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How To Make Overpowered Protagonists Fun

tatsuya

Lately, I have been thinking of doing NaNoWriMo. Then I remember that this is a stupid idea when I already write half the word count of a NaNoWriMo novel every month just for work. I say all that, but a part of me thinks: “Wouldn’t it be fun to bury myself in a complete nonsense story for a month and make up shit as I go along?”

I’m sure that the author of My Sister Lives in a Fantasy World has had similar thoughts, because the series reads like a giant NaNoWriMo draft.

In the latter half of the series, major characters and plot points get introduced out of nowhere, powers and abilities get made up on the spot, and half the word count is spent on characters explaining how the nonsensical setup of the story is supposed to work. But I still like the series, mostly because it’s the most fun I’ve had with the “Overpowered MC” concept in a while.

big sister

Overpowered characters are difficult to take seriously even at the best of times. If left to their own devices, they can kill the tension in a story. There are some ways that writers can get around this, like introduce challenges to match the protagonist’s strength. For example, Goku in Dragon Ball is ridiculously strong by any measure, but because the narrative keeps upping the scale and shifting the goalposts, Goku never comes across as infallible. Heck, he dies multiple times in the story.

Powering up the opposition is a fine storytelling tactic, but at the same time, it defeats the purpose of having an overpowered MC. After all, an MC can only be considered overpowered if he is that much stronger than everyone else in the story. It’s all a matter of scale.

Sometimes, writers can make the overpowered character a teacher figure. That way the audience can still bask in the awesomeness of the OP character while rooting for the students as underdogs. It’s like how in One Punch Man, a lot of viewers ended up cheering for Genos and hoping to see him surpass Saitama, even though everyone knows that Saitama will never lose.

one punch man

In the end, though, making the overpowered MC a teacher takes the focus off the power fantasy in favour of the conventional “coming of age” narrative. It also doesn’t count if the MC has so much emotional baggage that it seriously affects his performance in battle. He can’t be a “cheat” character unless his victories are effortless. And for some stories, at least, revelling in lopsided victories is exactly the point. Nothing more and nothing less.

For the sake of keeping this blog post manageable, I’m just going to talk about how this trope is managed in light novels and web novels here. I can’t say that I’m normally a fan of it. I think my problem comes down to the fact that the authors often to try to have it both ways with their overpowered MC. The MC often starts off as a “normal” person who becomes overpowered because they’re granted some blessing by a god or whatever. You’re often supposed to empathise with them and experience the thrills of a power fantasy at the same time. (I go into more detail about that idea here.)

This is boring to me because there’s no way I am going to relate to a character who is all-powerful. Overpowered characters are fun because I don’t relate to them.

reinhard is a cutie

If you’ve spent like two minutes talking to me about Re:ZERO, you’d probably know that my favourite character is Reinhard, the grossly overpowered white knight guy whose powers include, but are not limited to: walking on water, resistance to all elements, and immunity from the first strike in any battle.

Reinhard’s abilities are insane. Whenever Tappei Nagatsuki answers questions about Reinhard’s powers, he just makes Reinhard seem like a parody of a human.

The thing is – you’re not supposed to relate to Reinhard. He’s just a supporting character, and he doesn’t even do that much in the story anyway. Pretty much none of his OP haxx skills are relevant to the plot; they are just part of his quirks and personality.

In a similar way, you’re not supposed to relate to the MC of My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World. Yuichi is a “normal” boy in high school, but although he plays the straight man to his sister’s antics, it quickly becomes clear that he’s anything but normal himself. He is overpowered as hell, and may actually be able to beat up Reinhard in a fight. I’m not kidding about this.

Probably the most amusing thing about My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World is how it spends so much time building up these absurdly powerful enemies, only for Yuichi to one-shot them. It’s all played very seriously, until that final moment when Yuichi kicks ass. The anticlimax is the joke.

Meanwhile, Tatsuya, the poster boy for “Overpowered Light Novel Protagonist”, sucks because the story takes him way too seriously. There’s never really any humour in the way he defeats his enemies unless you go meta. He does at least have a nice ass though, so that’s something.

tatsuya's ass

So yeah, it is generally difficult for me to take a story seriously when it has a truly overpowered MC with no competition, so you may as well take the piss out of it. Do you share that attitude about overpowered characters? Who are some of your favourite overpowered MCs (if you have any)?

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Posted on October 19, 2017, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. So I’m going to draw from a novel written in English rather than a light novel or anime–one of my favorite protagonists in fiction is Francis Crawford of Lymond, from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

    Lymond is effectively what you’d call a “Gary Stu” he’s extremely talented, handsome, speaks multiple languages, is a talented fighter, master of disguise, leader of men, and uniquely tortured. He spends a lot of time lording over everyone else and hiding his motivations from everyone. He’s the kind of character who you’d expect, if written, would be completely insufferable. But what elevates him for me (though maybe not for everyone) is that at the root of his character is an insecurity that inevitably poisons everything he does. Lymond is so loath to accept help that he will inevitably overextend himself, and when his enemies use this trait of his against him and actively hurt the people he loves, it becomes easy to reduce the guy to a quivering, suffering ball of goo. So the character comes off as a romantic figure/power fantasy while also ensuring the reader root for him, since the author continuously puts him up against situations and characters capable of destroying him and the people he loves (and that you come to love, by proxy.)

    There’s other ways of doing overpowered characters, like how catharsis in One Punch Man comes not from being uncertain whether Saitama will defeat the bad guy, but knowing that once Saitama arrives on the scene that the bad guy is toast. Or how you know that Luffy in One Piece will eventually win, but that each of his rubber punches seeks revenge for abuse or societal mistreatment. But really, Lymond is smartly handled and is worth examining

  2. So my takeaway from this post is that the way to make an overpowered protagonist fun is: Dat Ass :P

    I mean, anime somewhat does this with the opposite gender! They have overpowered lady characters who are made “relatable” to the audience via fanservice. The Doylist camera overpowers their Watsonian prowess.

    More seriously, “overpowered” has many variations, and some are more fun than others. In western live action, I enjoyed a show with a superteam main ensemble because their mechanism to introduce plot complications was often “the team did their jobs too well,” which opens the door for further character development, comedy, and more interesting plot since the team can’t just brute force their way through, and all the meantime reinforcing their incredible competence.
    In the Nanoha series, they have cases where the OP characters can’t just OP everything because it’s overkill, and would cause too much collateral damage. So they have to figure out clever solutions within the parameters given. Some of my favorite Naruto fanfictions do this, coming up with more creative applications of jutsu like the Rasengan than was ever used in canon.

    And finally, recent conversations about Superman are all about this. For many people, that Superman is overpowered makes him boring. But for many others, it works because the best Superman stories focus on his personality, his “humanity,” or interrogate the implications of being overpowered. And then there are myriad ways that plots still go on despite all of Superman’s capabilities, and without breaking out the Kryptonite, either.

    • I like that idea of overpowered characters having to find creative ways to win that don’t require their brute force. Of course, I’ve always liked battles to be more tactical to begin with. Dragon Ball Super is like this too, since there are limitations on the battles that mean the OP characters have to limit themselves while the weaker characters (like Master Roshi and Yamcha) have crucial roles to play. Like those Naruto fanfictions you mention, you could argue that Dragon Ball Super is a fanfiction too.

      • Yeah, as you’ve pointed out before, No Game No Life kind of has overpowered protagonists in that they do curbstomp their enemies and their victory is never in question, but because the nature of their power is mental rather than physical, seeing the curbstomp solution play out is like watching a Goldberg Machine. See also Sherlock Holmes cases where the detective is never challenged, but his explaining what happened and fingering the killer is itself enjoyable, as opposed to worlds where the detective struggles to put it together.

        And then, of course, we’ve got a current example of overpowered characters clashing in UQ Holder, where the fundamental premise is that everyone is OP and trying to figure out interesting/creative battles within that context.

        Another mechanism that I think hasn’t been mentioned by anyone yet is to make the audience root for a curbstomp, by developing “love-to-hate” opponents. I enjoy the curbstomp in SAO in the Silica episode, because we want those Laughing Coffin members to get their comeuppance. Kirito’s OPness deflates their arrogance, and so is satisfying. The villain builds themselves up as untouchable, which makes us want to see them utterly brung low, all of their words made lies, to be revealed as pathetic by comparing to our OP characters’ power. Or, the villain is just so gross that we want their presence obliterated with a vengeance, that our OP protagonists can make things right where a less strong character could only go so far.

        Some people scoff at the deus ex machina, but others still cheer when The Cavalry shows up. Agents of SHIELD actually plays on this, having a character whose nickname is “The Cavalry,” exploring what it means to be that kind of a character within the setting of the show.

  3. Fantastic post! I’m also participating in NaNoWriMo-why do I subject myself every year rofl. I have a hard time with overpowered MC’s since most of the one’s I read are to be taken seriously. Like you said, it’s easier to not relate to them because they become so easy to like, as it is with Kakashi in Naruto for an example.
    I guess Holo might be considered overpowered? But she’s written in such a great way that I love her to pieces. Rokka’s Adlet was easier to accept too since he had a defined reason for being strong. He was pretty annoying as the novel wore on but at least he wasn’t complete talk. Though, to a degree he kind of was.

  4. Well, I don’t think the solution for overpowered character is to make them into a joke. Plenty of anime has done that before, like Sakamoto or OPM.

    I think @wendeego is right, the weakness for these characters can be their personalities. Another good example is Achilles from The Illiad. Dude could wreck anyone, but his assholic behavior ended up causing suffering for himself and everyone else. For anime, Kenshin is a decent example(ignore his defeats for now). He crushed all enemies, but each fight move him closer to the dark past. There’s way to make a dramatic story with OP character. And there’s way to make it comedic without reusing the same joke every episode (yeah, I don’t like OPM much)

    • I think that if you focus on the weaknesses of OP characters (whether it’s their emotional baggage or their personality flaws) it takes the focus away from the “cheap and easy thrills” of seeing an OP character in action. It can result in very good writing like the examples you mentioned but the appeal is fundamentally different.

      For me, the only way the “cheap and easy” fun of OP characters can appeal to me is if the story itself doesn’t take it seriously. Not all stories are good at finding the balance, though. You mentioned One Punch Man, and honestly I find that series repetitive as well. So it depends.

  5. Sakamaki Izayoi from Mondaiji-tachi. A self-proclaimed hedonist who only lives to fight strong opponents, he’s smart and strong. I like how at the end of the series he was crushed by the fact that he couldn’t defeat the dragon without help, so he felt like he was cheating.

  1. Pingback: Fandom Report for Oct 19 2017: Have a Goku burger | Derek McGrath

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