Opinion time! Near-invulnerability in a protagonist?

I’ve been kicking around a new story idea for a while, and while I won’t give too much away, I can reveal that it’s going to be a middle-grade fantasy story with lots of comedy, adventure, etc.

Right now, I’m working on fleshing out the main character – who we will call MC for ease, as I haven’t worked out a name yet. The concept with MC is that his father is a sorcerer, but MC himself is absolutely incapable of doing magic — not just that he has no talent for it, but he literally has no access to magic whatsoever.

Now, MC needs a “shtick” — you know, that one element that makes him special, that gives him the edge he needs to be a hero. For example, Harry Potter may not have been a very good wizard (at least in the first books), but he was an excellent flyer, which he uses to navigate many obstacles through his various adventures.

The first “shtick” I thought up was invulnerability. MC’s father is called the “dragon sorcerer” — not because he’s a dragon, but because he just really, really likes dragons. My thought is that the sorcerer did some dragon-magic-funtimes to MC when he was a wee babby, and this ended up burning the magic out of MC, but in return gave him skin as hard as dragon scales. Note that his skin doesn’t actuallyΒ lookΒ like dragon scales — it’s just magically tough.

Now, near-invulnerability … that has some serious pros and cons. The main con, of course, is that he’ll be invulnerable (or close enough) — which means that, whilst on his adventures, readers will never really worry about his safety, due to the aforementioned invulnerability. On the pro side, though, there’s lots of fun stuff going on here — he’ll be reckless, because he knows he can’t be hurt, which will get him into all sorts of sticky situations. He’ll have a hard time connecting with other people, because his dragon-scale-strong skin has always made him different, singled him out from his peers, and they might even resent him. And he’ll also have a sort of superiority complex — an aloofness, if you will — because on some level he knows he’s superior to others, at least in that one aspect, and that’s a dangerous thing for a 12/13 year old to think.

So I guess my question is — do you think that fairly major con outweighs all the pros?


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45 thoughts on “Opinion time! Near-invulnerability in a protagonist?

  1. My problem with near invulnerable characters is it makes them boring. You never get a sense of threat. It’s why I don’t care for Superman, it seems like the writers have to go out of their way to create things that can hurt him.

    On another note, your plot sounds very similar to The Source of Magic by Piers Anthony. You should check that out, it is a pretty fun read. (Yours is different enough but there are similarities).

    • I’ve actually read most of the Xanth books — the plot is going to be entirely different, but I did really like Bink’s whole “can’t be harmed by magic” thing. My brother actually suggested I borrow that idea — or tweak it, so that it’s more like “can’t be harmed by spells specifically cast at him”, but that seems a bit like cheating to me.

      And you’re right — Superman is boring. Not being harmed by anything is just dull. Maybe I can change it up so that it’s less complete invincibility, and more … just magically tough skin. So he can still get cut and all, he’s just a lot hardier than normal folk and heals faster?

      • That works. Kind of like Wolverine. πŸ™‚

        To be fair, Superman is good when they deal more with his psyche but that tends to be super serious drama and not what you are going for, lol.

        It sounds fun though with what you have planned. πŸ™‚

  2. Having invulnerable skin won’t make him indestructible.

    He could still drown or be suffocated, and a fall from a great height would probably do severe internal injuries without breaking his skin (like a car accident can give you whiplash even if the car is undamaged).

    If his background is draconian, his skin is probably heat resistant, but if his body temperature goes up high enough he could still be cooked.

    Also, is he stronger than human? A villain could simply bind him tightly and wait for him to die of thirst.

    So he’s likely to get himself into real trouble by thinking that he’s tougher than he really is.

    • Oooh! Very interesting points! That’s very true — if it’s literally just his skin that’s invulnerable, he could definitely get himself into some tricky situations. It would be a fun writing exercise — trying to figure out ways to get him into situations that are actually dangerous for him, lol.

      • I have much the same issue with Catskinner–he has superhuman abilities in combat, but there are a lot of things that could still kill him.

        I can see a story arc with your character that he has to learn that he has a serious edge in certain situations, but that doesn’t make him impervious to everything, and learning humility from being thrust into situations that he needs help to get out of.

        • I like that! And since it’s a middle grader story, there need to be morals learned … and the importance of humility is definitely a good one to pick up early on in life πŸ™‚

    • I agree with Misha. Nothing wrong with having big phat body shields so long as he still has vulnerabilities. He could still be reckless because he would be much more indestructible than most.

      I have a race in one of my books that is immune to magic cast directly on them, but that doesn’t make them invulnerable to sorcerers because the “immune” race can still be hurt by magic-affected things. So, instead of casting a fireball at the “immune” guy, you telekinetically throw a house on him. BLAM!

      • I wrote some characters who drained the magic out of anything they touched and had a spellcaster liquefy the floor under their feet. As soon as they sank into the liquefied floor their power negated the spell and they ended up waist deep in a concrete floor.

      • Having people with partial magic immunity is always fun — not just to write about, but it also really makes the reader think. Have you read the Sword of Truth series? There’s a group of people that are introduced far into the series called the Bandakar — they’re completely immune to magic. So at first the spellcasters are stumped, because how do you fight someone immune to you? And then, like you mentioned with the house thing, they figured it out — make a big crevasse under their feet, set the forest around them on fire so they’re trapped, etc.

        • Not past the first book because it was pre-Kindle for me and that book I threw my back out lugging it to the couch to read. But yeah, that’s exactly it, having to see spellcasters either get really tricksy with spells or forcing them to fight like the rest of the planet.

  3. The con is that the reader never thinks he is in danger physically: I could pull a huge stack of books off the shelf that are classics and never put the protagonist in physical danger.

    Even if you do make him actually invulnerable (rather than using any of Misha’s fun ideas), the audience will still empathise if he faces non-physical challenges.

    That for me was the issue with Superman: not that he was invulnerable, but that he was invulnerable in a world where most of his challenges were physical; keeping his secret and romancing Lois are both engaging narratives.

    • Well, he’s definitely going to be facing physical danger, as it’s an action/adventure type story. But yeah, borrowing some of Misha’s awesome ideas could definitely amp up the danger level. And I’m really relishing the idea of coming up with challenges for him that he can’t just beat with his dragon-scale-skin. Hmmm …

  4. I have to say full invulnerability for a good guy tends to turn people off. Green Embers mentions Superman, but there is something to be taken from him. There are situations and elements that can negate his invulnerability. Kryptonite, magic, vampires (I think), and his powers coming from the yellow sun of Earth are weaknesses that help give a sense that he can be defeated. Since invulnerability is such a game-changing power, you would need something to offset it or the audience won’t grip the book.

    I’m a little confused on why he would be ostracized by his peers if there’s no physical differences. Unless he’s a show-off and brings the hate on himself, which is kind of hinted at by the third ‘con’.

    Overall, I think it’s a great idea, but an invulnerable character needs something that can threaten them.

    • Well, the ostracization … I’m thinking that’s more because he’s the son of a crazy sorcerer than because of his magic skin, to be honest. I haven’t really worked out the whole story yet, I’m still rolling around a lot of ideas in my head πŸ™‚

      One problem with the whole “find ways to get around his invulnerability” thing is that … well, have you seen Smallville? Superman’s one weakness is kryptonite … so EVERY SINGLE EPISODE the villain of the week somehow gets his/her hands on kryptonite. It’s maddening. I’m worried of falling into that trap — that MC will spend so much of his time running into situations that his invulnerability can’t solve that he’ll never actually get to do all the awesome stuff that his magical skin should allow him to do.

      • I’ve seen Smallville and read Superman comics. I agree that it gets rather ridiculous especially since he actually has multiple weaknesses. One reason he falls into that ‘everyone has kryptonite’ trap is because he’s been around for decades and so much has been done with him. It’s the Achilles Heel of American comic book characters because they don’t have an endgame. Going by the comics there are non-Kryptonite villains that can hurt him. Doomsday and the Parasite for example. There’s also the whole ‘go after those he cares about’ villains.

        Something that I have set up for a few heroes in later series who are immensely powerful is the ‘faction’ idea. It has one main villain who is after the hero and has recruited others. It wouldn’t be far-fetched for such a guy to outfit his minions with the tools to injure the main hero. This is only for a threat thing because you can also have that one villain who can hurt him instead of many. Could even be the ‘head minion’.

        Sorry I’m hurling ideas out. Since you haven’t worked out the whole story yet, I wouldn’t worry too much about the powers and weaknesses. You could easily think of something as your working the rest of it. Typically when doing something else and in a position where you have to dive for paper/pen to jot it down. Beware of that 5 minute period prior to falling asleep.

        • My ideas actually tend to hit when I’m somewhere totally inaccessible to paper/pen … like in the shower, or out hiking. My brain is very troublesome, lol.

          I like the “faction” idea … although I suspect my cute little twelve year old protagonist is going to have a ways to go before he gets an arch nemesis who hates him enough to round up a gang of followers to take him down!

          And yeah, the “go after people he cares about” thing … that’s definitely a good one, although really overdone in superhero comics/movies, I feel. Could be interesting in my story, especially since I’m considering making it a major plot point that he actively avoids forming relationships with other people due to antisocial tendencies … but of course, through the power of friendship, he learns to blah blah blah. Can’t have too much friendship in a middle grader story πŸ™‚

          • My brain does the same thing. Favorite spot is when I’m on my exercise bike and there’s paper and pin just out of reach. Times like that I think one of my villains is pulling the subconscious strings.

            Twelve-year-old makes a faction less likely, so you’re right that it’s something to work up to. Could be fun slipping the future faction members in as minor characters or cameos.

            The ‘loved ones’ thing has been a tried and true plotline for centuries. Not only superheroes, but that’s definitely where it appears the most. Personally, I think it’s a fine plot point only because it’s realistic. People would fight for those they are close to instead of walking away and letting them get hurt. Again, might be weird for a kid. I’m really curious what type of hero you’re going to make here.

            • I only get tired of the “loved ones” thing with superheroes because they do it SO MUCH. Every time Superman wants to do ANYTHING, he has to go “but wait — will this cause Lois to be kidnapped by some dastardly villain?” — and the answer is 99% “yes”. Although it’s also a superhero staple to have your loved ones kidnapped in pretty much every adventure, so … guess that’s just the way things are, lol.

              I’m curious about the type of hero I’m making too, lol. I don’t know much about him yet … although I do know he’s not going to go about being a hero in the traditional way. In fact, he may or may not decide to become a villain in order to achieve his goals (or at least, pretend to be a villain). I’ll let you know more when I work it out, lol.

              • Well, I think they’re divorced and he’s dating Wonder Woman now. So, that might not be a problem. I think the constant Lois Lane in trouble might stem a lot from not knowing what to do with him. Superheroes are strange all around. Batman with his decoy sidekick fetish, Green Lantern weak against either wood or yellow, and so many other ‘wuh?’ moments.

                Interesting. Would it be possible for him to become a villain and not realize it?

                • Well, the concept is that he purposely becomes a villain because he’s seeking fame and fortune — a lot of the humor in the book is going to stem from him trying very hard to be evil, and failing quite miserably at it because he’s a good person. You know, kidnapping a little girl and holding her for ransom … and then feeling really bad about it and buying her candy and toys and inviting her parents to come visit so they know she’s okay, etc.

      • Also, can he feel anything with that skin? That might be a good subtext– that he is literally insensitive (i.e. being unable to feel) which makes him figuratively insensitive–not understanding that other people have feelings and can be hurt.

        Only when extraordinary circumstances force him to understand fear and pain does he become able to relate to others.

        Not that I’m advocating turning this into a morality play, but it might be a nice theme to weave into an adventure story.

        • Also a great idea! Man, I should fire my brother and hire you as my “bounce my ideas off you” guy. Ooooh … I’m loving the insensitivity thing … πŸ˜€

  5. Even Superman and Achilles had vulnerabilities – why not give him only one magical gift that is evident only when he gets excited or angry, like shrinking to 1/4 inch instantly, he could have combined full sized and micro sized adventures that way πŸ˜€

    • Ha! That would be really fun! Sort of like a reversed Hulk type deal πŸ˜€ Maybe not shrinking, but something activated by excitement/rage … interesting!!!

  6. Nice idea for a YA novel. I agree with most of the comments that invulnerability will cause the story to suffer. If he is of a line of sorcerers then wouldn’t that be a struggle enough because he can’t do magic? It sounds like a huge story for the young character to try and come to terms or get his/her magic back…just a thought.:-)

    • Well, that’s something else I was considering — that he has to get his magic back. And I might go with that idea at some point (sequel?!), but … I didn’t really want to delve into that for the first book, because there are other cool plot points I wanted to pursue. And that’s the thing — it’s definitely a struggle for him to not have access to magic … hmm. I’ll need to think on this some more πŸ™‚

  7. Someone beat me to Achilles, but it is a good point. Being armored doesn’t protect him from a poisoner, or being boiled like a crab. If he’s overconfident because of his ability, he could get into all kinds of trouble. Giardia anyone?

    • Very true! That’s what I had in mind for him — overconfident, reckless … and because he’s spent most of his life in a castle, he’s never been exposed to much real danger, so he’s got a false sense of security about how much his invulnerability can really do for him.

  8. I think it would be just fine, and fun. But nothing wrong with a little
    kryptonite πŸ™‚

  9. Sounds awesome to me! There are definitely a lot of ways to still challenge the character even with his invulnerability. If he’s a character that grows and faces challenges, I think it would be swell!

    • Woo! I think it would be lots of fun as well πŸ™‚ Now to come up with ways to challenge him that won’t actually end up killing him, lol.

  10. I agree that invulnerability is not good because the characters become boring due to the low risk of dying. Dragon-scale tough skin is great but it still has holes. πŸ˜‰ Think about it!

    • Yes, I suppose have dragon-scale-tough skin doesn’t quite mean the same thing as invulnerability, does it? Lots of ways to get around that πŸ™‚

  11. I’m iffy on the concept. He should either pay some price every time his invulnerability saves him (he ages 3 months, perhaps, or someone he cares about suffers…)

  12. I watched an anime series years ago called Mahou Sensi Negima in that there was a young girl who was cursed with the ability the nullify any magic near her. Because of this she became a target for people wanting to use her as weapon.

    Some times her power was useful protecting her from harm but other times it caused problems for those around her. In one instance she is attacked and the wizard defending her gets gravely injured because he doesn’t notice she has grabbed onto him out of fear canceling out his protective shield and he doesn’t notice until its too late.

    Like others have said being invulnerable is what makes superman boring there is never any real threat to him. While say batman is far more interesting because he is human and only has his brains and abilities to rely on.

    Your MC’s ability should be some kind of double edged sword helpful at times but dangerous at others. Maybe his skin makes him lizard like and needs to stay warm or becomes tired and lethargic the colder it gets. In winter he might barely be able to get out of bed. You could also introduce the idea that he isn’t even aware of the fact that he’s different at first maybe he was home schooled as kid. The fact that he’s different might only come out after an unfortunate accident.

    • Very interesting! I actually brought up this topic at my writing critique group tonight, and someone else suggested something similar to your winter lethargy concept. Hmmmm … and I also really like the idea of him not even knowing he’s different … although I feel like having lizard skin is something you’d notice, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately he does need a basic working knowledge of the world in order for the plot to make sense, so I don’t think I could get away with him not knowing that …

      • You mentioned that his dad was a dragonoligist so maybe the MC spent his childhood traveling with his dad in hot deserts and volcanic regions. Hot places filled with dragons and ruins.

        Maybe the other people he knew growing up had similar adaptation, or were very different from him, or he didn’t meet many other people.

        If the few people he knew were strong and tough dragon hunters, and researchers then he would probably assume that everyone was like that. Being able to fall great distances without getting hurt, or treating intense heat like it was luke warm would be the norm for him.

        That could very easily lead to unfortunate mistake or accident early in the novel when he discovers how different he is. Also his scales might not always be visible maybe they only appear in certain circumstances.

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