This post first appeared in Deborah's blog.
So, as those who’ve been following my blog know, I’ve been engaging with a lot of Japanese media lately, and especially anime and light novels (with a bit of manga thrown in). As in, I’ve read over 100 Japanese novels in the past six months. This is relevant because in the particular subgenre I read, I’ve noticed a trend. It goes like this:
1. Protagonist is weak (or pretending to be weak)
2. Protagonist gets strong (or is revealed as strong)
3. Protagonist easily overcomes all struggles with his power and story is boring.
This usually happens after it's clear the author's original ideas have been used up, and now they just want to keep writing to make money / they can keep getting praise for how awesome their protagonist is.
(On which note, check out my post on Telling Your Reader Your Character Is Epic.)
But see, the thing is . . . super powerful does not equal overpowered.
Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci is literally not only the most powerful enchanter in the world but possibly in the multiverse, and he isn’t overpowered. Why? Because he can lose. He can be outsmarted or teamed up on or caught off guard. He doesn’t instantly know the answers to mysteries. Other magic users may use magic with which he is unfamiliar or for which he is unprepared. The stakes are real. Regardless of power level, a character is overpowered when their power negates the stakes. If the stakes are real, the character is not overpowered.
I’ll make three examples here of characters that look overpowered but aren’t.
1. Character seems super powerful but actually isn’t. Glenn from Akashic Records of The Bastard Magic Instructor is introduced as a third-rate magician. At first, I expected he’d be revealed to be super-powerful as a magic user, but NOPE. What he has are such a good understanding of magic theory and so much cleverness that he can somewhat compensate for his lack of magical power. But only somewhat. He’s definitely the weakest person in most fights, and he can lose.
2. Character is super powerful, but the antagonist is his equal or slight superior. Light from Death Note is possibly the smartest guy in the world, an expert at charm and trickery and deduction; furthermore, he has a supernatural power. His antagonist, L, however . . . is barely his intellectual inferior, and has many more years of experience plus funding and support from the world’s police and a secret network. This makes them equals or even gives L the edge.
3. Character is, in fact, the most powerful—but this doesn’t solve his problems. My favorite example of this, because it’s so ridiculously extreme, is The Misfit of Demon King Academy: History's Strongest Demon King Reincarnates and Goes to School with His Descendants. Anos Voldigord, demon king of old, reincarnates with all his memories and powers two thousand years later. Everyone else seems to have forgotten powerful magic, whereas he is so powerful he can literally kill someone with the sound of his heartbeat (and then immediately revive them if he so wishes). In any contest of strength, he instantly wins. But see, the stakes revolve not around who is the strongest, but around whether he can convince people of who he is and solve a 2000-year-old mystery. (Note: I’ve only read the first 2-2/3 novels; the rest haven’t been translated yet.) So although ridiculously powerful, he isn't overpowered, because his power doesn't negate the stakes.
So, yeah, I’ve been having fun thinking about that. :)