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Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the hero never got hurt? No matter how many enemies came after them, they always took them out. No matter how many bullets just missed their head, they always managed to dodge.

That was an overpowered character. 

That is boring

It takes all the guesswork out of the story, the anxiety of wondering if the hero will make it out alive this time, because he does. Every time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that any character who can dodge bullets is overpowered. That could just be your character’s skill. What matters is if they are proportionately challenged by the conflict that arises from the plot. Problems don’t appear when a character has power, but when the reader never gets to see what limits that power. Because of this, the quality of being overpowered can only be determined by the story a character is in. 

Why is it bad to have an overpowered character?

It’s not always bad. Some writers make them work for their purposes. However, they plan for that outcome. If you’re writing a character and realize afterward that they are overpowered, you’ve done something wrong and need to make edits. 

The following is a list of problems that can arise from having overpowered characters. You can use it to compare with your characters and determine if they have suitable degrees of power. 

Marginalized characters

Protagonists often drive the plot by facing conflicts head-on, but supporting characters also play a role in this. When one character can handle all conflicts effortlessly, secondary characters lose significance. 

If the protagonist deals with too many conflicts on their own, readers are left wondering why the story has other characters at all. Readers who care more about the conflict will be annoyed when they must spend time with characters who do not affect it. However, removing those characters will upset readers who are invested in them, as well as isolate the protagonist by giving them fewer people to interact with.

Inconsistent narrative

Conflict is a significant factor in any story. As characters get in and out of tense situations, a pattern is established for how conflict is resolved. Overpowered characters disrupt this pattern. 

Suppose a character suddenly exhibits a new ability in order to escape trouble or uses a powerful skill only once (because using it again would end the story too soon). In that case, the readers are left confused or even frustrated. To them, the author is cheating.

Loss of tension

This one relates to the previous note. Tension stems from uncertainty about the outcome of conflicts. If it’s clear that a character will always come out on top, the story loses its sense of danger and suspense. The conflict becomes meaningless.

Unrelatable

In any story, readers need to connect with the characters to some degree. They should have some understanding of how each main character thinks, what they have gone through, or what motivates their actions. This makes them relatable. 

Overpowered characters achieve their goals effortlessly. They can appear self-righteous or disconnected from real human experiences, which makes it difficult for readers to sympathize with them.

Lack of power hierarchies

In society, authority is derived from interactions with others – if people are willing to do what you tell them to do, you have power. Overpowered characters ignore these dynamics. How can you make a too-powerful character follow societal norms? Authority figures have no way to rein them in. This undermines not only the character’s growth but the believability of the story’s context.

Approaching overpowered characters

Writers want their characters to be able to survive the plot (most of the time). They need skills to do so, but giving them all of the skills they need is boring. Instead, they should have a few skills that they rely on. 

The key is not to avoid powerful characters but to ensure they face credible challenges that test their limits. This involves creating well-defined limitations and ensuring consistent application throughout the story. 

More than that, it means making them clever. But more on that later.

How do I give my character limitations?

Everyone has limits. Everyone can be defeated by someone else, if that someone else is powerful enough. Giving them to your character not only makes them relatable but creates appropriate tension for an engaging narrative.

When creating your character’s abilities, keep in mind the limits you can impose on them. Thinking about the cost and consequences of each ability may help with this. Sometimes, they are the same thing, but not always. Each ability or power exists for a reason and has a cost to pay for using it. Likewise, some abilities cause things to happen or attract certain attention that can affect how, when, and where the character uses them.

Here are some types of limits you can impose on your characters:

Create a fair match

Is your character too powerful or are their opponents too weak? There are two big pitfalls when it comes to powerful characters. The first is that the enemies they face are too easy for them. The second is that the character faces enemies that are obviously too powerful for them, but they somehow still win. This is because the author set them up with certain limits but changed those limits when it was convenient for the plot.

Readers want to see fair matches between protagonists and antagonists, as that is what makes them question how events will turn out. To do that, you should give the protagonist clear limits (and stick to them!) and set them up against antagonists that will push those limits. The antagonist’s power should be determined by the hero’s abilities.

Once the reader knows there are limits, what pushes those limits, and what is over the limits, the stakes become interesting. They are more willing to believe in what your character can do when they know they can lose. 

Clever characters

Limits force your character to be clever and look for creative solutions to their problems. But how do you make your character clever? By putting them in situations where their skills are useless or stripped away. They should have to seek out a new perspective or combine their skills in new ways. This not only creates suspense and anxiety but makes any victory feel earned.

When writing scenes like this, make sure you know how your character thinks. If they come up with a clever solution, ask yourself if they would think of that, or if they would try something else. Would they try anything that ultimately wouldn’t work? Would they react badly and fail?

Here are some situations that could force your character to be clever:

Don’t forget your antagonist

They are a character too. And they need their own skills and limitations. Consider these two situations:

To avoid these, be strategic about when and where they appear. Too much exposure and both sides will end up twiddling their thumbs – they won’t make a proper move against the protagonist and the protagonist never does anything to end their supposed evil. Too little exposure and the readers won’t have proper insight into why they are the enemy or the threat they pose. 

Your antagonist should be appropriately intelligent according to their character, active in their plans against the protagonist, and experience their own victories. If they have losses, it should come at a cost for the hero. 

A balancing act

Creating relevant skills, meaningful limitations, and consistency through a story requires thoughtful planning and strategies. It can be a tough balancing act but it pays off by building tension and drawing in engaged readers. As you craft your characters, keep in mind that to make them stronger you don’t have to make them more powerful. Instead, make them weaker, then force them to work around those weaknesses.