I’ve never quite trusted people for whom things come too easily. Anything I’ve ever found worth doing took patience, practice, and craft. When another writer asks about my work, they aren’t asking about my leisure. Granted, the effort of writing a book is mitigated by the sense of enjoyment it gives me and the love I hold for it, but the sweat still falls. The apprenticeship doesn’t end, regardless of your success. This holds true for most things: effort and struggle are not only the rule of life, but they bring results.
This sense of reward for effort, the goal achieved after endless practice, is what makes me leery of over-powered protagonists. We’ve all seen them: the unbeatable swordsman, the uncatchable rogue or the mage who effortlessly slays demons and binds gods with his spells. Sometimes a protagonist embodies all of these types. He’s so powerful that he might as well not bother with companions. After all, he’s smarter than anyone else in the party, stronger too. Companions are only there to reflect upon how powerful and perfect he is. No matter what conflict arises, you never truly believe that the super-protagonist will be defeated, and this makes his epic journey (and it’s always epic) a terribly hard read.
When I read about an unbeatable protagonist, I never buy his backstory of poverty or struggle. He’s a savant, a natural hero destined to save the day. I put the book down, and then I think about Frodo.
Lord of the Rings kicked off our genre with a protagonist whose very people were the weakest, slightest, and least warlike in the world. Tolkien didn’t just saddle Frodo himself with some serious handicaps, but the other hobbits share them. Gandalf, the most powerful member of the Fellowship of the Ring gets his ass kicked pretty early on, letting us know the odds against Frodo’s mission to the Cracks of Doom is no cake walk.
Tolkien might have really stacked the deck against Frodo, but you do need some sense that a protagonist is truly facing a challenge. The antagonist or adversary needs to feel like a real threat. That’s the essence of conflict, and without it you’ve got a very boring book.