How do you introduce a character who by default is BETTER than the MC skillwise?

So writing Episode 4 of UnNatural it is fast approaching the moment I get to introduce Charlene Nash (aka Charlie). Now Charlie is another Azure but one who has known what she was and has been trained as such. This means she is a lot better than the MC can be, she will more powerful and more skilled than almost all possible MCs by default. The best a player can hope is to close the gap a little.

So I am trying to figure out how best to write this, but as introducing stronger NPCs can be a broader statement I thought I would post it separate so this way people can bring in examples or their own games in their answers.

So here is my question if full:

How do you introduce a much stronger character than the MC without making the player still enjoy the story?

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Some will be turned off no matter what. I know Eric has had a couple people complain about feeling less competent compared to MC heroes in CCH, despite the fact that this is basically the whole point of those stories. But for most, if you focus on that character’s relatively longer history of training compared to the MC when introducing them (maybe have a couple other NPCs talking them up before they show up, marveling over what they can do and whatnot), that should be enough of a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

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Allowing the MC to express resentment or frustration about it is a good move, rather than them being pushed into having to admire them, or not being able to be annoyed by the situation.

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Allow people to have different reactions to them. Dislike them, idolize them, think their rep and skill are overblown and so on.

But it also depends on what the goal with the npc is. Are they there to show what you can do eventually? Are they there to be an obstacle? Are they there to save your life and then die horribly to make sure the player understand the stakes? Knowing why you are adding this powerful character is important, because that will shape what reaction you need to create.

Also, I feel that an important thing is to make them different than the mc. Have weaknesses, maybe a different skillset and so on. If they are exactly the same as the mc but just better it’s gonna be tough to pull off.

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I don’t know exactly what you are going for or what scenes you want with this character, but is it possible to have a little wish fulfillment where the MC “bests” them only partially and/or by surprising them somehow? Even those immensely talented are vulnerable to over-confidence, mistakes, bad days, the unforeseen, etc. Like for instance, CCH was brought up. In Trial By Fire when the Contrarian shows up, you can’t defeat her obviously, but you can get in a good punch if you’re strong enough. And that was pretty satisfying to me even though you’re supposed to feel helpless in that situation. That sort of scene can definitely soften the blow of incompetence with a NPC who is miles ahead of them to demonstrate the MC is still in the game and capable.

I’d also keep in mind that there will be players at least a little disappointed regardless as @hustlertwo said because some play for sheer power fantasy/escapism, and that doesn’t necessarily align with a character they can’t beat. That’s alright. It wouldn’t indicate a flaw with your narrative.

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Personally, I appreciate characters or people that are stronger than the MC at times. There’s nothing wrong with some wish fulfillment here and there, but I feel like games where everyone talks about how great, powerful and awesome the MC is can be a little much at times. As for advice on how to do it, here’s my two cents. I don’t know much about your story, so this’ll be more general advice, sorry if this is all something you know already.

Also, this all my opinion, of course.

My Advice

(1): If the character is a villain or antagonist in the story, the simple solution is to let the player still find a way to defeat them. Whether it’s by exploiting a character flaw they have or bringing in some backup to even the odds.

(2): If the character is an ally or friend of the MC’s, make sure the stronger character can’t defeat the villain and win the day for the player. As that would make the MC feel inconsequential to the plot. Alternatively, if you want the character to save the day instead of the player character, write the story around that premise. Make sure readers know that you’re playing as the sidekick, and not the hero.

(3): Since this is an interactive novel, as others mentioned, let the player choose how the MC feels about them. Whether they idolize them, are neutral toward them, want to befriend them, are jealous of them, or hate them. That way, the MC’s not forced to feel a certain way about them.

(4): Even if the character’s better at the MC in combat/challenge related things, one small, humanizing thing you could do is have the MC be better at something else, something that’s not even related to being a hero, like creative writing or something. This would be a good way of showing that they’re still a person with their own strengths and weaknesses.

(5): Even if they can’t beat them, having the MC be able to surprise or impress them would also be a good way to make the hero feel like they still matter in the story, and that this character can’t solve everything for them.

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I think @malinryden really focused in on what is important – the only thing I would add to their post is have something unique about the MC that the more powerful character lacks and depending on the NPC’s purpose have that character-trait play a role in the story.

Having something unique is a “shiny” that most readers will be able to latch on as theirs and then that can be used to help define their MC.

@Seraphinite’s entire cast (including the MC’s mom) is more powerful than the MC in book one of her series. Throughout the entire book, she allows the MC to express their feelings about their mom… and provides the entire range of emotions to do this.

It can be a bit tedious to jaded readers like me to keep choosing the same attitude over and over, but it also allows the relationship dynamic to change over time, as the reader discovers more that impacts their MC’s relationship with their mom.

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Interesting replies. Thanks for all the answers so far.

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I think this is the most important thing to be honest. You can introduce a character that’s more powerful than the MC in any way, but allow the MC’s feelings to change over time. For example, upon meeting someone who is far more powerful than them, the MC could look to them as a sort of mentor, but then, after spending more time with them, their feelings could shift to those of disgust and anger, after realizing what their mentor is truly like.

There will always be people more powerful than the player, and showing that is a good way to build verisimilitude. The key to having it be a good experience for the player, I think, is in allowing for organic relationships to be built based on those power differences. It’s similar to meeting someone who’s significantly better than you in your chosen field I think. Some people are jealous of those who are better, some admire them, some simply don’t care. These opinions, however, can change over time based on how much they learn about this person.

So in short, I think just allowing for relationships that grow and change based on knowledge of the characters and the MC’s own growth is the way to go.

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Eiwynn’s take tracks for me. I’d add that in the Wayhaven Chronicles, even if I know my character isn’t as strong as the non-human characters, she still plays the role of moral compass for the group (at least the way I played her.)

Additionally, it’s set up so you not only know you’re new to the job from the very beginning, it’s also established that you were rushed into the position without training. You immediately understand that the game isn’t about being the strongest, and yet it still provides you with moments to shine.

I think where you might run into trouble is if the game is written as a power fantasy and the PC has been the most powerful character up to that point; expectations will have been set. If you plan on breaking those expectations, you’ll need to go to great lengths to make sure the PC doesn’t feel like they’ve been demoted from protagonist of their own story to the supporting character of someone else’s.

Players usually won’t mind a more powerful antagonist (that’s basically mandatory for a hero’s journey story), but a support character who’s more powerful? Fine if they pass through the story quickly. Also fine if they’re a mentor, commander, etc. If they’re doing the same job the player-character does and are a major character throughout the whole game… That’s tricky.

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This is what I need to be careful with in my game because she can effectively tick all those boxes. Charlie is an important character and is responsible for one the main twists. However she can either be friend or foe depending on the player’s choices,

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Like the examples others have listed such as Wayhaven if the characters are “well written”, then their being stronger than the MC wouldn’t matter because it would fit their role in the story/world.
In Breach the Archangel for example Gabriel is obviously more skilled than the MC (he’s basically a John Wick) and it works for the story because how else could he be the leader of one of the most dangerous organizations not to mention being on the FBI’s rader and such. Yet he’s most people’s favourite character.

Away from COGS, In Magium (the IF game) Kate, Daren and possibly Hadrik are stronger than the MC especially early on but you can narrow the distance as you progress, Eiden is on a whole different level and yet it still works.

So summary well rounded character more important than stronger/weaker than MC Character

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Narratively, it might be a good idea to establish the character’s reputation. Does everyone admire them, hate them, etc. or are reactions mixed? Would the MC know about them before meeting them? Do they live up the hype in-person? It’s also a good idea to allow a variety of reactions from the MC – “I think they’re cool,” “They’re the worst!” “They’re much prettier in person,” “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” etc. Their personality could also be one that either complements the MC’s current personality (a flirty MC and a charming rival) or juxtaposes it (an angry MC and a happy rival).

If combat is involved, something interesting to explore would be for the rival to have the same skills as the MC but significantly better. Say the MC is great at stealth – the rival is even better and manages to sneak up on them. Or strength – they go to grapple and the MC suddenly gets suplexed for the first time. You could make it even more fun by giving the player the chance to “succeed” by at least matching the character blow for blow in a stalemate if they use their strongest skill. It wouldn’t be a win necessarily, but there’d be some gratification for holding their own against a tough NPC.

I think avoiding frustratingly powerful non-player characters is also naturally a conversation about avoiding creating Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters. So, fleshing out Charlie’s personality, motivations, and relationship dynamics providing healthy doses of strengths, weaknesses, character flaws and bright points, front and center scenes and sidelining scenes, etc. as has been discussed should counteract potential negative reception. Show that Charlie is admired and strong without losing focus and turning them into a cardboard like trope of epic perfection beloved by absolutely all so the readers don’t have to skim multiple pages of how beyond amazing Charlie is in every single way. The spotlight constantly shining on a single character tends to be what becomes annoying rather than simply being weaker in certain skills/traits than said character.

Another solid example:

In Heroes of Myth, you are potentially significantly weaker than some of your companions, particularly combat wise. I was never made to feel like my character was not still a vital and central figure in the narrative, in whatever form that took. (The voice of reason, the earnest and morally straight one, the clever strategist, the knowledgeable bookworm, the confident leader, etc.) And more importantly, you play key roles in overcoming the challenges, big and small, that your group faces. You are addressed when there’s decisions to be made. You are not constantly discounted by the narration itself in favor of the NPCs.

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There will definitely be people who will dislike that as they see interactive fiction as wish fulfillment. That being said these are my opinions on the matter…

  1. If the character is reoccurring conflict (even if the MC is never supposed to be able to beat or surpass them) allow the MC to do better against them each encounter. Perhaps the first time the MC gets completely destroyed, the second they’re able inflict an injury through a cheap shot, the third they can hold out against them for a while, etc. This would provide a sense of progress or accomplishment, making the opponent a goal the MC can strive to surpass.

  2. Allow the MC to react. In a lot of cases where an overpowered character is introduced, its after the MC has had a string of successes. If someone who is used to success loses, and badly, to someone else, how would it affect them? Would it create doubt in their own ability? Make them bitter and resentful?

  3. This depends on the exact type of overpowered character (as it may not apply to some) but even if they’re better than the MC skillwise, give them some reason to be interested in the MC. Maybe the MC is defined by things other than their skills (such as relationships, hobbies etc) and all the other character has is their abilities. If they’re presented as a mentor figure, perhaps they see potential in the MC or see themselves in the MC. In a rival, while they’re stronger than the MC, perhaps the MC is the only person they see that might become their equal. As a friend or ally, maybe they might be stronger, but the MC is better at connecting with people.

  4. Establish them as a threat. If they’re well known, let other characters mention them and if someone’s well known enough, there are likely analysis of said person’s abilities and even weaknesses (if they’ve been exploited in the past). If they’re unknown, have characters question it. Where did they come from? Why/how was someone of that power level kept hidden?

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Adventure Story writing 101: NO ONE is more powerful than the MC.
If a character is powerful than the MC then the MC eventually becomes more powerful down the road. Period.
The point of the MC is for the readers to root for and to learn from. I can even go as far as to say (well not just me, I read it in a writing course) the MC will eventually be considered OP down the road and things will ALWAYS go their way in the end. Unless done tactfully the MC dying in the end is never received well (just a example of a MC not being strong enough).
You gotta be a hell of a writer to pull this off. js

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Hero’s don’t have to be, and don’t have to become, the most powerful character in the story. They can be, but they don’t have to. For example, Frodo from Lord of the Rings never learned to fight. He didn’t use the power of the One Ring to vanquish Sauron. He didn’t even manage to resist the Ring’s influence and gave into it by the end of the story. But, people didn’t complain, because, in the end, Sauron was still defeated, and the Hobbits lived to tell the tale.

Sometimes, audiences can even be upset by MC’s who are powerful. Because they feel it removes tension and makes the hero too perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of stories (in my experience, usually in video games and anime) that are all about the MC becoming more powerful than everything that opposes them. But it’s not a rule of storytelling.

I think what matters more, is (as you touched on) that the MC survives the story and finds a way to prevail, regardless of whether or not they’re more powerful than the antagonist. Audiences will usually be disappointed by a story where the MC dies or fails at their objective. But even this isn’t a rule, and it can be done well in certain circumstances.

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