I hate Jean Grey.
If you’re not an X-Men fan, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Jean Grey, aka “The Dark Phoenix”, is a mutant with extremely powerful telekinetic and telepathic abilities. If you saw the 2019 film Dark Phoenix starring Sophie Turner, you may remember Jean Grey as that-teen-who-stepped-out-into-space-without-a-helmet-and-used-all-her-superpowers-and-still-survived-because-she’s-Jean-Grey. You only need to watch the movie for 10 minutes to know how the whole thing is going to play out.
Characters like this frustrate me to no end.
I mean… what’s the point? Why have Beast and Cyclops and Charles Xavier and Mystique and all the rest when Jean Grey can basically blow up the world with her mind when someone makes her coffee order wrong at Starbucks? You immediately know that any trouble she’s going to get into, she’ll get out of because she’s super powerful, and the only way she’s going to die is if she sacrifices herself.
Jean Grey is a really good example of an overpowered character, but she’s not the only one. Take Simon Snow from Carry On or Kvothe from The Name of the Wind. There is a way to do these characters well so that it doesn’t feel like they’re overriding everything and making the book pointless. I genuinely loved The Name of the Wind, but by the end of The Wise Man’s Fear you better believe I was wanting something bad to happen to Kvothe to take him down a notch because that fool makes all the worst decisions and has the best luck and after a while it was just frustrating to me as a reader.
Creators like to play around with these characters in different ways, and I can see why they’re fun protagonists because they’re not limited. I think that a lot of readers (or viewers) look to see relatable traits in protagonists, and as a reader, it’s exasperating when a character gets all the lucky breaks. We don’t get that in real life, that’s for sure.
So how do writers create overpowered character well, without building a pretentious, undeserving know-it-all sort of character that makes readers actually root against them? I think anime may have an answer.
Overpowered characters is a trope that anime has been dealing with for a long time. And, yeah, there are some crazy overpowered-for-no-reason characters in anime, too. But we’re starting to see some branches where they’re a little less…exasperating? And it’s something I don’t mind seeing in book and movies, because the characters are more dynamic than emotionally-driven destruction machines. Also, the writers seem to see when the power is a problem, not a boon.
Miroku from Inuyasha is a good example of where an overpowered character was created and the writers went “oh crap, this is messing with the plot”.
This is not me picking on Miroku. He’s far and away my favorite character in that series, despite his kazaana. But if you’re going to have an overpowered character, you either need to accept that they are going to override everything and always win (which is, in my opinion, insufferable) or you have to stop them from being all-powerful.
Fortunately, Miroku was not a power-hungry character. Even though his wind tunnel would supposedly grow and eventually consume him if he used it (and he only used it when it was important), the writers needed to build in the demon bees that poisoned him upon being consumed in order to cap the use of his abilities. I really appreciate that the writers recognized this problem and kept the character both humble and added external elements to keep him from … essentially taking over the show by being too powerful.
Okay, so let’s talk Saitama from One Punch Man. You want an overpowered character, and I’m guessing he’s one of the first who comes to mind – him, or Goku from Dragon Ball. I actually think Saitama works an overpowered character because his personality is a great foil to his abilities. Basically, he’s laid back and has no interest in showing off his power. A lot of overpowered characters go around being overpowered all over the place and it’s exhausting. Saitama is the opposite of this. It’s refreshing to find an overpowered superhero who is, frankly, too bored to use his powers most the time. Give me an overpowered hero facing a constant existential crisis any day.
While anime has gotten really good at reining in its powerful characters… I’m not seeing that in books or movies. While I hesitate to call those characters “Mary Sues” since not necessarily everyone loves them in the books alongside them being overpowered… I still, personally, think they’re a problem. And they’re very present in fantasy and science fiction. They often lead to unsatisfying growth arcs (I deeply dislike characters who get all the abilities for none of the work) and unsatisfying endings.
But… maybe it’s just me? Overpowered characters are certainly common enough, so maybe everyone else loves them? Still – I love to see those characters brought down to size a little bit. Winning isn’t easy for me, so why should it be easy for them? Maybe I’m just bitter! ?
Are you a fan of overpowered characters? Who are your favorites? Least favorites? Let me know in the comments!