Being a Better Writer: Underpowered and Overpowered Characters

This post was originally written and posted August 4th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still in Alaska. This post has been uploaded ahead of time.

Hello, everyone, new and old! Welcome back—or to, if this is your first—my weekly Monday writing guide post! I’ve got a great topic today, one that comes by request, and I’m eager to get down to it.

Today’s topic stems from a question that I’ve been asked by several followers on different occasions, making it one of the more common concerns that I hear. The wording and approach usually varies, but the end result always boils down to something like this: how can I keep my characters from becoming overpowered?

The short answer: We don’t. There’s no such thing.

I can hear the comments being composed from here, through time. Let me clarify.

A better answer would be: That isn’t the right question. Because you see, it’s not hard for most writers to keep their characters from being overpowered. Unless they’re green enough that it seems completely logical to them to give the main character expert-level skills at archery, swordsmanship, guns, gun repair, vehicle repair, vehicle piloting, magic, kung-fu (including the ancient form no one knows but the hero), lockpicking, skydiving, scuba diving, and romance, they won’t. That’s rookie level writing. Unless you’re Clive Cussler, but he gets a pass for making it a success anyway.

The real question that they want to ask, I feel, is this: how do I create a character with enough skills and talent to overcome what I place in his path without giving them too many skills and talents?

Because you see, that’s the real challenge that these writers are worried about. They want to create characters that can survive everything that the plot is going to throw at them, but they don’t want their character to just magically have the skills to survive everything. And of course, they don’t want a character who survives off of dumb-luck either. Both of these approaches will—while they work at first—gradually eat away at the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They may not ruin it (after all, there are plenty of other moving parts to enjoy), but they certainly will lower the expectations.

So, back to this question. How do you create a character with enough skill and talent to overcome whatever obstacles you’ve placed before them without making them too skilled? The answer?

You make them clever.

Have you ever heard of a series called Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians? It’s by Brandon Sanderson (whose name you should know), and he wrote it, I’m convinced, mostly to just have fun with conventions and tropes. At the core of the series (and this, btw, is from his own admission) is a cast of characters who all have useless superpowers.

No joke. Every last power given to the main characters is a joke in some way. He literally came up with them by thinking of superpowers that would be considered useless. And then, once he had them, he asked “How can I make these useful?” Then he wrote a story.

For example, take the main character’s uncle. His power is that he is always late. To everything. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Except that he uses this in really clever ways. Sure, he’s late for every appointment ever, but he’s also late for assassination attempts, late for arrows that would have gone right through him … he even manages to build his power to the point where he’s “late” to pain—any injuries he suffers don’t hurt until about fifteen minutes later. Each of the other character is similar. They have low-powered, budget level superpowers that most people would scoff at. But they’ve learned to use them in unique ways that thrill the reader.

The challenge, then, isn’t for us to write a character with as many skills as they need to overcome their trials, but writing a character who has a few select skills and watching them use, combine, and deconstruct those skills to solve the challenges that they face. Just like the best characters aren’t those that are perfect but those that carry human flaws and then work to overcome them, the most talented and thrilling heroes aren’t those that have every skill they need to succeed, but a limited set of skills that they use in clever ways. Maybe even with a little dumb luck.

Now, it’s important to note here that this is going to heavily rely on your knowledge of your character. Even if they only have two skills, yet they somehow use them in improbable ways to escape every situation because they’re just that brilliant, not only do they really have three skills (clever thinking being the third), but your readers are going to get bored. You want tension, and for that, you’re going to have to know if your character would actually think of the solution. Occasionally, they might even try something that doesn’t work, an idea that pushes them further back rather than forward, at which point they re-evaluate things and then try again.

It’s not how many powers your character has, it’s how they use them in clever and unique ways. Give your main character a skill at lockpicking or safe-cracking and then stick them in a situation where they’re in a room and need to disarm a bomb. Or give them a great skill at climbing and then stick them in zero-g, where they have to re-evaluate their own skill from an entirely new perspective.

Because in truth, just about any character can be “overpowered” and “too good” at things, even the ones with terrible powers. If we make them too clever, too skilled, or too successful, then we ruin the tension. But even a character with some of the greatest powers out there can be hideously blindsided or beaten if they’re outsmarted or rely only on that one skill. For example, in a draft for one story I wrote I had a main character that was immortal. Kill him, and he comes back in a few hours. Sounds pretty overpowered, right?

Well, not quite. First, he lost his recent memories whenever he died, based on the severity of the killing injury. So burning him to death could make him lose centuries. Worse, that was his defining skill (aside from three-thousand-odd years of existence). When confronted with one of the villains in the story who knew what his power was, the villain admitted that yes, he couldn’t kill the character permanently, but he could seal him inside one of the hollow concrete supports for a new shopping mall, where he would asphyxiate in darkness, die, come back, and suffocate again until the day they demolished the mall.

See? Amazing power. Horrific downsides. But with clever use, it fixed all sorts of problems. He admits to having jumped off a cliff once after a battle when the doctor amputated his leg just to get the leg back, which equals clever use of a great superpower. But in other situations it’s no silver bullet, and can lead to some fates arguably worse than death. And yes, you will one day see that book.

I could have made that character unbelievably dull. He could have come back immediately, with no lost memory. Or he could have picked up and mastered hundreds of skills over this lifetime. Or crud, I could have made him wealthy (he wasn’t) and given him carte-blanche within the story to jump through a lot of hoops that being low on funds kept him from even seeing.

I still feel like I’ve butchered this, but I hope you’ve all gotten the idea. It’s not about giving your characters every skill they need to win. Its about giving them a few, and then watching them conquer their challenges using those skills in unique and clever ways.

That’s it, I’m out of words. See you all next week!

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