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I'm writing this fantasy story with the MC slowly transforming into a non-human being. Which makes him invulnerable... Or at least quite resistant. The problem is that I'm still not fully sure which the limitations should be.

  • Hard to kill, with some weak point, like your typical monster (vampires with a stake in their hearts, werewolves with silver bullets, etc.)
  • Or immortal with exceptions. Think Highlander, for example. So he can only be killed by someone like him (the antagonist).

Also, I planned it so the MC doesn't discover all of this until around halfway through the story, or maybe even later. And I wondered, would it demerit his previous victories if it was suddenly implied he was beyond a regular human at that point without fully knowing it? Would it be enough if I made it obvious from the start that there was something off with him?

In any case, my worry is: How should I tread the story to not make it boring for the readers because of the MC being maybe impossible to kill?

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    You could look for some inspirations in stories about Superman. He is a character with enormous physical abilities, and yet writers manage to come up with interesting stories around him. For over 80 years and counting. – Philipp Feb 17 at 11:27
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    Also One-Punch Man. The hero can literally kill anybody in one punch but the story is still super entertaining – Fabich Feb 17 at 16:43
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    One way to make a story about an unkillable character interesting is make it about his personal life instead of about violence and danger. If you can write a good and entertaining romance, or drama, or comedy about everyday life without violence, then it won't matter if the protagonist is unkillable. Invulnerability only removes suspense from stories with violence. – M. A. Golding Feb 17 at 17:20
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    Does the character have any other powers beyond near-invincibility? Rather than a Superman (or, say, Wolverine as a less overpowered but still powered example), you could go the Unbreakable route. Bruce Willis' character isn't any stronger or faster than a normal guy, he just can't be hurt (though he does have a critical weakness, just like Superman, albeit water is far more common than Kryptonite). In both cases, the real tension often comes from the danger to people he cares about. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 17 at 19:09
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    Note that even unkillable characters can be imprisoned or entombed for very long times. – RBarryYoung Feb 18 at 17:25

10 Answers 10

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When the main character is physically invulnerable, then that gives you an opportunity to highlight their emotional vulnerability.

  • Address how his newfound superpowers affect his relationships with other characters.
  • Don't threaten the main character, threaten the characters who are dear to him.
  • Don't threaten the main character with physical injuries, threaten him with emotional injuries. For example, someone he loves becomes an antagonist, and your protagonist has to make a decision just how far he is willing to go to stop them.
  • Confront the character with moral choices regarding how and for what goals he should use his superpowers. Are the "good guys" really all good? Must the "bad guys" really be stopped at any cost?
  • Confront the character with problems which can not be solved with physical combat. This allows you to give your character more depth by showing that they can (or can't) succeed at challenges which don't involve beating people up.
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    As regards your first point, Charles Stross's handling in The Laundry Files of Bob is interesting. Without too many spoilers, Bob becomes the host for a supernatural entity. His unreliable narration shows that he still thinks he's human, but the reaction of other characters shows he really isn't. He separates from his wife because he can't be sure he won't accidentally kill her in the night; and by the latest book he's trying to avoid confrontations because he could kill most of London if he lets his concentration slip. There's a deep personal cost to him as he levels up. – Graham Feb 17 at 22:24
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    Note that the vulnerable aspects of the main character don't have to be people. Surely this character has some goals, like finding a way to stop or reverse the transformation. Disruptions to that goal are also potential targets. – David Starkey Feb 18 at 19:27
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Unable to be killed is not the same thing as unable to be defeated.

Being captured, wrapped in chains, sealed in a box filled with concrete and dropped in the ocean may not kill the protagonist, but it should "defeat" him for at least some period of time.

Also threats to others may also defeat him. A missile strike may not hurt the protagonist at ground zero, but anyone else in the area is toast.

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    Very much this. I remember a rather good short story on this subject. The vampire protagonist is trapped, about to be imprisoned for centuries at least, and has to kill and eat his (human) girlfriend to hibernate for that long. Outliving your opponents whilst locked in a vault is not winning. – Graham Feb 17 at 22:16
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    Something very much like your second paragraph happened in the Netflix film "The Old Guard". – John Coleman Feb 18 at 13:38
  • @Graham. Technically it's a scenario where both sides win. The one side does not get to live to see the immortal get out, but the immortal gets to get out and live another day. – Mad Physicist Feb 18 at 17:46
  • Torchwood did this well (and still does in audio dramas / books). Generally no "kryptonite" equivalent, and the immortal character didn't have offensive superpowers, just defensive: ageless, and healing even from death (a bit like Wolverine / Deadpool, but slower and without the risk of fully dying). IIRC he's lived the age of the universe (or the Earth?) at least once, having been sent back in time buried in concrete. – Peter Cordes Feb 19 at 6:28
  • @Peter Cordes No, the concrete burial incident and the back in time burial incident were two seperate events. – Matthew Wells Feb 19 at 12:00
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Over the years I've noticed that, in media with nigh-invulnerable protagonists, battles tend to follow a basic formula:

  1. A villain shows up somewhere and starts causing mayhem
  2. A weaker (but still powerful) character tries to stop them and gets their ass kicked
  3. The protagonist shows up, rescues the weaker character, and defeats the villain

The initial encounter between the villain and the weaker character is the key to this formula. If your protagonist beats every villain they meet without receiving so much as a scratch, it's hard for the reader to perceive those villains as credible threats, and your fights quickly lose all tension because the winner is obvious from the start.

However, if that villain has already defeated someone the reader knows is powerful, that firmly establishes the villain's own power level, and creates tension - can the protagonist get there in time to save the weaker character before the villain finishes them off?

You've already mentioned having a "considerably more vulnerable" secondary protagonist, who could easily fill the role of "weaker character who gets beaten up to establish the villain's power". However, for him to fill that role effectively, you need establish his power level. Give him victories, give him times where he actually can hold his own, introduce other characters who can get beaten up by villains in his place. Make certain that your readers won't perceive him as a weak and useless character who's there just to get beaten up.

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    TVTropes calls that The Worf Effect. – Philipp Feb 17 at 14:57
  • "If your protagonist beats every villain they meet without receiving so much as a scratch, it's hard for the reader to perceive those villains as credible threats" However, this is what The Matrix sequels did. From the get go (after the events of the first movie), Neo can defeat the agents without breaking a sweat, but that doesn't invalidate the villainous nature of the agents, it simply shifts the focus towards other things (Smith freelancing, the agents' real world machine counterparts, ...) – Flater Feb 19 at 12:56
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There are plenty of good alternatives out for the life of death theme. Here are a few of those alternatives:

  • Use the weaker characters
    The main character will not be the only character in the book. You could have the villains capture the unkillable character's family and hold them hostage and under the threat of death. Now, your character has a goal and motivation to do it. This will keep the story as high-stakes.

  • Life or death isn't the only motivation out there
    The villain is a big example of this. Even if the mc is unkillable, they won't be able to resist pain, or never be imprisoned. Also, the mc could have a motivation to defeat the villain, but the villain could consist of an entity equal in power - thus turning the tables. This would also create entertainment.

  • Internal struggle
    Maybe the mc is having family issues, or he can't choose what side to fight on, or his powers are slowly draining. Whatever it is, make it dramatic.

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An invulnerable character who can't be killed is not necessarily an invincible character who always wins.

Suppose there was a character with the invulnerability of Superman but no other powers, no super strength, no X-ray vision, no flight, no superbreath, nothing except they couldn't be killed.

Suppose the villain call be killed but has a superpower like super strength, flight, invisibility, magic, laser vision, super breath, etc. The villain might win all their fights. But the protagonist could "take a licking and keep on ticking", and recover for each defeat and try to defeat the villain the next time the villain shows up and tries to commit a crime.

And what if the villain's goal might be to get the supplies they need to summon Cthulhu to take over the world and exterminate humanity, or build and use a doomsday weapon, or merely to attack and kill the protagonist's friends and family?

If the protagonist can't be killed permanently, but cares about the well being of a few people, or the well being of everyone in the world, and fights a villian with much greater offensive powers than the protagonists has, it will be an uphill battle for the protagonist to find a way to defeat the villian. And if the stakes are high enough, the protagonist will be desperate to defeat the villian and stop their evil plan.

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The challenge a character is seeking to overcome should not be the thing that is easy for them to achieve.

If a protagonist is bulletproof, and has no problems beyond people shooting at him, then there is very little challenge or struggle involved.

Overpowered characters are interesting either because they have an even more overpowered opponent, or because their powers do not trivialise their specific problems.

For example, a character could be invincible in combat but:

  • Struggling to protect civilians and rescue hostages, and haunted by guilt over past failures.
  • Dealing with tough moral dilemmas.
  • Very shy, desperate not to stand out.
  • Seeking a worthy opponent and being endlessly disappointed.
  • Battling loneliness and depression.
  • Longing for a glorious death.
  • A pacifist.
  • Blundering around, unsure who or where the enemy is.
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How does what you want to say relate to the invulnerability of the MC? Are you writing an adventure story (invulnerability would reduce the stakes, but raise some possibilities)? A story about depression or alienation (all of the MC's friends die and MC becomes lonely)? Mystery (you mentioned the MC isn't sure about their own vulnerability)?

Not every story has to say something, but whether you write this story for yourself or others, you should at least know which it is and what you want to say (or not). Conflict drives stories. How do you want your MC's invulnerability to impact these conflicts?

would it demerit his previous victories if it was suddenly implied he was beyond a regular human at that point without fully knowing it?

Yes and there could be conflict worthy of consideration here.

Would it be enough if I made it obvious from the start that there was something off with him?

It's not necessary, but characters with 'something off' can be really compelling.

How should I treat the story to not make it boring for the readers because of the MC being maybe impossible to kill?

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That character must have a moment of weakness/vulnerability.

For instance, Superman is unkillable (almost). One of the greatest story of his was the one where he uses his SUPER EYE LASER. This helped him defeat this powerful foe, but at what cost? He was literally nerfed down to human level for several of hours.

This allows thrilling moments to enter the story, which makes it fun.

The only thing I would do if this was not possible is not make him the MC.

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  • Well, the story is going to have a co-protagonist, and while capable, that other character is considerably more vulnerable than him – Erin Tesden Feb 17 at 8:20
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When it comes to "entertaining" and also "nigh invulnerable", I can do no better than refer you to that paragon of paragons; that manliest of arachnids; that superest of superheroes, the mysterious blue crimefighter known only as .. The Tick!

If you do a simple internet search on "The Tick" and/or "Ben Edlund", you will find a very thorough (if somewhat off-kilter) look at one possible way to make a story entertaining with an almost unkillable main character.

Here - I'll get you started: https://tick.fandom.com/wiki/The_Tick

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You could simply look at Deadpool: nearly invulnerable, ugly, entertaining. A little bit foul-mouthed, maybe, but in a charming way. ;)

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  • Welcome to Writing Stack Exchange! Currently, your answer does not fall into community standards because it does not clearly answer the given question. Please edit your question to clarify your reasoning and to provide more detail in order to back up what you have stated. – Nai45 Feb 18 at 19:13
  • Welcome to Writing.SE! I'm afraid I have to agree with Nai45. OP may not have heard of Deadpool and may not know what's "entertaining" about his stories. Would you be able to edit your answer to explain it to them? (I also think it's worth noting that Deadpool's brand of humour is not entertaining to everyone.) – F1Krazy Feb 18 at 19:19

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