Why Powerful Characters Need Limitations

Powerful characters can play an interesting role in a story because they have the potential to institute wide-sweeping change. Realistically, the average human has a limited ability to influence society or the world as a whole. All humans recognize some things about the world around them that they would like to change, and this universal desire drives our interest in powerful characters. We live vicariously through them, and their potential for power satisfies something deeply embedded in our own desires for change.

We love characters who can do things we can’t, who express competence, but we also need our characters to be flawed. Characters with exceptional personal power risk coming across as infallible, which renders your tension inert. If the reader feels that your characters can’t fail, there will no tension. They won’t be invested in the outcome of anything that happens because the victory will feel obvious.

As an example, pretend you have a character with the power to manipulate matter and reality. This character has been gifted, through any matter of backstory, a god-like ability to bring the contents of their thoughts into reality. How do you engineer conflict that makes the plot challenging for such a powerful character? They can’t simply try to fight a mob boss. A human protagonist with no special powers might find the mob a challenging opponent, but for our god-like protagonist, the mob will be as easily crushed as a fruit fly drunk on cider.

The threat of failure makes success so much sweeter. Without the threat of failure, the success will simply be the expected outcome. The victory, the associated character growth, and the ending of the story will all be much less emotionally satisfying.

Balance your powerful character with powerful antagonists. Your antagonist needs to be at least as functionally competent as your protagonist. Ideally, your antagonist will actually be significantly stronger than your protagonist. This makes the protagonist’s eventual victory even more emotionally satisfying. Everyone loves an underdog, it’s built into human psychology. It’s why baseball fans hate the Yankees and it dates back to David versus Goliath.

Another way to balance your powerful character will be by adding limitations and drawbacks to their power or their character. I love the example of Rand al’Thor from Wheel of Time. (Warning: Spoilers.) Rand is the perfect example of an extremely powerful protagonist. By the end of the series, he’s basically a God, but the limitations hold him back. His powers inflict him with insanity, and he has a literal voice in his head. Mental illness causes Rand a bunch of problems and he struggles with it, making his incredible powers less effective.

Giving your powerful characters a deep flaw or limitation also gives a lot of room for growth. Their flaws can do more than limit their power, or increase tension in conflict because flaws provide the potential for maturation. When the character faces their flaws and overcomes them, they grow as a character, and their power grows accordingly.

How do you keep your powerful characters on a level playing field? Do you like writing powerful characters or weak characters? Drop in the comments and let’s talk writing. Happy writing everybody!

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