I wrote an article covering untouchable characters in general and why they are damaging to the medium, and diversity, but here I wanted to talk more specifically about the problem of main characters whose stories have no risk. No stakes. We’ve all see them. The characters that are so powerful, that have no weaknesses, we just know they’ll win no matter what. How many times have you watched a show or movie and said, “They won’t kill that character, they’re too important to the story.” Let me use a couple of comic book examples, since I’m fairly fond of them.
Marvel has this issue in spades. So does DC, but I never really read DC. Anyway, due to the nature of Marvel’s business model their characters are more like assets than characters. There’s a financial reason no one ever really dies in Marvel comics. Unfortunately it creates a storytelling problem. Take Wolverine, personally my favorite Marvel character. The guy heals from anything, including being launched into the sun (yes, that happened). He comes back from anything, and even when he dies, he isn’t dead. When you read a Wolverine comic (and really any Marvel comic) you know that no matter what, that character can’t die. At the end of the day there’s no stakes. No risk. No real reason to care about whatever danger our hero is in. Ultimately it’s one of the things that drove me to other comic companies with smaller print runs.
That’s just one problem that I want to look at here. Another is a character with no weaknesses. Take a couple of recent examples, Superman and Captain Marvel (the Marvel movie version). These two have been compared a lot after the recent Captain Marvel movie. One of the big critiques is Carol Danvers is too powerful, and has no weaknesses. “But that’s no different than Superman…” Wrong. Superman has two distinct weaknesses; humanity and kryptonite. Now that’s not to say those are great weaknesses, and they get used too often because that’s all you can really do with him, but they are there. For the movie version of Captain Marvel there are none. It begs the question again, why care? Once she pummels her enemies into submission, what’s next? She flew through an armored spacecraft, killing countless people (most of whom were probably just doing their jobs like mopping the latrines and cataloging spare parts), what’s next? What could really pose a threat to Captain Marvel? Those aren’t questions you want your readers asking.
So how to handle this? Should you really kill off your main character? Well…maybe not but if you accept it as a possibility it becomes easier to make the audience believe you will. Look at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. At this point doesn’t anyone really believe any character is safe on either show (or in either book)? When did we stop saying “Oh, they won’t kill that character,” and start saying “Oh crap, they better not kill this character?” In both cases the writers have shown us that no one is safe. Even if they have a plan on who lives, it’s not an obvious one. In my first work, Wastelander, I maimed my hero right out of the gate. First scene, cut his arm right off. I didn’t have it that way to start, or threaten to do it and take it back. Our big bad warrior hero starts his journey almost losing a fight, and definitely losing a limb. I did that so that I knew, and the reader would know, that I wasn’t pulling any punches. I wanted to make sure that my readers would feel like Dez was in real danger the entire time.
This goes hand in hand with making sure your hero isn’t too powerful. The warrior who never loses a fight doesn’t make a good story. We all know the end, in most cases the hero eventually wins, but it’s the journey that matters. No one cares if the hero walks right to the main villain and knocks him out in one punch. This is especially true when dealing with magic and powers. You have to give your characters a weakness. There has to be a way for them to lose, even if they don’t. But, be prepared to make them lose. Make them lose a battle or two, stumble and fall along their path. Let the reader know that you’re willing to throw everything out the window and grind your protag into the dirt if that’s what it takes. It’s not just about throwing obstacles in their path, make some of those obstacles failure itself. The way a person overcomes failure tells a lot more about their character than how they deal with success.