I am aware that many books and comics have this problem. The hero defeats someone and then the next bad guy has to be tougher so that there is suspense and the hero has to grow stronger in order to defeat that bad guys.

While I believe spectacle creep itself is an issue I don't really have a problem with villains growing more dangerous. My main problem lies in the fact that I want my hero to be an underdog. Someone who tries despite there being people more equipped for the task compared to her simply because the strong don't care about what threatens the weak.

What I wish to learn is how can I keep my hero in a level that won't make her be considered powerful whether it be via readers or via people she attempts to protect.


3 Answers 3


Are you trying to write FANTASY or LITERATURE?

Superheroes are a power fantasy where the reader vicariously experiences being the Awesome Guy. For Awesome Guy to be perpetually awesome, he will always be winning and leveling up. Forever.

Consider another archetype from another kind of fantasy, the Pornstar. She is always ready for more, never satiated, never tired. If you stopped to think about what motivates her – which you don't – she must be having a disappointing experience with all that sexual activity because she is just never satisfied. You can line up a gymnasium of volunteers, or they can come in orgy groups and kinky flavors (even repulsive flavors), but they cannot defeat her. She is never finished. She will always be horny and leveling up. Forever.

These characters are "iconic". They stay in one place while the plot and other characters flow past them, like a river. James Bond is always James Bond, a vicarious ego-projection of the Awesome Guy fantasy. The villains and the babes cycle through, but James Bond is never defeated, he just keeps winning and leveling up.

Fantasies don't need to make sense, and they don't need to be explained. The reader can "drop in" on the character at any point and experience the fantasy. You have all the freedom to ignore gravity, physics, motivation, economics, consequences, and muscle soreness. I'm not trying to sound harsh, fantasies are healthy and fun, but they are more like an emotion, or an adrenaline rush, than "literature".

Literature has a message that outlasts the narrative.

These are broad definitions of "fantasy" and "literature", but consider them two ends of a narrative spectrum. Where fantasy is escapist and consumable (if not disposable), literature is grounded with realistic characters who face consequences of their actions. Fantasy is consumed like potato chips, literature is digested slowly after the meal. Literature needs to survive fridge logic while the reader processes a more complex experience.

Having a message subverts the fantasy. If there are consequences to character actions, and protagonists develop and learn and change, or suffer by their hubris, there is inevitably a message that lingers after the adventure is over.

In Greek mythology, Icarus gets to experience the fantasy of flight, but he flies too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he dies. The parable entices with a power fantasy, but ends with a message: "Don't get cocky, Flyboy." Notice that Icarus does not come back with a try/fail cycle until he "beats the sun". Icarus dies, the end. Actual consequence = gravitas. If Icarus figured out how to trick the sun so he could fly higher, the story would lose any meaningful message – it would just be a fairytale.

You can "dial in" levels of fantasy and literature, but consider how literature's message tends to be a wet blanket on the fantasy, while fantasy's (cough) indulgences require suspension of disbelief (if not complete rejection of reality). These two elements counter each other – while they can co-exist in the same story, ultimately it leans one-way or the other. A story can have fantastical elements and still convey a message, but too much of one spoils the other.

Going back to the pornstar analogy, when the main character evolves and grows from their experience, it stops being pornography. We can split hairs over terms like "erotic fiction", but once the character has an arc and a message or meaningful consequences appear, it's more than just a basic sex-fantasy. Even the 50 Shades trilogy rises above pornography by giving Christian Grey a character arc (too bad about Anastasia but she's not the main character). It's not deep literature, but most people know the difference between erotic fiction and fantasy porn when they see it.

Think about whether you ultimately want a fantasy about a superhero who is perpetually leveling up, or literature where the hero sacrifices and changes to convey a message that can outlast the narrative.


Clever - with light super powers

I'm not an avid comic book reader, and I'm sure Spiderman has had his moments of power creep. But he is who I imagine you're aiming for. Obviously, to keep it interesting, your hero has to face (and defeat!) enemies who are more powerful. That's fine. Have them still be, theoretically, more powerful than him (or her), and be defeated anyway, because of the tenacity and outside-the-box thinking of your character.

The clever, tenacious character (with light super powers) can continue to be tenacious, and to come up with clever solutions, to defeat any number of varied and interesting villains, all without ever becoming significantly more powerful over time.

Sure, if it's some martial arts adventure and the character has to learn a new skill and trick every time, you have to either keep ramping up the power level or justifying last week's new move a one-off. But clever solutions to specific dilemmas are by definition specific to the problem at hand. Albeit, they're harder to write, because you can't have your character come up with any solution that you couldn't. (In fact, you have to come up with each new and different interesting problem, too!)


Comic books solve this problem by making their superheroes more or less equally strong, or by making the antagonist stronger. In the first case, the two contestants will only pause in their fight from the end of one issue until the antagonists returns in a later installment of the series (e.g. Batman vs Joker), while in the second case the antagonists stops fighting because of some insight he has gained (e.g. Silver Surfer vs Galactus).

The latter case also give us some insight into how this is commonly resolved in novels. Often in novels the antagonist is stronger than the hero, and

the hero wins by being morally right

or if you want, the antagonist is overcome not by the hero but consumed by their own evil.

How you play this will depend on your story. Often it happens quite literally: The evil sorcerer has amassed so much evil power, that it drags him down into hell. But it can also be a philosophical argument that gives the antagonist an insight that will change their course.

The other option is to

let the hero lose the fight and learn something about themselves from that.

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