I was on a certain writing forum once. An aspiring Epic Fantasy writer asked our crowd:
“I’ve written too good a character.
She’s smart, fast, generous, and good with a sword.
She’s too resourceful to ever lose. What can I do with her?”
It attracted the typical response: don’t write her like that. She was berated for creating a one-dimensional character and stifling all potential conflicts. “Mary Sue” was typed several times. Somebody even accused her of expecting readers to pay her to pen her own wish fulfillment.
That would have been my response if she caught me on a bad day. But, I arrived lucid. I recommended she write this protagonist into situations that weren’t simply win/lose. The following is closer to what I told her than is professionally flattering.
The gremlin war machines are pouring from the coastline.
They’ve laid siege to the north and south.
Lady Kickass is within half a day’s ride from
a nunnery in the north and a mechanist outpost in the south.
She may not even make it in time to assist saving either,
but she definitely can’t do both. One will be lost.
Which does Lady Kickass choose?
Okay, I renamed her character for the author’s anonymity. But the rest stood then as it does now. Situations abound in life where the stakes aren’t 100% Victory or 100% Failure. It ranges from who you sit with at lunch to how you allocate troops in Afghanistan. You do things for multiple reasons, and only have so much time and resources to accomplish anything at all. Writers always bellyache about there being too few hours in the day. Why not make that a problem for Lady Kickass?
It’s the dilemma of writing Superman. Since college, I’ve realized I love this character. But his bulletproof morality isn’t typically best displayed in a fistfight against someone’s bulletproof immorality. It’s in the decisions he has to make and the person they make him. My favorite thing Alan Moore ever wrote was For the Man Who Has Everything, which revealed the Man of Steel doesn't dream about us, but about living somewhere that doesn’t need him all the time.
I love Superman, at the very least as an archetype. I hold other people’s disdain for him with my own disdain. There is a grotesque demand in Literature, spiraling into all genres, to write “relatable” and “realistic” characters. Too often this means viewing your audience as cretins. They are vile, unimaginative subterranean spawn, all hideous, craven, and incapable of enjoying stories about anyone scarcely above their own level in any way. Something happened in the last five, ten, hundred or thousand years that eradicated wonder and aspiration. At some point, common readers became incapable of finding inspiration in characters who had capacities beyond their own. This marketing insight would mystify Christians and Muslims, whom adore deities and mortals they deify. From Hercules to House, M.D., we know the grubby audience stereotype is at least overblown.
Most of my characters are defined by one incapacity or another. It’s how I generate fictional people. But I’d never stifle the outrageous only for being outrageous. Like most bugbears of fiction, it’s not that a highly capable character is intrinsically bad. It's that you have to earn it, make it entertaining, and generally, make it worth the reader's time. Often that’s as simple as giving Lady Kickass some consequences.