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.
Something 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.