How Far Should a Hero Go for Power?

Jujutsu Kaisen

To explain the gif, the guy is swallowing the mummified finger of a power demon.  He swallowed one early on without knowing what it would do and the series pretty much follows that trend.  Entertainingly, of course.  We’re not here to talk about ‘Quest for Yummy Jerky Fingers’, which I really want to watch again now.  Nope, we’re going to talk about gaining power.

Many of us have followed a story where the hero needs to get stronger.  Sometimes they have to find a magic item like Arthur getting Excalibur.  Other times, they need to train like Goku in Dragon Ball.  For the most part, heroes will follow the acceptable paths to strength.  After all, they are heroes and have to be nice.  Sacrificing souls and eating body parts are for villains, right?  Right?

First, I know somebody is going to bring up anti-heroes, who do get away with doing bad things to meet their goals.  Still, they have their limits.  The Punisher will kill to stop crime, but he won’t shoot through a hostage’s head to get his target.  Same goes for gaining power even for anti-heroes.  If they cross that line then they become a villain with heroic intentions, but a villain nonetheless.  Many readers will get turned off after the line is crossed, especially if it was a line that was established as impassable.  So, don’t think an anti-hero gives you free reign to throw all limits into the wind.

This means, you need to think before you have a hero take action for the sake of getting stronger.  I don’t mean to save the world, but to gain enough power to defeat their enemies without fear of failure.  This can come down to several factors:

  • The rules of the world can determine right and wrong.  If an action that reality sees as bad is good in this world then establish that.  For example, a hero absorbing the souls of his friends to gain enough strength could be seen as bad.  After all, he has just stolen their life energy and killed them.  This isn’t bad if you show that the souls will go back to the friends and they aren’t dead.  Simplistic example, but I hope you get the point.
  • Personality of the hero is another issue.  Would they be willing to do evil in order to gain enough strength to defeat someone worse?  If they are the type to do whatever it takes then it can work, especially if the author is ready for them to fall in the eyes of the audience.  More noble and lawful heroes are less likely because they are the types to stay within the black/white definition of good/evil.
  • Does the bad action have payoff? This is something you won’t know until you’ve done it.  Hopefully it works or you catch it being a problem before publishing.  Basically, the hero crosses the line after struggling with the idea for a while.  They do it and the power boost makes absolutely no difference.  Maybe they learn a move that doesn’t work or another hero takes the villain down.  You really need to make sure that this sacrifice of standards is met with a payoff.  That is unless the point is to have this hero come off as a foolish chump.

Struggling and sacrifice are pretty big in this too.  If the hero is doing something they know is wrong then they need to be shown thinking about the consequences.  They can’t just dive right into devouring babies, letting a demon possess them, or insider trading with no second thought.  They aren’t the villain who would do these things without a care.  The fact that these characters won’t is part of what makes them a hero.  So, show them struggling internally or discussing it with others.  Having them grapple with the potential consequences of both taking the action or not.  The sacrifice comes into play here since that is something they have to think about.

Of course, it can be more than doing bad things.  I know that’s what I focused on, but that is when this question can come up.  So, what about gross stuff?  Eating the demon finger isn’t bad since it’s to contain the energy before another demon can eat it.  Yet, it’s definitely an action that most people wouldn’t accept with a big and a jar of mustard instead of concerns.  The factors I mentioned above would still come into play, but on a different level.  Now, it’s just gross, so it’s more about character personality since they have to decide if they have the stomach for the experience.  In many cases, literally.

So, how would you tackle this situation?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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6 Responses to How Far Should a Hero Go for Power?

  1. L. Marie says:

    This is a really interesting post. I am exploring this situation in a WIP. But I chose to go the route of the hero knowing that what she does will ultimately end her life.
    The tips you have are thorough. Since you asked how people would handle the situation, I would say count the cost. Saruman used to be a hero. He thought that studying Sauron’s methods would help everyone. Maybe that knowledge helped them for a time. But it cost him. In Endgame (SPOILER ALERT) Tony Stark wielded the gauntlet Thanos used for evil and it cost him dearly. But that worked to reverse the effects of Thanos’s evil. (END SPOILER ALERT.) I’m not going to give a spoiler for the next one since it has been around since the early 2000s. But Aang absorbed the power of Fire Lord Ozai–a very risky move. But that showed how far he was willing to go to end the war.
    I would also say to have a backup person who is in on the plan and who can help negate some of the effects of what the other hero is trying to do—if that is possible. Another piece of advice is for a hero to avoid acting out of arrogance like Saruman did. Aang could do what he did, because he had pure motives. Sorry for the long answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Saruman is a great example of this. He thought he could handle what Sauron dishes out, which would have made him stronger. Yet, he failed. I don’t know about the sacrificial heroes exactly. I think it’s a different mentality to take action knowing you’ll die than to gain power for the sake of heroism. Those on the latter tend to assume they’ll live. Maybe that touches on the risk of hubris too.

      Liked by 2 people

      • L. Marie says:

        What about Merlin?


      • Merlin really had the same level of power from beginning to end. He only refined it. While he did the sacrifice thing at times, he didn’t gain power just to do that. Maybe learn a new spell, but that was still done legitimately and heroically.

        The scenario I’m talking about here is really morality. Does a hero become a bloodthirsty demon to save others? Do they sacrifice others to gain the strength to save the world? How far does a hero go to become strong enough to claim victory before they lose themselves entirely and become a villain? So I guess I’m thinking of the philosophical aspect.


  2. This is a great plot point. The struggle is what will hook readers, but it has to resonate. I’m with L. Marie in that a sidekick can also provide a bit of a moral compass. Makes it easier to explain to readers.


    • True. Having someone around to point out the line about to be crossed can help. Characters like that can become a symbol of the hero’s morality too. If they die or walk away then it’s a sign the hero has gone too far.

      Liked by 1 person

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