Today, I’m going to bring you through a few examples of how simple design elements can completely change how your character can be viewed by your readers. Before we can start on character design, we need to define overpowered in media, for our purposes, overpowered means anyone with the ability to solve any problem with relative ease.
Let’s start with our first example, Izuku Midoriya (Deku) from My Hero Academia. Deku’s world is one where humanity has evolved rapidly, gaining abilities called Quirks, giving people powers such as generating ice, telekinesis and super strength. Deku was born without a Quirk and was bullied for it until he was gifted a power by the number one hero, All Might.
Now with our second example, John Doe (I’m not kidding) from unOrdinary. Similarly to Deku, in Johns world, near everyone has powers. However it is a much more cynical and discriminatory world with powers being rated on a scale of 1 to 10 and different social statuses related to them.
Image: WEBTOON (Chelsey Han)
Deku and John both live in somewhat similar worlds with similar power systems, but their rise to power and, subsequently, their underpowered stages are entirely different. John started as powerless and refused to use or even acknowledge his powers for a long time (until chapter 55), while Deku gained his powers by episode 2. Both of our characters rise to the top, but how they did it and gained control of their power was near opposite. Deku rose to the top of all the heroes because of his pure strength and unwillingness to sit aside, he gained control of his power via training. John rose to power through a calculated uphill battle against the system that oppressed him. John gained control of his powers in a battle of PTSD and acceptance of himself and that he is no longer who he once was
Onto some issues I have with Deku’s portrayal. Writing an overpowered character means they must have some severe disadvantages, so they don’t become a Mary Sue. However Deku has none of these disadvantages except for the fact that his Quirk is so strong that sometimes it breaks his bones (this issue is negated by the second season). Deku has some other weaknesses, but they are very minor such as a bit of a nerd, rambling a lot and used to be bullied by a classmate. These disadvantages are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
In a complete opposite scenario, John is anything but a Mary Sue. John’s power is that to copy other abilities used near of him, and this means that he isn’t strong on his own, he needs other people to be strong. John’s ability is very overpowered, but he ends up holding it back due to his past experiences causing him to have great conflict about his own ability. John felt ashamed about using his power to the point where he hid the fact that he had powers from the whole school, allowing himself to be beat up every single day instead of showing his true self. John can’t be called a Mary Sue, as he has just about all the cards stacked against him.
I personally believe that John is a more well-written character as he has struggles, and his path is anything but a straightforward one. While I say that I prefer John I don’t think that My Hero Academia is a bad show, in fact, these are both amazing shows with ups and downs.
A special thanks to Johnny from the Webtoon Support Team for replying to my emails and the unOrdinary fandom wiki for the great info.