Stories of superheroes even as far back as the Greco-Roman mythology have had their Kryptonite or Achilles’ heel. Most superheroes have the faults and foibles. Daredevil is blind. Professor X is stuck in a wheelchair. Superman has his issues with a specific green rock. Achilles was invulnerable, except for the heel his mother held him by when dipping him into the Styx.
As an editor, I’ve participated in wading through the slush pile at Barking Rain Press (BRP). BRP publishes all kinds of stuff, ranging from cookbooks to science fiction. Some of the speculative fiction involves people, critters, or aliens capable of doing things that are well beyond normal. That itself is fine. Speculative fiction is all about the “what if.” It just takes the approach of what if people could do the impossible.
One common fault I see when digging through the slush pile is unbalanced characters. Unbalanced characters have too many skills and not enough weaknesses. Characters who are too powerful don’t serve the story. There’s nothing great enough to provide them with a challenge. They can walk through whatever problems the bad guys set up without breaking a sweat.
Conversely, you can have bad guys that are way too powerful for the good guys. Victory then becomes unbelievable because there’s no possible way the good guy could get the advantage without divine assistance. That’s okay to set up in the beginning of the story if the rest of the tale is about the good guy getting the skills and equipment to fix the deficit, but, by the endgame, the good guys need to have a chance at victory.
Who Cares About Balance?
Eons ago (y’know, like in 1992 or so), I attempted a collaboration with a friend of mine. We used a short story I had and tried to expand it into a novel. The other writer didn’t think I had enough “universal appeal” in the story, so he hijacked the story line with one of his and created a disaster. His characters were “half angel, half human” and could do ANYTHING. No kidding. Nothing was too hard for them. Run into a problem? Pray for a moment and *poof* problem solved when the character suddenly developed the necessary skill. They had total confidence in their abilities, so there wasn’t even the internal struggle of faltering faith or doubt. In the end, there was a lot of talk about “Wow, this is hard,” but it was all talk. There was no real challenge to overcome.
The end result? There was no possibility for the good guys to lose. Victory was a foregone conclusion. BORING!
He and I parted ways, each with our own intellectual property intact, and my short story eventually grew up to become Remnant in the Stars. I have no idea what became of him.
How Do I Balance Characters?
There are a few good ways to make sure the good guys aren’t able to just walk through the scenario. These can also apply to balancing a bad guy so the good guys have a fighting chance.
Make sure your super-powered character has a major weakness. Kryptonite and Achilles’ Heel are two good examples of this. Being super strong and invulnerable to bullets and capable of flying doesn’t do Superman any good when his enemy finds a specific green rock.
This is sort of McGuffin-y, though. It’s a simple plot device, but if used improperly it becomes an awfully convenient coincidence that your bad guy suddenly has the means to render your super-powered good guy useless.
That’s not to say it can’t be done effectively. It just needs sufficient setup. Don’t spring it on your reader at the critical moment. Make sure you’ve established the vulnerability early on, and make sure there’s a logical, sensible reason why your bad guy gets wind of it.
Equally or More Powerful Bad Guys
Give your good guys opponents who are just as potent as they are, even if that strength is a little different in its execution. Perhaps even better, make sure your bad guys are just a little too strong for the good guys at the beginning of the tale so the good guys can learn and grow throughout the story.
The X-men had both The Brotherhood and Hellfire Club to provide an equal challenge for them. Jedi have the Sith.
In X-Men: First Class, Shaw attacks the government base where Charles and Eric have stashed their new recruits. With the leadership on a mission, the recruits don’t fare so well against Shaw’s band. The rest of the tale is about Charles teaching the recruits and Eric how to use their abilities more effectively.
Hercules (or Heracles) was a Greco-Roman demigod. How was he balanced in the tales? The same way many of the Greco-Roman heroes were: they were given well-nigh impossible tasks and obstacles to overcome. They had to use their wits, abilities, and sometimes a gift from a patron to overcome the obstacle.
You can do the same thing. Provide a major challenge, something that a mere mortal couldn’t manage, some monster that has wiped out the dozens of others. Then work out strategies so your character learns and grows to use special talents to overcome the problem.
Sometimes the best challenges come from within. Phobias, psychological trauma (like PTSD), or just simply a bad attitude can tone down a super-powered character.
Wolverine can’t remember some key events in his past, and that really bugs him. Batman’s parents were slain and that drives his crime-fighting adventures. Magneto survived a concentration camp, and that affects how he perceives the humans vs. mutants problem.
Code of Ethics
Sometimes people put limits on themselves. They have a personal code of ethics or a set of religious beliefs that prevent them for using their abilities in certain ways.
That’s what separates the Jedi from the Sith. They’re both drawing upon the same power, and they’re both capable of using it in the same ways, but the Jedi limit themselves to using the Force only in specific ways where the Sith have more of an “anything goes” attitude.
Does This Apply to Normal People?
Absolutely. The same principles can apply to non-super-powered characters.
In The Loudest Actions, Peter is plagued with PTSD after an explosion and fire remind him of a time when he was trapped on a burning ship. The persistent memories and nightmares limit his effectiveness in some situations, requiring him to overcome his pride and fear and accept an offer of help.
Giving your characters some negative traits, limitations, and weaknesses can help your story by providing depth. This gives them challenges to overcome and helps drive the story forward.
Do you have any examples of well-balanced characters? Share how you’ve made sure your folks have enough hurdles to hop over.
After hatching years ago in a land very far away, Cindy Koepp tried to hide under a secret identity, but she finally gave that up and started openly telling people she was an alien capable of adopting many forms. To her surprise, with the exception of one class of elementary students, no one believed her. They assumed she was joking, thereby giving her the perfect cover story.
She spent 14 years mutating the minds of four-footers – that’s height, not leg count – but gave that up to study the methodology needed to mutate the minds of adult humans. In her off time, she writes about her adventures under the guise of telling science fiction and fantasy stories, records her blog articles, and reads wonderful books in exchange for editing help.