If I already set a character to be very powerful/skilled in a fantasy setting (either like making them canonically the most powerful swordsman in the world, or giving them abilities to do something like cut a castle wall with a sword), how do I keep tension in a fight scene/story? How do I make a fight scenes with overpowered characters entertaining other than giving them more powerful enemy to fight or weakening them somehow?
There’s two types of powerful characters in fiction: Wish fulfillment power and power with consequences.
Wish fulfillment power is boring, and no amount of creativity is really going to make it interesting. This power is here to give us a high, make us feel powerful as the self-insert and then go away. The fight scenes based on wish fulfillment power never lead anywhere, they never do anything for the story. I’m not saying these characters won’t be popular, they are but they’re also not interesting.
Power with Consequences is interesting. If Superman used his powers at their full strength, regardless of his intentions, he’d be seen as a villain by everyone in his setting. He must moderate his abilities for the enemies he faces because otherwise he’ll be more terrifying than they are. That’s tension.
With Superman the question should never be: can he save the day? We know he will. There’s no tension in the question, it’s not up for debate. The real question is, can he do it without wrecking a city block or destroying Metropolis?
Regardless of their powers and abilities, a hero must still live in their world. If your swordsman can cut a castle wall in half, then that’s great up until the moment where he needs somewhere to stay and no tavern or local inn will have him due to the trouble he’ll bring.
The more powerful you are, the more famous you are. The more famous you are, the more challengers come crawling out of the woodwork to face you. The more challengers who crawl from the woodwork to challenge you in order to take the crown of “Best Swordsman” then the greater likelihood innocent people, their homes, and their means of making a living will be caught in the crossfire. Whether it’s a sword strike that levels a farmer’s field or a mass battle with hundreds dead, that farmer still will have their field destroyed. If it’s destroyed, then they’ve no way to feed their family or sell their produce. They’ll starve.
It’s important to remember that no character, no matter how powerful they are, is free from the consequences of their actions.
This is the problem of characters who are “The Best” at something. The Best is a concept, it’s a title given to someone by others. They get it through competition, and the competition doesn’t stop just because they’ve been crowned.
“My character is the best swordsman in the world.”
So? The pinnacle of ability is a moving target. The Best At This Moment isn’t The Best Ever. Perfection is what we chase, it isn’t what we are. The closer we get to the top, the more heated the competition becomes. The more powerful you are, the more skilled you are, and the more your skill is recognized then the more battles you’re forced to fight. The Best is just more incentive for all those who want to be the best swordsman in the world to come take that title from them. Like Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin, your super skilled character will never be able to get away from challengers even after they’ve decided to retire.
The Best is a state determined by others in their field and not by the character themselves. They may think they’re the best swordsman or the best assassin in the world but they’ll still have to prove it. If they’re recognized as The Best it’s because of the battles they’ve fought to get there, usually killing someone else who was also considered The Best. When a character is The Best, all they’ve done is set the mark that others will strive to reach. Being at the top is painting a target on their back, and every single asshole who thinks their the best is going to jump at the chance to knock them off the pedestal. “The Best” is a nebulous concept, it’s a title, and titles can be taken.
When you’re famous, people speak about you in hushed whispers. They talk about you behind your back. You may be asked to leave because the guards are coming and yes, you could kill them but the tavern owner will pay the price after you’re gone.
Remember, characters other than yours will also pay the price for your super skilled character’s actions. If you played The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, think about how much attention Geralt gets. He can’t go anywhere without being noticed, and most places he’ll be recognized either as a Witcher or as Geralt, the White Wolf. He attracts powerful figures to him, those who will make his life difficult if he doesn’t provide them favors. He could probably kill the garrison commander who wants him to kill a griffon, but that’d just create more problems for him in the long run and end with the nearby village getting destroyed in retaliation. Violence won’t solve all your character’s problems, and definitely won’t provide any help with the social ones.
The better you are then the more responsible you’re expected to be. The more famous you are then just as many will hate you rather than love you. You are an unwitting rival to those who want the adulation you enjoy, and a thorn in the side of the socially powerful who’d rather you just went away.
A famous character creates problems for themselves in their own narrative by existing. They don’t need to do anything, the problems will find them the moment they step out their front door.
Himura Kenshin is probably one of my favorite examples of a powerful character who self-limits. 90% of the tensions in his fight scene aren’t built on whether or not he’ll survive, he probably will. He’s a famous manslayer who doesn’t want to kill anymore, and is trying to hold to that even as he’s forced into battle. The tension in his fight scenes is whether or not circumstances will force him to break with his self-imposed limitations, flip his blade over, and kill. (Rurouni Kenshin ignores blunt force trauma, but this is an issue for another day.)
Your famous, powerful swordsman may enter situations that handicap and essentially force them not to fight at their full potential. These handicaps are social rather than literal. They are self-limiting out of survival. Those handicaps create natural tension, especially when their enemies use the rules of the situation to their advantage. We see the potential consequences if the hero fails to abide by the social rules, and that reinforces your setting’s worldbuilding.
Kenshin could kill, and be justified in killing. However, killing betrays the person he’s trying to be and the philosophy he’s chosen to pursue. Skilled characters like Saito Hajime and Shishio Makoto actively challenge his philosophy in combat.
What brings a fight scene to life is the people in it. Tension comes from what will happen next and where the character’s actions take the narrative. The more powerful a character is then the more responsibility they have not to use those powers. That sounds backwards, I know. Why give a character powers if they won’t use them? The reason is that the other people who exist in the setting with them won’t stand by and take it. Power is fought or fought over.
You have a character who can cut through a wall with their sword? They will either end up the ruler of the kingdom (possibly just out of necessity) or every lord in the kingdom will come chasing them down to take that power for themselves. They can’t afford to have that power in the wild. The more power a character attains then the higher the stakes are for them. Extend the context beyond, “hey, my character can do all these cool things” to “what does it mean that my character can do these things?”
The consequence of power is that you are ultimately responsible for what you do with it.
When a character overreacts with their power in a situation that doesn’t warrant the reaction, they become the villain. An example is a character who can swing their sword to crack a castle wall uses that same techniques on bandits and ruins the road. Now, we have all these additional problems. They start with the asshole who blew up the road.
It is much more difficult to limit yourself so that you’re only just a little bit better than the people you’re fighting than it is going all out. However, for the warrior and martial artist, having control is a part of your responsibility. Acting reasonably and appropriately is a requirement. It is a social mandate, a choice made out of survival. Your character has to live in the world, if they throw their power around willy nilly no one will have food to sell them.
By pitting what a character can do versus what the situation allows for naturally creates it’s own tension. Superhero comics and anime do this all the time, there comes a point where the character’s abilities simply become to dangerous to the world around them. The focus shifts then to the character trying to fight while avoiding hurting the innocents around them. This is a challenge in and of itself. Moderating your ability to what is contextually appropriate and still win against someone who is going all out against you is more difficult than simply fighting.
This act of self-limiting gives the author the freedom to cloak the character’s true abilities and save their punch cards for when it counts, while also eventually bringing in more powerful enemies who will test the hero’s limits and press them to reveal more of their abilities as they a battle for their life. Then, the action versus consequence of the hero’s powers enter into the fray.
The trick to understanding this method is that self-limiting isn’t weakness, it’s acting responsibly. A black belt who spars a green belt or a blue belt must limit themselves. They fight on the green belt’s level rather than going all out like they would in practice with another black belt. The same rules apply to the “best swordsman in the world” being challenged by some random nobody in the middle of the street. If they go all out, they will have acted inappropriately and be seen as a villain by anyone watching. Their job is to mitigate and subdue, not kill. This often means resorting to skills your character may be less practiced at or less familiar with.
As a character, Superman is only interesting when he self-limits. You can’t treat Superman like Batman because he’s a different sort of character. Batman may be considered one of the best martial artists in the world, but that doesn’t help him much when he’s fighting Killer Croc. He faces challenges that test his intellectual ability from the Riddler, and a random thug on the street will still mess him up with a single well-placed bullet. The Best doesn’t mean invincible.
Batman has a host of weaknesses that make each and every battle with him interesting (in hands that know what they’re doing.) Superman is one where you’ve got to fight for it. If he lets loose, innocent people get hurt. If he roughs up thugs too badly then he’s the villain. Superman dangling a thug off the roof is a villainous route, no matter his intentions. Superman inevitably attracts far more dangerous villains to him than Batman. People are afraid of Batman, but no one’s really afraid of Batman. Everyone is hoping deep down that at the end of the day Superman is a good guy because they’re screwed if he’s not. We see groups like Cadmus refuse to take the risk.
We have to trust Superman and the question is, can you?
Think about the episodes from Justice League about the Justice Lords. A setting where Superman just straight up lobotomizes… everyone who disagrees with him.
When dealing with characters who have massive amounts of power then the more you need to internally justify the scene in the narrative and it has to lead somewhere. The consequences are important because not having them will break suspension of disbelief. The more power there is, the bigger the consequences there will be. If Superman levels a building in Metropolis then something better happen as a result. That’s the beginning of a story, not the end of it.