Reprise: Awesome Vs. Better Than You: A Character Continuum

Originally posted on March 24, 2010.

I find there’s a continuum over which powerful characters (either compared to the PCs in a game, or compared to the world in which they’re in) tend to fall. On one end, you have the characters who are truly Awesome; one can envy them, but they’re much easier to respect than to hate. On the other end are the characters who are just Better Than You: they’re more powerful, and if the narrative itself isn’t taking great pains to accent that fact, or just doesn’t seem to be taking great enough pains, then they’ll make sure you know it themselves.

Most people would say that Better Than You characters are inherently a bad thing, at least compared to Awesome characters, and there are many cases in which they’d be correct. Better Than You protagonists are likely to find themselves being called Mary Sues or Marty Stus; Better Than You group-escort NPCs tend to have to deal with the dreaded DMPC moniker; Better Than You PCs, particularly ones who don’t have planned character arcs in which they’re taken down a peg, often fray tempers within the group. In general, if you want a character well-liked, Awesome is the way to go.

But on the other hand, Better Than You has its uses. After all, what makes the quality generally undesirable in protagonists and allies is that it’s an antipathy generator; nobody likes a superiority complex, whether or not it’s justified. The most logical use, of course, is in characterizing villains: significant quantities of Better Than You can designate a villain as particularly irredeemable, while putting villains at different points on the scale (compare Order of the Stick’s Xykon and Redcloak) can create a semi-subtle way of distinguishing who’s sympathetic and who’s… less so. Red herring “antagonists” can benefit from a certain amount of Better Than You, though, since part of what makes a really good red herring is the audience wanting them to be at fault.

One needs to bear in mind, though, that this is a continuum for a reason. Sure, a creator could have characters who are just Better Than You, or just Awesome, but where’s the fun in that? If you want a character to be really infuriating, a balance of Awesome and Better Than You might be the way to go; sure, they’re smug and a little condescending, but they can back it up. Most Better Than Yous do have a certain element of Awesome, too, particularly the ones who aren’t being set up to be one big joke; they have to justify their perceived superiority somehow, right?

There’s also nothing to say a character’s position on the continuum can’t change over time/development/mind alteration/what have you, or that they even necessarily have to occupy only one position. After all, there’s a lot that can affect how condescending a character is towards other characters, including the difference between their experience levels, their opinions of said other characters, who’s watching….

The Awesome/Better Than You continuum can be used subtly or directly, but either way is a valuable tool in molding the audience’s impressions of the characters with whom they interact.

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