouble they may be in. This is similar to the previous two options I’ve presented, but more extreme. In this case, you have to think, “If my character doesn’t even have the option to use their powers, how would they react? What would their next course of action be?”
A good example of a character going through something similar is (and I’m about to get nerdy here, so bear with me) Hercules. Yes, from the Disney movie. I know this isn’t a bookish example, but a story is a story is a story. And this element really worked with this story, and might work with yours as well. Think about it: When Hercules relinquished his powers to protect Meg, did he give up and go, “Oh well, guess the Titans are just gonna kill everybody”? No! He went out and fought them, and then for good measure he went scuba diving to save Meg’s soul even though he knew he would probably die. It wasn’t his powers that made him a hero, but his actions once he didn’t have his powers. This could work for your character, too. The true test of a main character’s bravery isn’t how many special attacks they can throw at the Big Bad. It’s what their actions are once they’re forced to act without their powers to aid them.
The final way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to make sure your Big Bad is bigger and badder than the main character. And this doesn’t mean they have to be physically bigger and badder. Maybe they’re a hundred times smarter than your main character. Or they’ve got deadlier powers. Or maybe they’ve got a full-blown army backing them up. The point is, your Big Bad needs to pose a threat to the main character in some significant way. This will create a the necessary sense of tension for the reader when the main character finally faces up for the final battle. Sure, maybe the character has telekinetic powers, but the Big Bad has them too, and is even more skilled with them. Your main character can walk through walls and disappear, but the Big Bad can literally pick the main character up and toss them around like a rag doll.
You guessed it, I’m throwing in one final example. Not that I really need to. I mean, any novel worth its stuff knows that the Big Bad needs to be, well, Big and Bad. So you could pick up any piece of genre fiction and find a decent example. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s just go back to a tried and true example: Harry Potter. (Decently big spoiler warning here. If you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph.) Why is Voldemort such an intimidating villain? Is it his red eyes or lack of a nose? Or is it because he’s an incredibly powerful wizard who has practically made himself immortal by splitting his soul seven times in order to create seven horcruxes? I’m going to have to go with option B. Every time Harry faces up with good ‘ol He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, he’s infinitely outskilled and wouldn’t have a chance in hell of defeating him, anyway, since he has his horcruxes to keep him alive.
Something else to consider is that any dark wizard will always have a leg up on the good guys because they’re willing and able to use unforgivable curses, like the killing curse. So while the good guys are running around shouting “Expelliarmus!”, the bad guys are shooting magical bullets at them. It’s not a fair fight, which absolutely makes the bad guys feel like an even bigger threat, and that’s something you should consider when writing your own book. Is there something the Big Bad is willing to do that your main character isn’t? That can create a very interesting dynamic, morally or otherwise.
And that’s all of the wisdom I have to share with you today. Hopefully it was helpful! In the comments, let me know about any characters that you thought the author skillfully prevented from being overpowered. Or, even better, tell me about any frustratingly overpowered characters you’ve found in books. Let’s face it, there’s plenty out there.