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Nerfed. Don’t Annoy Your Readers Pt. 3:

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

I’m going to borrow a term that, to my understanding, derives its origins in video games. Nerf, or nerfing, is to reduce the power of a thing because the original design was too much to handle in the game. The same term can be used in literature to say, do not nerf your characters. Don’t depower a character or make them suddenly look foolish or incapable to protect villains or plots.

Nerf Gun

In science fiction a famous overall nerfing, is the reduction in the power of starships between the original Star Trek series and the Next Generation series. The ship’s speed was reduced by a factor of a hundred, the power they generated in terms of firepower was reduced by incalculable orders of magnitude.

The writers realized that in the then more modern context of the 80’s to adhere to self-consistency they had to reduce the overall power. (Don’t worry they were still grossly inconsistent.)


Instead of power, consider competence. Imagine if you will Sherlock Holmes, pairing off against an intelligent but still common street ruffian with a plan. Sherlock ponders and gives it his all, but suddenly can’t figure out the way to unravel the plot. We would all feel disappointment. Why? A character who was competent, skillful, loved for that skill, would have been laid low because a writer couldn’t figure out an answer where the character could. The reason we all love when Moriarty shows up, in whatever form the character takes, is because we know the character will be a foil to Sherlock. We trust the writers will create plots and plans so complex Sherlock can bring his all, without having to make him look incompetent. Moriarty is just equal to the task.

Fantasy suffers from nerfing at times, particularly in soft magic systems where the source of power or the structure of how magic works is ill understood by the readers. On page fifty a wizard can throw a lightning bolt across a battlefield. A feat that would carry such tremendous power, it is really hard to imagine. Then on page one hundred they are not able to overcome a local bandit who holds them at knife point.

Maybe this makes sense. Maybe they need time, space or some ingredient and preparation to do this feat of magic, but without proper explanation the person will feel nerfed for story purposes.

This is a common problem in superhero TV shows. In one episode a hero like Superman or Flash can run fast enough to leave the city, save the day and run back between literal blinks of an eye. Later they will struggle to avoid being hit by an oncoming car, bus or punch from a non-superhuman. This is inconsistent display of power.

Don’t let your detective suddenly be stumped by the obvious. Don’t make your superhero suddenly weak for no reason. Don’t make your speedster suddenly move as though through molasses without an appropriate story arc. Don’t change a person’s personality without reason because who they are would make the story too short or too easy to solve.

Also beware the twin brother of depowered characters and sudden incompetence, which is the power the protagonist can’t control. Too often this serves the same purpose to make a protagonist powerful when they need to be and helpless the rest of the time. It feels like they are nerfed for most of the book, because the author couldn’t figure out how to run with the level of power they wanted to only have available sometimes.

This is not to say characters always have to be at their peak of cognitive and physical skill. Everyone has weaknesses and bad days. How else would we ever have Batman believably take on Superman?

Batman Vs Superman

The point is to make sure it is part of the worldbuilding, and not arbitrary. Even if it is part of worldbuilding, be aware that your readers are smart enough to know it when they see it.

Ask yourself these questions:

Could my character have handled it earlier in the story? If they can’t anymore, have I made a compelling argument for why?

Have I shown the reader the change, or will the change feel sudden and unexplained?

Is the nerfing the only way to solve the problem?

Should I reduce their overall power level most of the time?

Ask beta readers if they notice this kind of swing in power levels, and make sure you address it as soon as possible.

Now go get writing, because writers write. Next up… plot armor. Subscribe here for weekly tips and guides.

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