What exactly is a “broken” power in fiction? I’ve talked about this a bit when we talk about Mary Stu’s and Gary Stu’s, but I think it helps just to tackle this by itself, because sometimes, characters are thought to be “broken” due to their powers, but may have other limitations that keep them grounded as characters. Other times, a broken power can kill the fun of the story. So how do we define this?
I define it the same way I look at a Mary Sue or Gary Stu: if the universe entirely bends around the powers of the character, so much that it breaking the rules of the setting the story is taking place in, the power is (probably) broken.
I think the best examples are usually found in Isekai Anime, which launches a lot of their stories with the premise that the hero is ‘breaking’ the rules of that new world with whatever power they have.
(Not all Isekai have lead character with broken powers. Some can be very, very good. But that said, it’s a subgenre that has a very high amount of stories that feature broken powers per capita. I don’t want you to think I’m just picking these anime.)
Let’s go a bit further. Every story has to rely on the basics: plot, setting, and character. Within the setting, there usually needs to be a set of rules on how that universe works. That goes double for works that include a system of ‘magic’, even if that magic is sci-fi based. Whatever ‘empowers’ your characters in your setting, whether it’s technology, psionics, magic, alien biology, mutant powers, or divinity, for the writer, there needs to be a set of rules in place for how they work. The audience may not need to know all of them, but anything you establish needs to have parameters for how it works, and normal parameters can be pushed, ignored, or broken, and what circumstances create each condition.
Brandon Sanderson, who finished writing “The Wheel of Time” series after Robert Jordan’s passing and has quite a few books of his own under his belt, has “three laws” that I really like to bring up to help define what we’re talking about.
What Are Sanderson’s Laws Of Magic? | Brandon Sanderson
- Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this: Limitations > Powers: It isn’t what the heroes can do that is most important to who they are, but what they have trouble doing. (Or what they can’t do.)
- The third law is as follows: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Let’s look at one that follows the rules: Gene Starwind and his caster from Outlaw Star.
The series establishes that this weapon let’s people without magic powers cast magic spells. There are conditions set: finding ammo for the gun is rare already, and the more powerful the spell you try to use, the more of your life force it will end up taking to cast the spell.
We see the series stay within the limits: there is a whole episode where Gene has to find ammo for this gun, and it’s an adventure on its own. When he uses them, it nearly kills him, exactly as advertised.
To ‘break’ this power, we would have these same rules in place in the setting of how a caster is SUPPOSED to work, but then have the weapon and the hero using as many shells as they want completely consequence free, defeating every villain with ease because the caster can just crank out spells on demand.
By establishing a set of rules and telling the audience, “this is how this is supposed to work and here are the limits” but then breaking those rules so that device/magic/power doesn’t need to follow any of them, and WORSE, bypasses all the limitations those rules were supposed to put on the character or story breaks a big part of the fiction for the audience.
A great example of rule breaking: Rey using Force Lightning. It’s been established as a Dark Side power that is only accessed by the evil characters. That’s rule one being broken. Rule two being broken is that she supposedly kill Chewbacca, (a consequence) which is immediately erased not long after.
The logic of the setting had already been established under the original writer for six films on how the Force works; it’s established that using the Force takes training, and using the Dark Side of the Force requires a Dark Side master to teach the advanced techniques, and the most advanced technique we see one use is Force Lightning. For Rey to ‘just use it because she wants to’ breaks that logic completely.
But what about the power itself? How do you define the power as “broken”?
Let’s go back to Isekai.
Shin in “Wise Man’s Grandchild” lives in a world with magical rules; he constantly breaks them. He can make any spell he wants whenever he really wants to. If there is a stated limit such as, ”one enchantment per item” that no top-tier enchanter can break, he will break that limit effortlessly.
The powers that the character has force the rules of the setting to change around the character.
This isn’t something like breaking the sound barrier, where no one thought it could be done until the math, technology, and skill lined up to do it. What we have here are the laws of magic for that universe being changed by this character’s powers whenever it’s convenient for the character.
“In Another World With My Smartphone” is probably an even better example.
In a world of magic and no high technology, the protagonist dies in our world but gets to pick something to bring with him: he chooses his smartphone, and that ends up being a universe-breaking device in the new world. There is nothing the character can’t accomplish in this new world thanks to this combination.
What’s the result?
It’s a total break of Sanderson’s Second Law. Now, Sanderson will always be the first one to tell you that no law is absolute. But even if demoted to a “rule”, it’s a pretty great rule for storytelling.
The Second Law: Limitations are more important (greater) than the powers.
This is what sets up your characters to be CHALLENGED. This is why determines whether they will struggle to overcome obstacles. And this also determines if they need to grow as a character or dig into their bag of noble attributes like guts, determination, or self-sacrifice to overcome their obstacles.
Fictions with broken powers typically have a busted protagonist that is uninteresting to watch, because they are never actually challenged.
How do you avoid it?
With characters like Superman, he’s mortal, not perfect, makes mistakes, cares about things like his job and relationships where his powers don’t necessarily help him, and good Superman stories show him struggling in a human way. The rules of the setting limit what he can or can’t do with his powers, give him weaknesses, (like Kryptonite) or conflicts, (like having to keep his word and rescue someone due to a promise, even if that means he can’t rescue someone he loves, like Lois).
Saitama is ungodly powerful, but the world doesn’t just bend down for him. He struggles to get work, he’s instantly loved and respected, and actually has to learn about what it means to be a hero sometimes by the examples of the other, more fragile heroes around him.
Spider-Man’s powers, though amazing, rarely let him profit from it. In most of his stories, it SUCKS to be Spider-Man.
With Asta in Black Clover, he’s a guy with no magic in a setting where EVERYONE has magic and it’s integral to the universe. His power for magic negation would look like a busted power on the surface, but it’s written with a TON of limits. On top of that, the character is shown having to work 50 times as hard as any other character to achieve even moderate results.
These are four really good examples of characters who could have ‘broken’ powers, if the writers hadn’t done such a great job in their stories making sure that the limitations surpassed the powers. Each character struggles; it’s not a physical struggle, (like Saitama and Superman), sometimes it can be a person struggle that puts limits on the character.
“Broken Powers” usually break the laws of the setting that has been established in their fiction, and they break the setting so hard there is likely no real challenge for the person using those powers.
In the short run, it can be fun to watch someone in an Isekai, for instance, turn the setting on its head. But in the long run, it usually makes for boring characters and stories, because the person using the busted powers is never really in any actual danger, and may not have to grow or change at all to surpass their limits or overcome obstacles.