In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.
The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.
There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.
Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.
Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.