Reader Question Day #79: Overpowered Characters

MAM asks:

When you create characters, do you ever worry if you make them too powerful?

Not presently, no. Long-running series about superheroes and wizards face this problem – if Superman is invincible and can fly, how does he face compelling dangerous and foes?

For Caina Amalas in THE GHOSTS, it’s easy to keep her from becoming overpowered. She is, as she occasionally points out, simply a woman with a knife and a shadow-cloak. Ridmark Arban in FROSTBORN is much the same – he doesn’t have any magic, and in fact lost the magic he formerly possessed before the start of FROSTBORN: THE GRAY KNIGHT. Additionally, they both face foes who possess far greater power.

Mazael is more powerful, since he is the Demonsouled son of the Old Demon, and therefore has superhuman strength and speed and healing. That said, he faces a lot of foes – his own all-consuming rage, tremendously powerful wizards, other Demonsouled, hordes of Malrags and undead – to say nothing of the fact that the world is ending. So he regularly faces villains more dangerous than himself.

The biggest challenge I had was how much political power the characters in DEMONSOULED accrued. Many of the main characters acquired significant amounts of political power, which made it harder to do stuff with them. The President of the United States does not lead troops into battle – he has people who do that stuff for him. That said, medieval and ancient leaders often led men into battle personally. The Roman Emperors Decius and Valens were killed fighting the Goths, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II ended his days with his silver-lined skull becoming a drinking vessel for the Bulgarian khan Krum, and as late as 1483 AD, a King of England was killed in battle. So the various politically powerful characters in DEMONSOULED were still in a great deal of danger.

Anyway, I think the amount of power (in whatever form) a character has is irrelevant, so long as he faces an appropriate challenge. THE KING’S SPEECH is an excellent example of this. The main character is wealthy and powerful, and at no point in the film is he in any kind of physical danger with the possible exception of excessive cigarette smoking. Yet he faces an adversary that no amount of money and power will defeat – his speech impediment.

Therefore, the amount of power a character has doesn’t matter so long as he faces an adversary or a challenge that actually tests him and pushes him to the limit.

I suspect the perception of “overpowered characters” comes when a writer relies too much upon a character’s magical abilities or superpowers to solve problems rather than the character’s own efforts.

Nicole asks, concerning DEMONSOULED:

There is a king mentioned, but I have no clue where he is or why he is not involved.

Concerning the king, I’m afraid there was a bit of continuity drift over the years. I wrote DEMONSOULED in 2001, and the final book in 2012, and there was a gap of six years between the second book and the third book. So when I started writing SOUL OF SERPENTS, some things that I had thought were good ideas in 2005 I had changed my mind about by 2011.

Having a king was one of them – I decided the realm of DEMONSOULED was better as a set of warring feudal lords rather than a unified realm. Originally I sort of envisioned a High King ruling over the realm, but instead the realm of DEMONSOULED is more like early Capetian France if the last Carolingian king died and no one bothered to replace him.

-JM

4 thoughts on “Reader Question Day #79: Overpowered Characters

  1. I was totally expecting Mazael to be the High King in the epilogue of DEMONSOULED. He wielded enough influence among all the liege lords where he probably could have just been handed it. Though I liked his characteristic of just wanting piece in his lands and that he had no desire to have power, he just stepped up when it was needed.

    1. I think by that point Mazael was smart enough to know that it wasn’t healthy for a child of the Old Demon to deliberately seek out power – a bit like an alcoholic deciding to work as a bartender. And warring fiefdoms aren’t unusual – if I remember correctly, Poland did not have a king until the 14th century, and Imperial China was ruled by various groups of warlords every few centuries.

  2. Yeah and that’s why he was such an awesome hero. He could have had all the power he wanted, mostly without taking it forcefully, but just wanted to chill with his girl. Mazael’s become one of my favorite characters in a story – even try to use his name as my avatar’s in some of my online games (which you would be surprised how often is already taken despite being a completely unique name!)

    1. Yes – I think he’d simply want to wander around with Romaria, if he could work his will. In retrospect, it might have been better to wait to make Mazael the Lord of Castle Cravenlock until after a few books, since there’s quite a lot of adventure potential in him wandering around.

      Cool about the online games. :)

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