How To Write Powerful & Extraordinary Characters Without Being Obnoxious Or Boring

I've seen a lot of people complain that they couldn't write or roleplay a powerful or extraordinary character without receiving unfair criticism. In my own experience, most people who complained about this kind of thing were playing or framing their characters in a really ego-centered way that made the whole experience extremely unenjoyable for everyone else. The problem wasn't usually the actual character traits themselves; rather, the problem was in how the characters' creators wanted everyone else to perceive these traits, and by extension, their characters.

So if you want to use a powerful or otherwise extraordinary character, here's a list of ways to avoid these problems. (Though of course, you might still get a few people who criticize your character out of bad faith, or out of a failure to understand that what makes a trait "good" or "bad" is heavily context-dependent.)

Last revision: November 20, 2020.

Table of Contents

Emphasize what makes your character a person over what makes your character unique or special.

We all want people to notice our characters, and sometimes it's tempting to try to make them stand out by emphasizing what makes them special and different - whether it's their appearance, their powers, or their connections to other important characters. However, specialness isn't generally what endears characters to people. Instead, they usually care more about the parts that make them sympathetic, relatable, and human.

If you took away all of your character's powers, their unique or striking looks, and their important social connections, what's left? What would make this character interesting to watch or fun to be around? If you can't think of anything, then your character is pretty much all style and no substance.

If you have a well-developed character, you should be able to describe a few interesting things about them without bringing their extraordinary qualities into the picture. What are their dreams? Their deals? Their ambitions? What do they love? What are they sensitive about? What makes them vulnerable?

It also helps to write practical descriptions of your characters, rather than laundry lists of traits (EG, likes and dislikes). For more information on this, take a look at Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General).

In your writing, it's important to make sure the traits that make your character a person are allowed to shine through. Being an omnipotent being simply isn't quite as interesting nor endearing as holding tea parties for cats.

And one last thing worth mentioning: Acting like people should pay attention to your character because of their extraordinary qualities implies that ordinary people aren't worth paying attention to, which is a cruel and elitist sentiment. There's nothing wrong with being ordinary, nor in liking ordinary people.

Know where to exercise restraint.

Sometimes there's a trait that seems super fun or neat, and it's really, really tempting to give it to a character. And while it's absolutely fine to give characters traits that you find appealing and nifty, it's also important to make sure that they don't undermine or detract from an individual character's core concept or purpose, or feel totally out of place.

Something I've seen a lot of are characters with cat ears and tails for basically no reason whatsoever. For example, one superhero OC had cat ears and a tail because her father experimented on her as a teenager. You'd expect that her powers would have something to do with cats, but they didn't; they were actually completely unrelated. Additionally, her backstory had absolutely no impact on her present motives or personal views - the only reason it was there was to explain her ears and tail.

It's fine if you want your character to have cat ears and a tail, of course. But when it's so far removed from your character's core concept and purpose that it feels totally random, it's probably not the time or place for it. And this isn't to say that every unusual trait requires a 100% airtight justification, but that there does come a point where a trait is so random and irrelevant that this probably just isn't the right character to have it.

If some nifty-looking character trait catches your eye and you really want to play with it, consider giving it to another character instead. Rather than giving every trait you like to a single character, spread them out across multiple characters. You can never have too many OCs!

Give your character's talents, skills, or powers a meaningful cost somewhere.

Giving these things a cost can create challenge and conflict for your character, which can make the story more interesting. Additionally, it can make their stories more relatable and sympathetic to your audience. The cost can be anything. It might be something your character has to give up or pay upfront (whether willingly or not), undesirable consequences, unpleasant responsibilities, a lot of time or effort put into honing the power or talent, or any combination of these things. It doesn't necessarily have to be huge or dire (let alone get into grimdark territory), just proportionate. Here are some examples:

And make sure you show the cost! Let people see what your character goes through. Do they have to turn down fun things in the name of responsibility? Let us see your character do it, and show us how it makes them feel. Do they get stressed out over deadlines? Then make sure we see their frustration. Do they struggle to gain control over their powers? Then show them fumbling as they make progress.

Remember that respect, love, and friendship doesn't have to be earned through badassery or sheer strength, power, or skill.

Framing your characters' powers or skills as the main reason why other characters should like or respect them as a person is super iffy. While it might explain why they'd interact with others professionally, on its own it doesn't actually provide a substantial basis for them to become friends, let alone romantic partners. For that to happen, the characters need to have things like compatible personalities and a shared interest or two, and they're most likely going to need to spend some time having fun together outside of work.

Healthy friendships and respect aren't won by showing off or besting everyone else, but are instead forged through being a decent, caring person with healthy boundaries. That's it.

Relatedly, a lot of people also think their characters can earn other people's respect or friendship by insulting them. This is backward. In reality, you don't become friends with people by insulting them; but rather, you earn the right to playfully tease them by becoming friends. And even then, a decent person will understand and respect that there are some lines you just don't cross and that you don't jab your friends in their vulnerable spots.

Show us what makes your character average, ordinary, and just like the rest of us.

Even if your character is a superpowered genius from another dimension, take some time to figure out what makes your character no different from anyone else. Maybe they're socially awkward or have a virtually useless hobby. Maybe they like a popular TV show or recently got into a new fashion trend. Trying to make them "above it all" or whatever just marks them as a snob, which unless you're playing that for comedy, probably won't be very endearing for most people; your character will likely appeal mainly to other snobs who like to think they're better than everyone else.

Create some characters they interact with on a regular to semi-regular basis.

A lot of people really underestimate the value of giving their OCs family, friends, acquaintances, and so on. While it's not always necessary or useful in each and every case, it's still something that's generally good, as it can make a character feel more relatable, as well as more organically connected to the world around them.

Here are a few suggestions:

Unless there's an important reason to do otherwise, these people should remain important to your character throughout the story. This might be shown by having them mention a joke their friend at the coffee shop told them, or asking someone what kind of advice they should give an online friend, or mentioning that their mom has a doctor's appointment. (Check out Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story for more.)

These characters should all have varying opinions of your character - some positive, some negative, some a bit of both. Try not to make everybody's opinion of your character totally polarized, where they either completely adore or utterly hate them. Mix it up a little - give people (even the same people) reasons to feel both positively and negatively about your character. And make a few characters who, while they know your character to some degree, don't have any strong opinions either way.

Round out their personal life in other ways.

Again, this isn't always necessary or useful in each and every case, but as a general rule the more you can round out your character's personal life, the more grounded they'll feel and the more dimension they'll end up having.

Where do they live? What's their home like? What do they do at home?

Do they have a job? What is it? How do they interact with other people on the job? What kind of people do they know through work?

Who makes up their community? How do they interact with their community?

Where do they go out to have fun? What kind of entertainment venues do they like to visit? Where are their favorite places to shop?

Again, the core problem with many powerful and extraordinary characters is that their creators neglect to figure out and show us what makes them really and truly people, and instead rely mainly or even solely on their extraordinary characteristics to hold their audience's interest. The trouble with this is that eventually, the novelty of how extraordinary they are will wear off for most, and there won't be anything else to hold their interest. So the more you can develop this character as a three-dimensional person, the less likely you are to have this problem.

A few final tips.

You definitely want to avoid protagonist-centered morality. No matter how amazing or extraordinary your character is, they shouldn't be right all the time, and not everything should be about them and what they want. And remember, worlds that totally revolve around their main characters tend to be relatively boring and end up feeling small, and in the long run, harder to generate new plots and drama in.

Likewise, check the elitism. Your character's extraordinary qualities don't make them more worthy or deserving of living their dreams or calling the shots than anyone else.

And finally, it's important to make sure that no matter how powerful they are, they still face meaningful challenges and don't render other protagonists unnecessary or redundant. If the only real point of having these other characters around is to serve as your main character's audience, then the whole thing can end up feeling like a big ego-stroking exercise, and that's super annoying to engage with as an audience.

Also, you might want to take a look at:

Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Tips 'N Stuff To Create, Write, & Draw Better Female Action Heroes
Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters

Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters

Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
Basic Tips To Improve Your OCs & Fan Characters
Common Problems In Roleplaying Characters
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)

"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
Character Creation & Development Theory (Or, How To Make Characters 101!)
Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses

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