Every character in a story needs to have limits to their awesomeness. Even superheroes and supervillains must have restrictions. Why? To put it quite simply, invulnerable characters (especially major characters – protagonists, antagonists, etc.) are un-relatable and, quite frankly, ridiculous.
As soon as a reader deems something a character does as too unbelievable and outrageous, they start to lose their ability to suspend their disbelief. Instead of continuing to accept certain fantastical elements of the story, they begin to read with a far more critical eye and a “ya, right” attitude.
We’ve all been there before, haven’t we? Wrapped up in a book we really like, getting lost in the plot and the excitement and then…BHAM! A character does something completely preposterous that leaves you blinking and staring at the page wondering, “Did that just happen?” Willing to believe that it’s your eyes playing tricks on you, you re-read the same lines over and over again in vain, realizing that your brain didn’t just suddenly have a meltdown. You weren’t imagining those words. What you read really was that awful!
Take this made-up story, for instance: Imagine you’re reading a book starring a female character named Bitsy. Bitsy is described as being ordinary, of average intelligence, and prefers running shoes to heels, because when she does wear heels, she’s a total walking klutz. The story is interesting, the plot thickens, and you find Bitsy to be a cute, quirky character. In fact, you laugh when she finally wears high heels for the first time and she has a klutz attack. You keep reading and the book gets really good. You’re almost at the end now, just a few more pages to go. Oh no! Bitsy is in serious trouble! How is she ever going to escape that impossible situation? BHAM! Don’t worry! Not only does non-extraordinary Bitsy manage to save the day in record time, she does it running through the woods in 10 inch heels, using a highly technical plan that suddenly came to her after she deciphered a random mathematical equation she found in a bathroom stall in a public restroom. Yay! The End. WTF?!?! Wouldn’t you feel the author ripped you off with that ending? I certainly would, because Bitsy went from being cute and ordinary to extraordinarily absurd.
The same problem happens with supernatural characters and superheroes. If you’re going to make a character have a certain super power, you need to define their limits. After all, “with great power comes great responsibility”. While any Spidey fan reading this post will recognize that line I just wrote as an awesome quote from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, its purpose here is to remind writers (myself included) that while you have great power, as you are the god of your story, you also have great responsibility to your readers to not make your characters ludicrous (unless, of course, the sole purpose of your character is to be ludicrous then, by all means, more power to you 😉 ).
Allow me to elaborate a little more about my point that superheroes need limits by using Marvel’s superhero, Spider-Man, as an example. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive (or whatever) spider and the spider’s venom gave him super-human abilities – he’s amazingly strong, he can stick to walls, etc., etc. We can suspend our disbelief and accept that Spider-Man can crawl up walls, shoot webbing from his wrists/cartridges and web-swing all over New York City. Why? Because he’s a very intelligent guy who was bitten by a magical spider. What won’t we accept? We won’t accept Spider-Man having the ability to fly. Why? Because spiders don’t fly (nope, not even magical ones). Thus, since he inherited his powers from a spider, it doesn’t make “logical” sense that he would gain an ability they don’t have. See – limits.
Even Superman, in all of his awesomeness, has his weakness to kryptonite. He also has his love for people, his farm-boy values, and his personal code of honour to keep him in line. All of this is important. These details define his character and his character limits. No one cares what happens to someone who is invincible. OK, maybe some people do, but personally, I don’t.
I like characters with flaws. What’s more, I want to know what dangers exist for characters. I want to know their restrictions, their weaknesses, what they can naturally do, and what they could do if they pushed themselves to the brink and maximized their full potential, as well as what happens to them when they overdo it. I want to know what is possible and what is not possible and use this knowledge to create one incredible story.
As we write our book, I’m discovering that having the power to create does carry a lot of responsibility. If we want our readers to suspend their disbelief, the world we create needs to have a certain level of logic that must be maintained, so that things will continue to make sense to the reader. As soon as you start bending your story’s rules of logic, the reader no longer suspends their disbelief, they just stop believing.
So, what have I learned after years of writing a fiction book? If a character was never meant to fly, make sure their feet stay firmly planted on the ground. And if you’re going to toss them off a cliff, you better be prepared to kill them or be able to justify why some awesome superhero who sprouted wings after being pecked by a radioactive bird, swoops in to save them. Otherwise….BHAM!
Thanks for reading! 🙂