The Superman Problem.
A vital storytelling lesson from the iconic superhero.
Superman is beyond question the most well-known and iconic character in superhero storytelling. But there are many readers who don't feel like an overpowered character like Kal-El resonates with them enough to want to read his stories. Why? Mainly because people perceive him as too perfect and too overpowered. His power set has no limits. He does amazing unbelievable feats like they were nothing. He's the son of both a scientist and a farmer and is also an award-winning journalist. Batman is his best friend, the greatest reporter in comic book history is his happily-married wife, and his son is already the next Superman. The guy is a walking, talking deus ex machina. How could a reader ever relate to a guy like that?
That's the dilemma most writers face when telling stories about not just Superman, but any character with power and abilities that are "overpowered." It's why the minds behind Magic: The Gathering changed the nature of their flagship Planeswalker characters to make them less god-level. Heroes that are perceived to never be in any real danger are boring, but even when working with those types of characters, you can still tell engaging stories. Here are some ways how.
Making an overpowered character relatable.
When presented with telling the tale of their god-level powerful antihero Urza, the storytellers at Magic the Gathering chose to present him initially as mentally unstable, unwilling or unable to properly grieve his younger brother Mishra's death (and take responsibility for his part in it), and singularly obsessed with avenging Mishra's corruption at the hands of the parasitic world Phyrexia. This all -powerful being was given very human fallibilities, as were most of their featured Planeswalkers at the time (Teferi's playful arrogance, Freyalise's pettiness, etc.), akin to how the Greco Roman gods all had the character flaws of mortals.
In Superman's case, many stories are built around his integrity and compassion. He is often challenged with finding a way to win the day without compromising his moral and ethical codes in situations where lesser heroes would cross lines. I advise diving deep into your character and asking who they are without their massive powers. If they were just a normal mortal, what would their personality and values be? Who are they without their powers? That's what you focus on when you write them.
Meeting their match.
Dragonball's monkey king-inspired superfighter Goku is the embodiment of self-improvement and rising to meet any challenge. And that is seen in the ever-increasing strength, power and fighting prowess of his foes. When former adversaries like Vegeta and Piccolo that gave Goku a hard time in the past are easily dispatched by villains like Frieza and Buu, it becomes apparent that the emphasis of the story is on Goku leveling up and improving himself to meet the challenge of his opponent. You can take this approach, too. Simply introduce an be adversary that can believably kick your protagonist's ass. Emphasis on the word "believably." This is a lot trickier that it appears, because your protagonist is already off-the-charts powerful to begin with, and introducing someone even more powerful can stretch credibility. You're going to have to show the effects of such a titanic clash on the environment, and your hero might not be able to rely on their inherent abilities to gain victory. Speaking of which...
Make them find another way
Some of Superman's more potent stories are ones where brute strength and his vast array of superhuman powers won't solve the problem at hand. Some problems require the use of his journalism skills, and some problems, like in Doomsday Clock, need to be solved with civil, compassionate dialogue. Similarly, Urza eschewed his god-level access to magic, and utilized his almost forgotten skills as an artificer to foil a plot by the Phyrexian praetor Gix.
You can add depth and nuance to your overpowered character by giving them opportunities to solve problems without utilizing their godlike abilities.
Weaknesses and leveling the playing field.
Kryptonite has become a cliche and a tired trope used by lazy writers...or is it? Giving your overpowered character a physical weakness can still be effective if handled well and fully explored. Many stories have added depth and nuance to martian manhunter's fear of fire. Water was cleverly used to hurt David in the movies Unbreakable and Glass, and the downfall of Achilles would not have had the same impact if it were to something other than being stabbed in his heel.
But not every weakness has to be physical. When the young Superman-like hero Invincible rebuffed the advances of fellow Virulimite Anissa, she decided to force the issue. His past meetings with him made him hold back, which allowed her to overpower him with disastrous - and controversial - results. Marvel's answer to Superman is The Sentry, who is insanely powerful but also agoraphobic with disassociate identity disorder that manifests as his arch nemesis, the Void. He is literally his own worst enemy. Giving your all-powerful character a way to be compromised can make for excellent stories challenging them to overcome their shortcomings.
Raising or lowering the stakes.
One of Superman's more endearing stories wasn't about any titanic clash with the supervillain of the month, but instead featured him simply asking some people around him what they would do if they had his powers. He got a wide range of responses from exploring the universe to standing up to bullies. It was a refreshing story. Not every story has to have the fate of existence on the line. But if you do decide to go that route, then you have the option of taking it to the extreme and pushing your character's godlike power to their limits (and I touched on how to do overpowered feats in a previous post).
Making it about the supporting cast
Finally, you can tell good stories about your overpowered character by taking the focus off of them and putting it squarely on the cast surrounding them and how they react to your guy. the latter two books in Urza's saga did this masterfully, especially the Bloodlines book, which had Urza as looming larger than life presence while the point of view characters (his allies, subordinates and foes), struggled to either enact or subvert Urza's grand mission. The same thing was done for Superman's epic Warworld saga, where as much screentime was given to Superman's team of world liberators as was given to a depowered Kal-El. You can do this by making your overpowered character the proverbial player, and focusing your camera on everyone in their orbit. How does each supporting character see them? What are their opinions? Does your godlike character inspire them or repulse them, and why? How does this person affect their everyday lives, and the tasks they are trying to accomplish at that moment? Addressing these and similar questions can add much more depth to your stories.
Writing quality stories about overpowered characters is not impossible, and can make for iconic, memorable stories if handled well. Take some different approaches to your character, and you might be able to get your readers to see them in a totally new light.
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