Invulnerable vs Invincible

From Goldeneye

I wanted to do a week on characters who are ‘Invulnerable’.  As you can guess, I ran into an interesting stumbling block.  It started with a google image search where the above showed up fairly quickly.  This made me realize something:

People use ‘Invincible’ and ‘Invulnerable’ interchangeably.

Well, I can’t really dive into the topic if people are getting these similar, but different terms mixed up.  To be fair, I’ve used them incorrectly when not paying attention.  I remember comics not always making them different things, which confused me for a while.  Might be the reason for a lot of people making this mistake.  The best example is Superman, who would be considered invulnerable without being invincible.  How is that possible?

  • Invulnerable is when a person cannot be harmed.  They are not vulnerable to being injured.  Even then, certain situations can be created to undo this.  Special weapons or events can eliminate this ability.  Going back to Superman, you have magic, kryptonite, and red sun energy that negates his powers.
  • Invincibility is when a person cannot be beaten.  They can still be hurt, but they cannot be defeated.  Many will possess invulnerability, but this is not a required.  It’s harder to find characters like this because this disappears as soon as they are beaten.  This means, a character who is meant to maintain this needs to win every fight.  Best example here would be Saitama from ‘One Punch Man’.

Many authors will avoid both of these for their heroes, but there’s a bigger effort to dodge invulnerability.  A character who can’t be hurt won’t garner any concern from the readers and lead to invincibility.  That’s boring.  It also ignores that there are ways to work around it, which I’ll get into later in the week.  Really want to deep dive on this one at the end of the week and not with the concept of invincibility hovering about.

Now, the funny thing is that invulnerability is avoided while invincibility isn’t.  Sometimes it turns up without us realizing it.  A character who never loses is very appealing even if you’re having them getting injured in every fight.  We think that them getting hurt is enough to make the audience care, but they’ll pick up on the track record eventually.  This will make the injures feel like tricks that insult the intelligence of the audience.  I compare it to WWE wrestling back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Quick story time:

Back in college, my friends and I got into watching wrestling.  This was the over-the-top, action and silliness we needed to socialize and unwind.  As we got older, we started to notice a few trends.  One was that ‘The Rock’ had a habit of getting beaten up for most of his matches and then win with the same combo.  We joked that it was around the time there were 2 minutes left of the show.  So, we called it the ‘two minute rule’ and wouldn’t pay attention until we heard the announcers shout that the People’s Elbow as about to happen.  We knew the drill and felt no tension during these matches because his invincibility outside of PPV shows had been established.

I seem to have gone on more about invincibility and invulnerability, but that’s because the latter can lead to the former.  Not always in a good way too.  Usually in a bad way that hurts the story.  So, we have to use both with caution.  It’s easier to do that with invulnerability by having it not turning into invincibility.

So, what are your thoughts on these two terms?  Did you think they were the same thing?

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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15 Responses to Invulnerable vs Invincible

  1. L. Marie says:

    Charles, you have the most intriguing posts. Great topic! What would you consider Wolverine to be with his ability to heal? Or Dr. Manhattan? I’ve never written a character with either quality. Superman was a favorite back in the day when I read his comic books. I’ve been noticing more YA books about Greek gods—particularly demigod children of the Greek gods (probably due to the success of Percy Jackson). In one book, an author had the demigods magically stripped of his or her powers and turned into a human so that other gods could hunt that person. That person could then die. So I wonder if the author was trying to get around the issue you’re discussing.

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  2. I have to say I more or less considered both to be somewhat the same. Thanks for the clear separation. What would you call a character who can be harmed but not killed?

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  3. I think of invulnerability as a physical quality, while invincibility is psychological or emotional. You don’t have to hurt invincible characters and then have them come back. It’s that they don’t quit, even in the face of pain or fear or long odds. You could beat down an invincible character but then they stand up again.

    You might think of Superman as invulnerable, while someone like Captain America is invincible.

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    • The thing is that invincible tends to never lose. Captain America can be beaten. So, he wouldn’t really fall into the category. I think invincible characters should be rare too. That’s why seeing he term uses so often gets a little iffy to me.

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      • But think of Cap’s tagline, “I can do this all day.” even while reeling from a blow. Invincibility is not immunity to injury, it is the refusal to back down. despite it

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      • Refusal to back down doesn’t mean the character can’t be put down. He’s been beaten many times in the comic books. Cap is durable and tenacious, but calling him invincible would put him on a much grander power level that even Superman is technically not on. In terms of superpowers, invincibility doesn’t have to do with tenacity and refusal to back down. It’s if the character can be put down at all.

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  4. Interesting idea for the week. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

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