“The Ring cannot be destroyed by any means we here possess,” intoned Elrond. “Only in the mountain of fire, deep in Mordor, from whence it came can it be destroyed, and to there it must be returned.”
“Therefore, I shall tap this stone with my staff, and transport it instantly into the volcano’s heart,” Gandalf explained. He tapped the stone with his staff, and stone and Ring disappeared in a brief flash of light. They reappeared in the molten lava at the heart of Mount Doom, where the Ring was destroyed, and Sauron was defeated. Thus ended the Third Age.
Today, we’re talking about overpowered characters. Now, I’m not saying that Gandalf is an overpowered character. For all that he uses a soft magic system, there are clear limits on what he can and cannot do, and it is well established that the above situation could not have taken place. The point is that, if you give a character too much power, you will quickly find yourself without much of a story to tell.
The most obvious example in modern storytelling that I can think of is Marvel’s eponymous Captain Marvel. After being featured in her own movie, the writers were forced to find excuses for her to be off screen in all of the other movies as much as possible, because she was simply too powerful. If there are limits to her power, aside from her own morality and imagination, they have not been defined for us. While writing a character like that can be fun in small doses, it makes storytelling a major challenge.
It is worth noting that “overpowered” cannot really be defined on an absolute scale. Rather, it is more useful to discuss characters being overpowered on a relative scale. If you make your hero a goddess, and all of her enemies are mere mortals, you don’t have much of a story, but if all of her enemies are also gods and goddesses, then that character is no longer overpowered. This raises the interesting intellectual exercise of trying to write an interesting story about the relationship between two omnipotent and omniscient beings, but I don’t think tiny human brains are adequate for such a task.
Some level of power discrepancy is acceptable, and even good storytelling, especially if you make the antagonist more powerful (whatever that looks like: magical competency, intelligence, available mercenaries, financial clout) than the protagonist – the underdog story has been popular since the days of ancient Greece. If you take this too far, though, the story becomes unbelievable and will strain the reader’s credibility and suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, there is no exact formula or mathematical ratio that will tell you just where that balance lies.
If you do happen to create an objectively overpowered character, there are still ways to make them and their story interesting, usually by making them their own enemy. In Fo’Fonas, this is sort of what I did with Wraith. Especially in the first book, she is arguably overpowered, meeting no one who can really challenge her. I keep her interesting by making her into her own enemy. Plus, she’s unpredictable, making her sort of the enemy of the whole story. I was worried as I wrote her that she might still be overpowered, but those who have read the draft so far have reported that Wraith is frequently one of their favorite characters.
I suppose that we could say that it is inadvisable to write a character who is overpowered in too many axes. Maybe you write a warrior who is more skilled and strong than anyone else, but has no magical ability. Maybe you have the most powerful wizard in the universe, but he has no physical skills at all. Or your brilliant scientist who is morally conflicted. If they have weaknesses, as well as enormous strengths, then they are less likely to be too powerful for your story, especially if you can find a way to play them against themselves.
This is strongly related to Sanderson’s discussions of the laws of magic, and the needs for clear limits and rules in both hard and soft magic systems. In this case, we’re talking about characters instead of magic systems, but the principles are similar, and it is worth taking into account many of the same ideas and considerations.
Now, this is writing, and I’m not going to tell you never to write an overpowered character, or that it could never be made to work in a story. As I’ve discussed before, I like highly skilled, highly powerful, highly competent characters, and if a story could be made to work with a character fully over powered in all axes, I would be very interested in reading it. Yet I will say that every example of an arguably overpowered character that I’ve thought of as I’ve worked on this post has at least one axis of their person that is a weakness. Now, excuse me while I go try to write that story about two omnipotent and omniscient beings.