DBZ Syndrome

Superman Batman

Author JD Cowan warns writers against making the same mistake with superpowered heroes that Toriyama did with Dragon Ball Z.
There's always been a problem getting superpowers across in fiction. For instance, Superman has almost no defined limits to his abilities, which is fine for a Superman tale but it tends to water down tension in any crossover story he appears in. Batman can be the strongest martial artist, the smartest guy in the room, and the guy with the right tool at any time to the point that "Batgod" is an actual saying. Certain character are just clearly above others and it does wreck a lot of tension.
But it's also a problem in Japanese entertainment, too. In Dragon Ball, Goku becomes more powerful than the demigod of space, Frieza, and then the only tension becomes that the next villain is somehow stronger than Frieza. Or you can have Fist of the North Star where there's obvious fodder that serve no challenge to Kenshiro and where the main villains are the only ones that stand a chance against him. These are all limitations to the sort of stories one can tell with powers or skills.
But there's a whole other way to write powers, a better way, that will help raise the stakes, keep powers unique and mystifying, and will allow the writer far more freedom. Some may scoff, but there is a clear answer to the question of how to avoid the superpowers overtaking the story.
The solution is to limit the powers.
Yes, my solution is limiting the most important part of a superhero story in order to avoid limiting the types of stories that can be told with them. I admit it's confusing, but stick with me here.
Superpowers are fascinating. Having the ability to do crazy things you couldn't do in real life can obviously give you great story ideas. Invisibility, heat vision, flight, or super strength, are typical abilities used in any number of stories. Then there are more specific abilities like growing claws out of your hands or charging playing cards with kinetic energy. You can do anything. This is all great.
But what do you do after that? When the initial story is told, what will your character do next? Sure he beats the villain with his flashy power, but what about the next villain after that? Does the defeated villain merely get craftier and/or stronger as well? I suppose if your villain doesn't have any powers he could, but why would you hobble your poor bloodthirsty sociopath of a bad guy that way? And if your villain has powers, what stops him from not just going out and taking what he wants when the hero is not around? Very little. If this was a world of powers it wouldn't be like many comics portray it, it would be utter chaos. The only way to temper chaos, is with order.
The principle that JD talks about here doesn't just apply to superpowers. It's essential to every other kind of magic system. And make no mistake--superpowers are a category of magic system.

Limiting the scope of superpowers is necessary for maintaining dramatic tension in a systematized magic context, but it's not sufficient. Two other ingredients are required:
  1. The limitations of superpowers must be introduced to the reader early in the story.
  2. Going beyond that, all of the rules governing how superpowers work must be explained insofar as characters will use those powers to overcome obstacles.
Sanderson's First Law of Magic: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

For an award-winning example of a secondary world where multiple magic systems interact with one another according to painstakingly crafted rules, check out my superpowered Soul Cycle.

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier



  1. They had the same problem with the old radio series The Shadow. For the most part, they didn't put him up against more powerful opponents, they just gave him opponents who could figure out the limits of what the Shadow could do and work with those limits. Being invisible is a pretty neat power, but it doesn't mean much if you are locked in a burning room. Without the limits, Cranston would be a god.

    1. Then there's the pulp novels where he doesn't have superpowers at all :)

  2. The radio series had to go with the same format because of that limitation, but later pulps and comics (even the movie) that folded in the powers gave them obvious limits while keeping The Shadow's mystique. The radio show was very Golden Age Superman.

    The best Shadow writers were also aware that its the agents you to to for the drama and character development. The Shadow is, like Razorfist said, a force of nature and a mystery. Any story that makes him the focal point is risking a lot due to the fact that the mystery behind him is what makes him so compelling.

  3. Brian
    So how do you limit the superpowers? Something like Dracula sunlight and sacred objects? A food? What's a good technique to limit superpowers?


    1. To give just a few examples:

      Superman: vulnerability to kryptonite, red sunlight, and magic. X-ray vision can't penetrate lead.

      Green Lantern (Silver Age): Ring constructs are ineffective against anything yellow. Ring has limited uses and must be recharged every 24 hours. Activities limited by a sanctioning body--the Guardians.

      Cyclops (X-Men): Ruby quartz visor needed to regulate optic blasts. Power charged by sunlight.

      Here's a fun exercise you can try at home. Pull out the rulebook for any 90s superhero tabletop roly-playing game like DC Heroes or Champions (long out of print, but the pdfs should be out there). Skim through the Power Limitations section for a cornucopia of superpower limiting ideas :)

    2. Another why might be by writer choice.

      Take flight, for instance. Maybe the character can only engage for fifteen minutes at a time. Maybe there's a weight limit. Maybe there's a speed cap. Maybe wind speed is a factor in their ability. Maybe some control of the wind is involved!

      You could find a weakness in the powers themselves that the characters must work around if you wanted to.

      All this is a big reason I was a fan of the X-Men when I was a boy. Their usage of powers was always more unique compared to how the rest of Marvel did it.

    3. *reason why. No idea why I'm missing random words.

      Great article, Brian.

    4. I would also add the power system we see in things like My Hero Academia to an example of limiting the powers. It's somewhat akin to X-men overall, where people have specific powers.

      Minor spoilerish, but the main hero inherits his power from that universe's closest equivalent to Superman. But it's basically just the super strength aspect of Superman, and he has to build his body up to be able to use the power without it killing him outright. Even after he trains up, he has trouble throttling it, so it's either on or off. If he's not careful, it breaks the limb he uses the power in. Before he figures out how to throttle, he starts doing stuff like only using the super strength in one finger; so he loses the use of the finger when it breaks, but he still has 9 more.

      The polar opposite of this would be like Saitama in One Punch Man. He's deliberately over-powered to the point he can't lose, but the entire story is a deconstruction of the DBZ Syndrome. It's more about how he's so over-powered he's bored of everything and how him and everyone around him daily deals with that.

    5. ONE does a neat trick with One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100.

      He uses the whole gaining power schitck as a way of parodying the "getting stronger is the way to overcome all problems" by contrasting it with heroic values. Saitama might be overpowered, but he is absolutely a hero when it counts, as are the other heroes in the story. ONE never belittles them as lesser, and all the drama revolves around the limitations of the weaker heroes and if they can hold out until Saitama arrives. It's a lot like The Shadow in that respect.

      Mob in MP100 is different. He's an unabashed good kid with tremendous power who can't use it correctly. The drama comes from how exactly he will use his power and if it will overwhelm or destroy others.

      ONE is regularly touted as "subversive" by the anime press, but everything I've seen and read from him states the opposite. He's old school heroes and villains through and through.

  4. Thanks for the great writing tips of how to limit powers that are reasonable, consistent and helpful:)