I saw a question on an online forum today asking: “How do you write for a very strong character without making them over powered?”
This is a great question! There are a few ways to approach an overpowered character.
Balancing Your Cast (or Planning an Imbalance)
Firstly, balance is important when it comes to writing a good quality character, so you need to take a look at the cast your character is a part of. Introducing Wonder Woman to Orange Is The New Black is clearly overkill – your characters either need to have a similar power level to the rest of the cast, or their different power level needs to be addressed.
There are many stories where power imbalance drives the story, but where the character doesn’t God-mode their way through. Think Shrek, Superman, The BFG, or Transformers. Wonder Woman simply doesn’t fit into Orange is the New Black (since Orange is about a range of characters coping with the very real situation of being in prison. The story works without her, so why include her? The other characters fit in context of the story they’re in.
Anyway, back to your characters and your story. The risk is that your strongest character might come across as a bit flat because they’re not being presented with a challenge in your story. Strong characters can be satisfying to write, but who wants to see an overpowered character breeze their way through a story? Ultimately, who wants to write that, after the initial satisfaction of overcoming all obstacles with ease wears off?
Whatever your strong character’s strength is, it’s likely there’s a weakness inherent to it. Shrek’s weakness is his loneliness from, and frustration with, being judged by his size, and the Transformers’ weakness is the fact that they were dealing with a very uppity species – humankind – who they needed to cooperate with to complete their mission on Earth (and to keep humankind from being harmed, as we’re innocent piggies-in-the-middle in the Transformers’ war in that story).
Include an Achille’s Heel, a hidden cost to your overpowered character’s strength. Perhaps a warrior is developing arthritis but doesn’t want to let on, or a dragon is caught underground where it can’t fly.
Pad Them Out
Overpowered characters can stop being so overpowered when you look at the rest of their lives. Probably none of the humans in The BFG were thinking of the Big Friendly Giant’s social life when they came toe to toe with him, but the truth is, there are other giants and he’s the runt. That gives him a sense of empathy with those smaller than him and leads him to choose life as a vegetarian. His mild-mannered personality plus his refusal to eat humans disarms most of the qualities that would let him godmode the story.
As for your character, what else is there to their life, beyond the thing that makes them strong? Do they have a second job? Do they lack people skills (or are they paralysed by them)? Are they facing time limits or are they too far away to do the most harm (or good)? Does their family hold them back?
Some of the above is about your character’s circumstance but some of it is about their approach to the problems they face. Because I’m a character personality design specialist I’ll add here that every personality type has its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s worth thinking about what your character’s personality is actually like so that you can figure out the weaknesses in their personality. If you have any questions about that, ask in a comment below.