Spellswords, Believability and Understanding how to use Powerful Characters

maybe a stupid question but how would i write a believable ‘spellsword’? without making my character overpowered

So, “believable,” and “overpowered,” are two entirely different, independent, considerations. You can easily have one without the other, and while the former is probably necessary, the latter is not, depending on the kind of story you’re telling.

Believability is contextual to your audience. Do they believe in your character? Do they accept that your character is who they say they are? This can get significantly more complicated if your character isn’t being honest with the audience, though that is a more advanced concept.

At its simplest level, “believable,” simply asks if it’s plausible that your character could be who they say they are. If spellswords are accepted as a part of your world (even if they’re somewhat rare), a spellsword will trend towards believable. If they are fundamentally impossible, (either because magic is understood to be a fantasy, or some fundamental element of spellcasting conflicts with martial combat) then they will be less believable (at least, initially.)

Similarly, how your character views the world is a serious consideration for believability. If you have a character who’s been formally educated in magic, then that knowledge will shape their understanding of how it works. If magic is uncommon, your spellsword would have an unusual understanding of how magic really works, when encountering magic during their travels. This would likely set them apart from other characters, who have no formal education on the subject.

Similarly, someone with a martial background will have a more practical understanding of waging warfare. Either, on a direct blade to blade, level, or (if they’re formally educated) at a more strategic level.

So, can a Spellsword be believable? Yes, absolutely. They can operate as a bridge between martial and arcane training, with a unique viewpoint of the world they exist in. Depending on how they fit into your world, they could easily have held military rank, or operated as a liaison between the military command and it’s battlemage corps.

Alternately, it’s quite possible they never ascended that far, or even graduated without actually joining the military (for whatever reason.) It’s possible they served in an organization tasked with protecting less militant mages, they may have worked as a mercenary, or any number of other jobs that would benefit from being able to fight, while also being able to cast magic. In a setting with freelance adventurers, spellswords are a natural fit.

So, it’s entirely possible for a spellsword to be believable, if your setting permits their existence in the first place.

Now, here’s the harder part of the discussion, “overpowered,” characters aren’t a problem, until they are.

“Overpowered,” is often a problem in games. I don’t just mean video games, ironically it’s probably a bigger problem in tabletop roleplaying, than in video games.

Ironically, the conflict between these two can give some pretty clear insights into how much you need to worry about this.

In a tabletop roleplaying environment, the gamemaster (whatever their actual title) needs to balance the experience for the players present. Most, quality, roleplaying rulebooks will devote some time to discussing this, and offering their insights on the subject.

The simplest reduction would be, you have multiple people at the table, and so your story needs to include all of them to a (roughly) equal degree.

In a game where you only need to worry about one player, they can be the focus. Concerns about being overpowered only relate to how it influences the experience of that player, and many, many, games heavily tilt the odds in the player’s favor, and the player character in an RPG being, “the chosen one,” has been a meme for decades.

How does this apply to writing?

Simple. As in games, “overpowered,” is a relative statement. A character is overpowered, when they’re mismatched to their place in the story and the challenges they face.

If your character is facing opposition that legitimately threatens them, then they’re not overpowered. If they’re carving through cannon fodder enemies without repercussions, then they may be a bit overpowered for that challenge.

Ironically, there is a similar element here. The danger of an overpowered character in a game is that the player will get bored. The danger of an overpowered character in a story is that the audience will get bored. There are deeper differences in how and why that happens, but there is still some similarity. If the character is too powerful, the outcome is preordained, and the experience itself is dulled. This leads into one of the most challenging elements of overpowered characters.

The problem with an overpowered character isn’t that they’re overpowered; it’s that you need to work harder to keep them interesting.

A character who is balanced against the threats they’ll face has to constantly work for every victory. In theory (though, not always in practice) that gives you a base degree of interest in the events that are unfolding. If the outcome is uncertain, the audience is less likely to tune out.

Similarly, repeating the same encounters will have diminishing returns. If your character dispatched three bandits in the previous chapter, will three or four really pose that much of a threat now? Remember, the threshold on a character being overpowered is whether the outcome is uncertain.

One solution is to introduce uncertainty into the environment. By, “environment,” I don’t literally mean the space the characters are fighting in, though that is an option; instead I’m talking about the general social space around the character. A character who is disproportionately powerful can still be interesting if they’re trying to expose a conspiracy lead by people on their own level, if they’re wrestling with the philosophical implications of their own nigh-omnipotence, or any number of other potential challenges, that extend well beyond what they’re dealing with. In a reverse, an egregiously overpowered character may struggle to hide their true nature from the people around them (a sub-plot that has been run into the ground by superhero writers over the years.)

An overpowered character isn’t, automatically a problem, but they can be more difficult to work with. Having said that, this may not be an issue for you. While your spellsword may be more dangerous than an individual fighter, they’re probably less magically adept than a mage who focused on their arcane education. Meaning they fit into a very specific niche between normal melee fighters, and dedicated magic practitioners, along with other specialized magic practitioners, like whatever you chose to name your stealth/magic specialists.

The hard part is making sure your character is believable. After that, power is what you make of it, if your character feels too powerful, they may just need more powerful foes to challenge them.

-Starke

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