Sep 12 2011
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.