Sep 12 2011

How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect

Published by at 12:48 am under Superpowers,Writing Superhero Stories

Generally, the drama in most stories comes from characters struggling to accomplish goals.  If the characters accomplish their goals more or less effortlessly, the story probably isn’t very interesting.  If so, there are three main solutions (limit the protagonists’ powers/capabilities, make their external and/or internal obstacles tougher, and/or shift to goals where their capabilities are not as useful).  If you’re looking to limit their capabilities, here are some possibilities that may fit your story.


1.  The superpowers are not always available.  For example, they might get tired/fatigued if they use the powers too much, they can’t wear the power-suit all the time, they may run out of fuel or magical energy, there may be a time limit to how long the powers last (like Hour Man), the powers may only work at certain times or under certain conditions, etc.


2.  The character doesn’t have much control/precision.  This could limit a hero in a situation where there are civilians or valuable property.  This is a problem because most things that interest supervillains are in densely populated urban areas.


3. The character isn’t as skilled or tactically savvy as he could be.  He might get beaten by a better-trained opponent or one that cleverly uses terrain, civilians, distraction(s), the elements, preparation, the hero’s limitations, etc.


4. At certain points, the character may lack the materials/expertise/time to reload or repair.  Especially if a character like Iron Man is on the run and can’t restock, what does he do when his suit runs out of chaingun ammunition? Alternately, perhaps a wizard has some sort of periodic recharging ritual that involves a rare reagent or a location that might not always be accessible.  How can Jim get to Vampire Cove if his enemies know that he needs to go there to recharge?  (By taking refuge in insanity, of course.  Go at night and hope you don’t run out of garlic).


5. There are social limitations to the character’s powers.  For example, if a character’s power-armor is tied to his job, the threat of getting court-martialed might limit what he can do and/or force him to come up with jury-rigged solutions if he gets cut off from his regular resources.  Alternately, a rogue Green Lantern might have his ring confiscated if he does a good movie and magicians or mad scientists might be punished severely if they conduct too many demonic biological experiments.


Platypi are not of this Earth!

6. The powers may be limited in scope.  For example, Magneto’s telekinesis applies only to metal.  Alternately, Spider-sense isn’t the ability to predict all future events, just imminent danger.


7. Powers can be limited in magnitude.  If a character can run 500 miles per hour, guys with guns probably can’t provide an interesting challenge.  It might help to drop his maximum speed to 50-100 miles per hour and/or arm many enemies with weapons that might be dangerous (like tracking systems, lasers, proximity mines, etc).  If the character is invulnerable to small arms, maybe he faces some challenge from anti-tank rifles or rocket launchers (see Solo in Weapon, for example).


7.1. If the character has too many powers, some can be deleted.  If the character has too many powers to challenge easily, removing some powers may be the easiest fix.


8.  The character’s secondary abilities are limited in some way.  For example, maybe the character can run incredibly fast, but can only safely turn or maneuver at a much lower speed and perhaps it takes him a while to deaccelerate without causing so much friction that he sets himself on fire.


8.1. Conditions that frequently exist in combat make it harder for the character to use his powers.  For example:

  • A character’s powers may require concentration, particularly if he’s a psychic or fights at a distance.  It’s pretty hard to aim when cars are getting thrown around and people are screaming.
  • A character’s powers (or some of his abilities) may require preparation time and/or a charging time. If the character is building a doomsday device, rushing could have Awesome Consequences.
  • The character responds poorly to stress.
  • The character is notably sensitive to environmental conditions (like sound) and/or needs to have something closeby before his powers can do anything.  The ability to control water might not be so useful in the desert.
  • The character is not very tough and has to be careful to stay out of the line of fire.
  • The character’s powers create a major risk for civilians.


9. The character is reluctant to use his powers.  
  • It may be hard to turn the powers off.
  • He lacks control over them.
  • The powers cause an undesirable personality shift (e.g. the Hulk).
  • At some points, it might be hard for the character to use his superpowers without endangering his secret identity.
  • The superpowers may cause long-term damage to health or sanity.
  • The character’s superpowers have undesirable side-effects.  For example, Frodo couldn’t use the One Ring without alerting major enemies to his presence and corrupting himself.  Alternately, Angel Summoner’s ability to summon a horde of celestial superbeings is so much more badass than the BMX Bandit’s expert biking skills that Angel Summoner doesn’t want to embarrass his partner.


10.  The character has some reason to rely on relatively weak powers rather than going for the big guns all of the time.  
  • More dangerous abilities (magic, technology, whatever) might be less reliable and have higher costs.  For example, in Bitter Seeds, the demonic spirits that powered sorcery demanded a higher price in exchange for more complex spells.
  • Acquiring the expertise/resources to do something epic might be harder.  For example, you probably couldn’t make a laser big enough to kill Godzilla with just vinegar and baking soda.  What does the protagonist have to do to locate and acquire the necessary resources?  If the protagonist needs Dr. Doom’s help to make a death-ray, what does Dr. Doom demand in return and how does the hero know that Doom isn’t secretly setting him up to blow up with Godzilla?
  • Some capabilities may come at the expense of other capabilities.  For example, maybe a hero in a powersuit has to choose between jump-jets that can allow him to fly and the weapons, armor and/or other equipment that could have been used in that space.  Alternately, there’s not enough time to study every form of arcane destruction, so wizards might have to choose between evocation, necromancy and Power Word: Decapitate, not to mention that worthless healing nonsense.  Maybe your super-scientist isn’t a master at every branch of science and focuses on just a few.


11. As a last resort, maybe the character has a particular vulnerability.  For example, some versions of the Martian Manhunter have been vulnerable to fire and everybody knows that bullets are my only weakness.  Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a counterintuitive vulnerability like Kryptonite, the color yellow or marshmallow fluff unless you’re going for a goofy and/or really old-school feel.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect”

  1. Mynaon 13 Sep 2011 at 3:03 am

    I love all these ideas. : ) The idea that it’s hard to turn the powers off, I really like that one actually, and it could have repercussions for the character outside of combat situations.


  2. ekimmakon 14 Sep 2011 at 2:43 am

    Maybe, but I wouldn’t recommend touching it. Saying their venom hurts is an understatement.

  3. Mynaon 14 Sep 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Platypus has venom? o-o That’s like… half mammal half amphibian half duck half snake…

  4. B. McKenzieon 14 Sep 2011 at 3:32 pm

    They’re the worst of all worlds. And their poison is “excruciatingly painful,” according to The Source of All Knowledge.

  5. Chihuahua0on 17 Sep 2011 at 4:53 pm

    The Platypus is really a “Force of Nature”.

    I notice a decrease of articles lately. I’m betting being a teacher cut down on blog time?

  6. Danion 17 Sep 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Shhh… be quiet. The next article might be an essay we have to write and turn in. Out of curiosity, B.Mac, what do you teach? There are four or five teachers with the same name. None of them teach Superhero 101…

  7. B. McKenzieon 18 Sep 2011 at 8:19 am

    I’m a tutor right now (~45 students per week in groups of 3) and I start teaching ESL in Korea in February. After a year of that, I’d like to be teaching history in high school.

  8. Danion 18 Sep 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Lmao. You’re my exact target demographic. Anyway, teaching in Korea is fun (never did it, heard from others) but pay close attention to that paycheck. One of my friends went to teach over there English and the kids would talk in Korean about him. So he started talking with his friend over there in French nonsense like “The sky is blue“ but would add a kid’s name every once in a while. After a week of this, the kids stopped talking about them in Korean. You’ll have fun.

  9. Kaylaon 22 Sep 2011 at 1:15 am

    Ha! I know for sure that Ryan Reynolds has more than likely had his ring confiscated, perhaps for good!

  10. B. McKenzieon 22 Sep 2011 at 9:36 am

    My biology course was disavowed by the College Board because of the demonic experiments we performed on squids. Thankfully, though, no platypi or Green Lantern movies were involved.

  11. H. Lamberton 28 May 2013 at 4:18 am

    Would this be a good limitation

    My character has super strength and invulnerability but the angrier he gets the stronger he gets, and if he isn’t mad his strength gets lowered to only being a limited amount stronger

  12. B. McKenzieon 28 May 2013 at 5:07 am

    H. Lambert, it reminds me of The Hulk. I’d recommend varying the powers and ideally using an unusual origin (if you aren’t already doing so).

  13. H. Lamberton 28 May 2013 at 11:40 pm

    What do you mean by varying his power. His origin is a very corrupt, rich company tests bio weapons on a school after hours but my main character and four other kids are in the detention room and they get infected.

  14. Squatchyon 31 Dec 2013 at 2:00 pm

    @B. McKenzie

    I was wondering if you could make a few articles on making superheroes in the film industry. I don’t mean editing or cameras, but I mean thing like story arcs, descriptions, and other things that make a movie or series great. eg: Avengers, First Class, etc.

  15. B. McKenzieon 31 Dec 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Squatchy, I’ve written a book for superhero screenwriters. (Now available on Kindles, PCs/Macs, and tablets).

  16. Squatchyon 31 Dec 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks B. Mac

  17. Jason Mondayon 01 Feb 2014 at 9:32 pm

    I have a question for anyone willing to give some input, but first, a short backstory:

    In my universe, superpowered humans get their abilities if they happen to be part of population that “activates” at some point normally after age 18, but sometimes before. Their abilities are known as activations.

    My question is this:

    I don’t want a character to be overpowered and too difficult to challenge, forcing me to contort the story too much out of belief or leading down a lame path. I have a character whom I’ve given the ability of activation absorption, where he can permanently retain others’ abilities if he is able to make skin contact and concentrate long enough (so he can’t just snatch one while punching them, or something quick like that). Likewise, other superhumans have the ability to resist if they know what he’s doing. Well, he’s a good guy and I was thinking of limiting him (and his number of abilities at the opening of the story) by making him paranoid of taking more abilities for fear of not being able to control them properly. He can’t get rid of abilities after he takes them, so he just keeps his hands to himself for the most part, having already taken about five or so. Does this sound workable, or does it still sound like a hard-to-challenge path I’m going down?

    One other thing, of the five abilities he has, one of them is Omnilingualism and another is never having to sleep. This was because I needed him to know what his activation was by using it a few times in the past, but I didn’t want him to have five super-powerful abilities.

    I appreciate anyone’s input!

  18. B. McKenzieon 01 Feb 2014 at 9:37 pm

    “I don’t want a character to be overpowered and too difficult to challenge, forcing me to contort the story too much out of belief or leading down a lame path. I have a character whom I’ve given the ability of activation absorption… He can’t get rid of abilities after he takes them…” I’d strongly recommend placing some sort of limitation on how many powers he has access to (e.g. he “forgets” the power after a certain amount of time or acquiring another power causes him to lose the first). Otherwise, I fear he would be extremely hard to challenge.

  19. AlucardZainon 03 Feb 2014 at 9:25 am

    Might need help showing my heroines powers having a dramatic effect. Like, how do I show her losing her mind (insane) whenever shes in a fight. Mind you, she is a feral feline type heroine, so I don’t know how to show it.

  20. lcslimon 04 Feb 2014 at 3:29 am

    AlucardZain: “How do I show her losing her mind whenever she’s in a fight?”

    There are ways you can show it.

    The main thought I had when I saw this was that you can make her go overboard in a fight. Like, instead of just trying to stop the villain, she full out beats the crap out of them and nearly kills them. Maybe, she does kill them? And she will have to live with that on her mind?

    Or, you could have her feral instincts kick in and she fights more like a animal hunting for food. Like, she bites them and claws them. Something like that.

    Hope one of these ideas helps 🙂

  21. SuperGameLordon 24 Jun 2014 at 8:16 am

    Hi everyone. I need to put a few limitations on my Super Speeding character. He has super speed and most attributes that come with it (speed swimming, healing factor, etc.) but usually, speed is connected to some sort of electricity so i decided to give him electrokinesis (the manipulation of electricity) too. My current limitations is that water messes with his electricity, he needs to absorb electricity regularly and his main villain van control velocity and slow him down (but only to human standards). I need a couple more things for side villains to make my fights longer and more interesting.

  22. B. McKenzieon 24 Jun 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Hello, SGL. If this is a novel, I’d recommend cutting the super-speed because I think that it would tend to short-circuit your fight scenes (e.g. fights may resolve too quickly to actually build up the readers’ interest and the character can flee easily enough from a losing fight that it may be hard to make readers wonder if he’s actually in any danger and it sounds like it’d be hard to use side-characters against him). Alternately, perhaps cutting the super-healing (or severely limiting it) and giving his enemies enough area-of-effect attacks that they might be able to threaten him even if they have no idea where he’ll be at any particular second and/or reflexes crazy enough that they might be able to fight back even if they’re not extraordinarily fast themselves. Alternately, there are some other powers that could be used to reduce a character’s speed (e.g. I’d imagine that telekinesis and mental/psychic attacks would be effective).

    Also, it’s fairly uncommon for speedy characters to have the ability to control electricity, so I don’t think you’re under any pressure there. If you’re finding it hard to challenge the character enough to write interesting fight scenes, I think cutting either (especially the speed) would make sense.

  23. […] a handy list of ways to limit your hero’s power in a 2011 post on Superhero Nation called How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect. B. McKenzie writes that your hero’s powers may variously be unavailable, lacking precision […]

  24. LoudNon 02 Aug 2014 at 7:13 pm

    One of my heroes has the power to copy other mutants’ powers by skin to skin contact, but I have limited this by making it so that he can only copy one tenth of another superhero’s powers, and the powers do not stack. What do you think?

  25. Alaris Moonon 04 Aug 2014 at 12:32 am

    My main character’s power is hemomancy, you know, blood bending and that stuff. How would I turn that into a flaw?

  26. LoudNon 04 Aug 2014 at 8:07 pm

    It could have some great flaw or be incredibly dangerous to the user/target. Also you may need a sample of the target’s blood to use it.

  27. Alyssa Rhydeon 04 Aug 2014 at 8:46 pm

    My main hero is a technopath and a telekinetic but is prone to the ocassional mood swing or two. I’m having problems trying to turn these factors into a flaw for him, any ideas?

  28. Flame dudeon 31 May 2015 at 6:54 pm

    I’m trying to write a narrative about a group of boy’s who get pushed into some nuclear waste on a field trip to a nuclear power plant and get super powers and stop their arch enemy Dr Dred who comes up with ideas like cloning them or going head to head or just hire some pone to do it for him so he can invent something else to destroy the dudes.
    The team is che aka flame dude, Nicolas aka shark dude, James aka demon dude, jarod aka laser dude, Lachlan aka will-o-wisp dude, and finally Damien aka crystal dude.

  29. Snake_Kobayashion 09 Sep 2015 at 3:39 pm

    I know I’m extremely late to this particular party, but I’m starting my reading with articles that definitely pique my interest.

    I sincerely hope it’s not just me out there, but giving a character’s powers limits just always seemed…sensible. Several of my characters for example, have an array of psychic disciplines, but they can only excel in one, and more troublesome activities like mind-reading are so difficult AND such a crapshoot anyway, it’s not usually worth the bother of even trying.

    Some may still find them a bit Sue-ish (Hate that term), but I find this goes a fair amount towards making them seem more realistic.

    And in case you were wondering, the disciplines tend to be telepathy, teleportation and other similarly non-combat oriented abilities. I’d say more but my writing area isn’t exactly superheroes so this may not be the place for it.

    Also, before I forget, killer site! It’s proving to be quite useful.

  30. Some British Nerdon 08 Jun 2020 at 9:46 am

    Regarding #9, what if a character doesn’t want to use their powers because the last time they did they accidentally killed someone?

  31. Some British Nerdon 08 Jun 2020 at 10:32 am

    To clarify, I meant that as a question of whether or not it’s a good idea.

  32. BMon 09 Jun 2020 at 6:22 pm

    “Regarding #9, what if a character doesn’t want to use their powers because the last time they did they accidentally killed someone?”

    As long as the character otherwise makes good use of their time/space, I don’t think it’d be a problem. Perhaps the character has some capabilities they feel like they can use safely (e.g. most of Dr. Strange’s abilities can be used normally, but the Time Stone is unusually high-risk). Or perhaps they don’t need the superpowers to contribute, like Bruce Banner piloting a spare Stark suit when Hulking out isn’t an option.

    I’d suggest NOT making the character consider leaving the central plot, though.*

    *Any authors writing a team with forced membership, please disregard that — if you’re writing a story like Suicide Squad or Shawshank Redemption or another compulsory environment, you have all sorts of cool options with characters that don’t want to be there. In contrast, in a standard team where people can choose to walk, I think it’d be hard to handle a character that wants to leave the central plot without creating an energy drain. E.g. Peter Parker trying to pass on saving the world because it’ll take time from his vacation — I don’t think there’s any way to execute this as a net positive compared to a hero more interested in the plot.

  33. Some British Nerdon 10 Jun 2020 at 1:40 pm

    “Perhaps the character has some capabilities they feel like they can use safely, or perhaps they don’t need the superpowers to contribute”

    As well as his stealth and regular combat abilities, which he focused on developing further after he swore never to use his power again, he’s also the best detective on the team (not quite near Batman levels, but a small step up from the average). Even though using his power would be a serious benefit to the team in some situations- something he’s called out on a few times- he’s still more than useful enough to justify keeping him on the team without it.

    “I’d suggest NOT making the character consider leaving the central plot, though.”

    To me at least, it wouldn’t make any sense that any of the team would consider walking away, even when they’re in over their heads. Since they all decided to become superheroes, I think it only makes sense that they wouldn’t just up and leave when stuff got a bit tough or they decided to stop using their power.

  34. B. McKenzieon 10 Jun 2020 at 3:22 pm

    SBN, that sounds workable. Good luck!

    To any maniac trying to prove that a low-interest superhero is doable in a voluntary setting, I’d suggest going very unconventional on how character and plot are structured. The weak hold of the plot over the character theoretically might not be a huge issue if the story is unusually character heavy. I’d feel more optimistic about someone like a Deadpool or, outside of superheroes, a Spider Jerusalem (where the character’s distinctiveness is more memorable than the plot itself) than a more conventional setup like Spider-Man.

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