On Crippling Characters

Generally, most stories fall into a pretty simple loop. They usually go something like this:

  1. Character goes through great struggle of some kind
  2. Character learns a valuable lesson and gains a new skill
  3. Character uses new skill to overcome trial
  4. Rinse repeat until story ends

A strong example of this is in shounen anime. Usually, our protagonist will get beaten down by the bad guy, learn some new bit of knowledge to help them out, then defeat the villain. Take Deku from My Hero Academia or Naruto as a few examples.

There’s nothing wrong with this formula. It’s a simple but remarkably effective structure. But there’s a fun twist to this formula that not nearly so many stories use. Sure, it’s satisfying to give your character new strengths. You know what else is cool?

Taking those abilities away.

Often times, characters tend to become reliant on certain skills or powers. Going back to the Naruto example: just how many abilities does our titular protagonist have beyond the Shadow Clone jutsu or the Rasengan and all their various off-shoots? The answer is not many. Why would he bother learning something new when those two are already so powerful?

Now, you know what would be interesting? If Naruto lost those two powers. What would Naruto do if his two most reliable techniques were suddenly unavailable to him in any form? How would he adapt and overcome whatever trial was standing before him?

When you deprive a character of a useful, relied upon skill or ability, they’re instantly forced into a difficult and interesting situation. Do they find some clever work-around, showing their cunning and intelligence? Do they keep on swinging, even in their weakened state, displaying their determination and strength? Or do they succumb in a moment of weakness and give in, buckling to the stresses of the journey they’re undergoing?

This never happened in Naruto. But a similar situation has happened in other stories, and it was effectively done! Video games do it all the time; tease the player with their full strength at the beginning, then take that away and send them back to square one. We like to joke about how frustrating that is in games like Metroid, but it works well.

A more specific example can be found in the criminally over-hated film Iron Man 3. In this film, Tony Stark finds himself being hunted down by the villains without access to any of his many Iron Man suits. In order to survive, he turns to his real superpower: his brain. Going into a nearby hardware store, he purchases a whole pack of supplies and jerry-rigs together a kit of weapons with which to take down his foes. Only after he’s overcome this difficult situation using only his wits is he given back the titular suit.

Another interesting example is Todoroki from My Hero Academia. This one is an interesting twist on the formula; rather than losing an ability, Todoroki willingly chooses not to use it. Despite having power over fire and ice, he chooses only to use ice in order to spite his father. But when confronted with the consequences for that by Deku, he comes to an epiphany and chooses to try and leave his grievances behind and use both powers.

One of my favorite examples is Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist. When Lust leaves him fatally wounded and deprives him of his all-important gloves, Mustang has to adapt, carving the transmutation circle into his hand and using a busted lighter to regain his powers. Later on in the series, after being forced to perform Human Transmutation by the villains, Roy loses his sight. In order to overcome this, he must rely on his most trusted followers to make up for his lack of vision and aide him in battle. Both cases highlights the fact that Mustang’s true strength doesn’t reside in his Flame Alchemy, but in his intelligence and in those that support him. By taking his powers away, Mustang’s truest and most admirable character traits are revealed.

Boosting a characters abilities is not a bad thing. But personally, I find it more fun to see what a character does when they’re stripped of power. Like they say, a person’s true face is revealed under pressure. What better way to do that than to take away that which a character has come to rely upon?

Also, it’s a good way to bully the character. And isn’t that what every writer out there really wants to do?

I might just be a mean person…

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