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I heard that "the unstoppable force" trope is considered one of the worst tropes you can use, and you should avoid it at all cost, because there are many issues among which are the lack of stakes (outcome is predetermined), lack of character development (character doesn't have to develop), lack of conflict (no one can oppose him), lack of emotional investment (people know he can't lose, so they will lose interest) and lack of tension and suspense (no doubt as to whether the character will succeed).

How can you address all these issues? Are there some issues that can be resolved? If so, how? I am wondering if there's a complimentary trope that's used to address all these issues.

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  • Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (movie) has an unstoppable inanimate villain - does this count?
    – Flater
    Mar 10, 2023 at 4:07
  • Perhaps the character can continue no matter what, but there is a price to be paid. Consider Wolverine approaching Jean Gray at the end of X-Men 3. He can continue to approach her but at the cost of having his flesh literally blasted off his body. It must have been incredibly painful even though his healing ability allowed him to survive.
    – nasch
    Mar 10, 2023 at 17:38
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    Is The Terminator a good example of this? Because that is an amazing story.
    – Stewart
    Mar 10, 2023 at 18:08
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    One Punch Man is based on this trope and works well because it's mostly played for comic relief and there are a lot of side stories where the "unstoppable force" is not involved. The main character is an "unstoppable force" superhero in combat, but he faces all sorts of humorous obstacles: he's bad at directions so he's often "late to the party," he's so bad at publicity few people know who he is, he's bald, he has difficulty getting his shopping done, he often doesn't know what's going on, he has a careless attitude no matter what catastrophe is happening.
    – causative
    Mar 11, 2023 at 4:00
  • Kryptonite was developed for a reason.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12, 2023 at 0:14

7 Answers 7

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An unstoppable force is nothing without direction.

The conflict of an unstoppable force character isn't against others but often with him/her-self. Mainly the existentialism of himself. What is the character's purpose as an unstoppable force?

Is he a warrior? Make him look for a worthy opponent and see what happens when the unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

Just because he is unstoppable doesn't mean he always succeeds, he can only be in one place at a time and the people he tries to protect can be dispersed forcing him to make the hard calls which could affect his mental state.

Character development is more than just becoming stronger- he could develop sideways instead of upways, or make him switch from good to evil or evil to good due to outside factors.

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I would look at arguably the most famous modern use of the "unstoppable force" trope: Saitama from One Punch Man. One of the reasons the show is so popular is precisely because it avoids many of the problems you mentioned, and deconstructs the notion of an unstoppable force in general:

  • Because Saitama is so absurdly strong, fighting villains has become incredibly boring for him. There's no joy in winning every fight in a single punch without trying. He often expresses irritation whenever this happens, and on the rare occasions where a villain survives the first punch, he's elated.
  • The show focuses more on the other, non-invincible heroes than it does on Saitama himself. They're the ones that receive the bulk of the character development, and they're the ones that the stakes and tension revolve around - the question isn't "can Saitama defeat this villain?", but "can this hero survive long enough for Saitama to show up?"
  • Saitama's sheer strength doesn't just make the villains seem weak in comparison, but the other heroes as well. To avoid the public losing faith in those heroes, Saitama frequently has to downplay his strength and lie about his abilities, such as claiming that a defeated hero weakened the villain enough for him to land the final blow.
  • As I mentioned above, on at least two occasions (Boros and Garou), Saitama finds an opponent that he can't defeat in one punch. This adds a certain level of suspense, as the reader can't ever be 100% certain that Saitama actually will defeat the villain in one punch.
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    Also the mosquito. Basically the only thing I know about the series.
    – Izkata
    Mar 10, 2023 at 21:02
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One of the Riddles of the Sphinx: What happens when the unstoppable force collides with the immovable object?

A: It yields.

The answer relies on the use of a pronoun which could equally refer to the Unstoppable Force OR the Immovable Object but not at the same time, and the definition of yield (to stop, or to give way to) having two meanings that can be applied to both the force and the object, but not at the same time. The solution is that The two titles cannot exist in any capacity if both are true... thus one must yield (if one gives up or "yields" it's title, then it loses its claim).

First, whoever told you that the this is the "worst trope" is missing tropes 101. All tropes are merely tools. A hammer can be used for good or evil, but the use does not make the tool good or bad... merely a the tool user.

The "Unstoppable Force" is a metaphoric trope that can take on different aspects. It can be a physical juggernaut that will continue on its course no matter what attempt to divert it stands in it's way. It could be a moral crusader, who refuses to give up for his cause, no matter the cost. It could be a determined achiever, who won't let his circumstances stop him from his dream. Or it can a persistent predator, who will hunt his query until one of them dies.

To wit, there are several beloved characters that were portrayed as "unstoppable" to varying success. But one popular character uses this as his title to great effect.

Enter the Unstoppable Juggernaut, of X-Men fame, for whom this is his primary power. As explained, once Juggernaut starts moving, his powers allow him to create a force field that will allow him to keep moving regardless of any barrier to his momentum. Unless he decides to stop moving, nothing can stop him. The obvious solution is to force the Juggernaut to stop moving long enough to contain him so he cannot move at all. In his debut appearance, he was strong enough to walk through each of the original five X-men when they stood alone against him. The only way he was beaten was when the team realized that his brother and their mentor, Professor Xavier, was the target of the Juggernaut. Because the Juggernaut can only be stopped by choosing to stop, a powerful telepath, like Xavier, could force him to choose to stop and thus stop the "unstoppable" Juggernaut's helmet could block Xavier from doing this... so the X-Men didn't have to stop the unstoppable... they just had to steal his silly hat. Then Xavier could make the Juggernaut stop himself (incidentally, another long time foe of the X-men, the Blob, has "being an immoveable object" as his power... if he decides not to move from a spot, nothing short of moving the spot he's standing on will move him... and even then, that's only because his feet will be firmly planted on the spot. He's been tossed upside down with a huge chunk of earth stuck to his feet, because someone strong enough pulled up the hunk of earth he was rooted to and flipped it.).

Often times, the "Unstoppable Force" is merely unstoppable by conventional means. One of the scariest things about the terminators from the franchise of the same name is given to us when Kyle Reese describes them in the first film:

It can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with, it doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop… EVER, until you are dead!

But the terminator is quite stoppable... it's just rediculously hard and it's ruthlessly efficient at stopping anyone who wants to stop it. But if you can survive and adapt to it, you can beat it... but that's easier said than done. Rather the monolog explains what makes the terminators so terrifying. Nothing short of its own death will keep it from trying to kill you, as we see in the various films. You can't scare them by holding a gun to to them. They don't care. You can't by their loyalty with material desire. They have no better nature to appeal to, no political allegiance to question, no philosophical or ideological motive to call into question. It will kill the target it's told to kill because the target is still alive. It's black and white. However, it is subject to physical limitations... they are just fewer than human physical limitations, and most humans are not prepared to fight them with advantageous weapons. What's truly scary is that they hunt humans, the way our ancestors hunted food. Humans aren't the fastest animals... but they have the highest stamina in the world and prefer to hunt at range when most prey animals anticipate a predator to get into melee. It's often said you do not have to be faster than the bear chasing you. You just have to be faster than the friend who is running away from the bear with you. Humans do not care about speed, because as fast as any animal can run, a human at a brisk walking pace will cover the distance and have energy to do it again before you can rest from your flight and heal from your injuries.

Thus the Unstoppable Force appears frequently as villains because it we find it absolutely scare to be hunted like we hunt other animals.

Edit:

The idea of "the unstoppable force" as a hero is also valid and often a staple of action movies. The idea was first popularized by the wonderful Christmas flick "Die Hard" where Bruce Willias' character, an off-duty cop, manages to outmaneuver and outwit a highly trained terrorist organization who has taken his wife's office Christmas party hostage. One interesting aspect of the film is that, at the time of release, Bruce Willas was not the typical action hero actor we think of today. His casting was actually because the story wasn't about an overly masculine 80s action hero with ripped muscles who fearlessly shoots hordes of bad guys while delivering cheesy quips in oddly accented English. Bruce Willas was by all counts was "your dad" and not "ARNALD". He had moments where he was allowed to be physically and emotionally vulnerable and he's concerned that his wife is going to leave him and voices concern that she's concealing the fact that she's married in her male dominated workplace. After witnessing Hans Gruber kill a man, he freaks out, and needs a pep talk from Al after his feet are badly injured in an encounter. He was not the overly muscled 80s action hero.

But what he lacked in manliness, he made up for in determination. The man will not give up and grows from a minor inconvenience to Hans Gruber's worst nightmare as the film continues (On observing the body language of the terrorists, his wife notes he's still alive, because of how clearly frustrated they are becoming over the situation.). Almost every single stunt Bruce's character performs is insane and he is aware of it and absolutely terrified, but the alternative is not much better.

Another example of this type of heroic Unstoppable can be seen in Taken, where human traffickers take the daughter of Liam Nielson's character, a retired Green Beret and CIA Officer. The film boils down to Liam Nielson promises the impossible to international human traffickers:

I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you're looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it - I will not look for you, I will not pursue you... but if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you... and I will kill you.

Followed by 2 hours of him looking for, finding, and killing human traffickers. Here, not only does he become the unstoppable force, he clearly tells them that there's one way to stop him and avoid the destruction that he will bring.

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Taking a few examples for existing fiction/reality.

Don't stop them, convince them to stop themselves.

Watchmen:

Dr Manhattan is, in all respects, a god. The smartest man alive is no more threat to him than the smartest insect. And yet, Ozymandis nearly manages to stop Dr Manhattan once, through the revelation that Dr Manhattan may have caused the death, by cancer, of a large number of people. This causes Dr Manhattan to no longer wish to be involved in the world.

And secondly at the end, Ozymandis manages to stop Dr Manhattan by convincing him that Ozymandis' plan is 'good'.

Too powerful to get involved - fantasy:

In lord of the rings, Eru could have stopped Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman without breaking a sweat. He didn't. It's often a trope that gods are too powerful to get involved, and that when two sufficiently powerful entities clash, the world ends as collateral damage. Deities that want to control/coexist with the world then fight through proxies, rather than directly. This also applies to many other fantasy worlds - Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons and countless others.

Too powerful to get involved - cold war:

The USA and USSR never fought. Because of a belief that a conventional war between them would likely escalate to nuclear war. A sufficiently large nuclear arsenal is essentially an unstoppable force. And yet, countries have chosen to stop themselves because winning a nuclear war is not necessarily better than losing a conventional war.

Threaten hostages:

There's several classic tropes here. Take a hostage at gunpoint, kidnap a friend or family member, inject a hostage with a nanobot/poison, where only you know how to cure them.

Turn their force against them

A whole bunch of marvel Thor/Avengers movies:

Thor is an unstoppable force. Loki either moves out of his way, or was never even there (illusion). Thor's force doesn't help him, and can even be to his detriment. Don't try to fight them, just write your plan around never being in the way of the force.

The core premise of several schools of martial arts: Turning your opponents force against them is a trope as old as time. Trip them, sidestep etc.

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  • You can absolutely have an unstoppable character (Dr. Manhattan is a great example) but he doesn't really do the emotional heavy lifting in the series. He's like a force of nature. Mar 10, 2023 at 19:52
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Let's look at another example for an "unstoppable force" character: Gojou Satoru from Jujutsu Kaisen, and let's consider the way the issues mentioned on the original post are dealt with.

  • Lack of stakes: In principle, this is a correct assertion if the character is at the correct place at the correct time. However, as mentioned by others before me, if that is not the case the odds are often stacked against the protagonists of the series. Gojou, due to his position as the head of the household and being such a fundamental part of the Jujutsu Sorcerer world, is often simply mired in politics, even against his will.
  • Lack of conflict: Just because he is the strongest, does not mean that the villains will not try to take him on. There are simply other manners than brute force in which they have to act.
  • Lack of emotional investment: You don't need to be at the edge of your seat all the time, wondering whether the hero will overcome the odds, to like a character. In this case, the character is simply an oddball, he is aware of his powers and basically plays with them (and his opponents). Give your character personality and make him likable, then people will get emotionally invested regardless of his strength.
  • Lack of suspense: The suspense comes from a) not knowing when Gojou will arrive (some matters are, in a way, also just beneath him, so he might not arrive at all), and b) as there is a plan by the villains to incapacitate Gojou, there are uncertainties introduced. It's not a matter of power then, but a matter of who outsmarts whom. In fact, the villains succeed and capture this guy in a "pocket dimension", removing him from the equation for the time being.

As you can see, all these points are more or less directly addressed, and people arguably like Gojou more than the main character of the series because Gojou is just such a well-written and interesting character, with a very unique personality, while the main character is comparatively "normal" (i.e. "plain" or "boring").

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If we're talking about an unstoppable hero, there are several ways to handle that:

(1) The hero is concerned with something beyond merely crushing their enemies. Even a mundane gangster can cause trouble for Superman if the gangster is protected by the legal system, or there are hostages involved, or he threatens to discover Superman's secret identity.

(2) The hero is matched by a villain who seems equally invincible.

(3) The hero has a weakness, like Kryptonite.

(4) The story is intentionally low-stakes. Does everything have to be a tense life-or-death struggle? Maybe the audience likes silly comedy, or the power-fantasy of being able to solve all problems easily.

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I would say it's impossible, but you can make anything work if you're talented enough.

So let's just ask the question: how would you make it interesting? How would you make someone sympathize? How would you create empathy with the reader? How would you create tension when there can be none because the protagonist is unstoppable?

Generally this stuff reduces to wish fulfillment. People use a character to play out the things that they didn't get to experience: power, fame, love, recognition. It's transparent to the reader unless they have the same wish fulfillment, but many people do, and those books often sell.

Lois Bujold said something like, "I take my characters, and I imagine the worst possible thing I could do to them, and then I do it." Her stuff can be hard to get into, because she often does take a character right to the bottom, but that makes the redemption sweet, and that's the thing that's brought her the awards and recognition she got.

There are people who start off writing books because they hate their characters, but they're probably not great people. But you should want your character to be the best they can be, and that needs conflict, some kind of conflict. If you can find a good conflict that works with an unstoppable character, that's great.

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