Every Superman needs his Kryptonite

When I review a book I like to think about what I can learn from it. A few weeks ago I reviewed Crimes Against Magic by Steve McHugh, and it got me thinking about the pitfalls of making your hero too powerful.

Nate Garrett, centuries old sorcerer assassin is a master of kicking ass. Great, right?

It’s tempting to make your hero all powerful, with incredible powers and the smarts to use them wisely, because, let’s face it, that’s cool. Chances are you also like them, and you enjoy watching them effortlessly crush their enemies under their boot heels. Unfortunately for them, that doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Make the hero too powerful and you make things too easy. The outcome of every scene becomes inevitable, aka boring.

Superhero Superman incapactitated by glowing green KryptoniteSomething must get in the way, there must be some way of restricting or limiting the powers of your hero until such time as they are ready to have them. The use of that inoffensive looking green crystal in the Superman comics is such a blatent example of this need that Kryptonite has entered language as the perfect analogy. (Read more about the Kryptonite Factor)

Thankfully, kryptonite comes in many less crystalline forms. In Crimes Against Magic, McHugh uses maliciously inflicted amnesia as a way of incapacitating Nate: without his accumulated knowledge, he cannot use his abilities to their full potential.

Of course, eventually the hero needs to overcome the barriers holding him back. Unexpectedly revealing new powers can make it seem as if you’ve cheated; simply changed the character and them more powerful in order to overcome their foes. Having your mild mannered hero suddenly show an aptitude for martial arts, for example, or a shy heroine suddenly finding a strong and confident voice in the courtroom.

This is where precedent is paramount; the dropped hints and gradual build up which makes the unexpected believable.

In Crimes Against Magic, McHugh reveals Nate’s true potential through a series of flash backs to an earlier time in his life. By the time he recovers his memories towards the climax of the story, you understand the implications and you know the bad guys are in trouble.

Other ways to set precedent will depend on your story could include introducing your kryptonite later in the story, after an establishing scene/scenes  or putting your hero in a position where they have to learn to control their powers.  The barrier could equally be internal; reluctance or fear, with the hero (and by extension the reader) aware, if only partially, of their potential all along.

Above all, make things hard for your hero, because therein lies a good story.

6 Replies to “Every Superman needs his Kryptonite”

  1. Hi Chrissey, a nice article about balancing – the powers of your hero vs. the difficulties he has to face. One of the hardest tricks to pull off is balancing superhero and magical abilities. Say you give your hero the ability to move objects with their minds (telekinesis), and limit them to lifting as much as they can physically. Sounds fine, they can’t be overly powerful, right?

    The problem comes when you start to think through the less obvious consequences. If someone can move something small with their mind, what’s to stop them from tearing away a few blood vessels in the brain, or around the heart, of their enemies. You have just given your hero an insta-kill ability without meaning to… As a writer you not only have to consider when, and how much power your hero has access to, but also what different uses the power can be put to. If you’re a writer who likes logic puzzles and mind games, these genres are for you. 🙂

    1. It’s definitely a tightrope walk when introducing powerful characters to maintain a sense of danger and suspense. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency especially in urban fantasy and paranormal to employ “Mary Sue” characters without thought toward weaknesses. Sometimes the plot devices used to counter the superpowered effect become tropes of their own.

      As you mention, superpowered doesn’t mean unstoppable. It’s all in how the weaknesses are revealed and that’s up to the skill of the writer.

      The computer RPG “Planescape Torment” comes to mind as one example of a very powerful character who was plagued by inherent flaws and weaknesses that practically stripped away any sense he was overpowered.

  2. So true. If he has no barriers and nothing to overcome, there’s no drama or tension to the story. Sometimes we concentrate too hard on building our characters up, but we also have to find a way to make them fall.

  3. Finding the balance is key and to be honest the way that I tend to do that it match a villain to the hero, after all you have Moriarty for Holmes or as you say, to Superman you have Kryptonite as well as Lex Luthor. The merging of heroes to villains is whats kept them all going for so long, after all what would Batman be without The Joker or Fantastic Four without Doctor Doom?

    That balance is key. Nicely thought out and crafted.

  4. I like making great supernatural characters and most of the time their greatest obstacle is themselves – I also like to make ‘evil’ characters who get their powers from evil sources but try to be good. But I’ve gone too far sometimes and had to back track or change abilities to make them a bit more ‘human’ and give them some more physical barriers too.

    Nice post – made me think about my many characters – I’m so used to writing about ‘super’ humans that I actually struggle to write about a normal human – but I think that will be the focus of my next big project – cause I need to challenge myself too – not just my characters!

  5. Great article and very true, there has to be a balance otherwise what’s the point in reading a book if you know the protagonist is undefeatable from the start? The reader needs to be pulled forward by a sense of uncertainty, even though we know the story is written all about the protagonist we still need an edge of “will he/won’t he?!” 🙂

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