I think one of my favorite pieces of writing advice was delivered by Steven Brust. He suggested that in order to keep a reader's interest, an author's attitude towards his or her work must always be "And now I'm going to tell you something awesome!". I find from experience, though, that this attitude, while a good one, necessitates that the author walk a very careful line - if your character and the things they do are too amazingly awesome, the reader will often get bored and frustrated. If there's no chance the character can fail, there's no tension, no drama, and no story. In the online role-playing community, we call characters like these Mary-Sues, and frankly, nobody wants to play with them.
Today I want to talk about how this balance between awesomeness and vulnerability can be maintained, mostly via example of the author who I think managed it the best that anyone ever has - Frank Herbert, in Dune.
Paul and Jessica are amazingly bad-ass characters. They're essentially super-heroes, but unlike most modern depictions of super heroes (outside of some of the X-men lines), they've been extensively trained in their powers and know exactly what they can do and how to do it. Paul especially is super-human in about three different ways at once, being a Mentat, having a good proportion of the Bene Gesserit training, and his future-sense. You would wonder, then, how on earth (or Arrakis) anything could threaten them. Boring story, right? And yet it isn't. I know a lot of people who still consider Dune to be one of the most amazing epics they've read this side of Lord of the Rings.
What I find most interesting about the story is that the conflict doesn't necessarily come from another character. Baron Harkonnen got them into the situation they wind up in via his various cats-paw maneuvers, but in a flat fight, he stands no chance against Paul or his family. The story fascinates me, and I consider it particularly well done, because most of the conflict is environmental or internal, not interpersonal. That's tough to pull off, but I think it's one of the best ways to deal with characters that are that strong - the only thing that's strong enough to present a challenge to them is something as massive and impersonal as an ecosystem, or just their own strength. Most of Paul's conflict, both in Dune and throughout the series, comes from fighting against his future-sense, and what he comes increasingly to see as fate. He doesn't want to be the instrument by which the things he sees come to pass, and so he tries harder and harder to escape. Whether he ultimately succeeds, I think, is a decision that's up to the reader. These are ways to deal with a character so bad-ass that they would blow away any human opponent, and yet still make them seem human themselves.
Interestingly, though, before I end I want to point out that even with all of these precautions in place, ways to deliver conflict against a super-human character, to show them as being weak and vulnerable, it still happens sometimes that a number of people will take a dislike to the character because they're perceived as too powerful, too privileged. I've seen this in some of the cultural awareness of Dune - this is terribly unscientific, but in all my years of playing online games, I've seen scores more gamertags that are based on derivations of Feyd-Rautha then Muad'dib. I think the reason behind this is that although Feyd-Rautha honestly doesn't have many redeeming qualities as a character, there's an inclination on the part of certain readers to see him as parallel to Paul, and an underdog. This makes him infinitely more interesting to root for, even though Herbert clearly didn't intend for him to be a sympathetic character in any way. It's a reaction that authors should keep in mind, nonetheless.
So what are the lessons we can learn from Dune? Well, honestly, they're myriad, but the ones I want to take away today are that bad-ass characters are great, and will really pull readers in, but they need to have weaknesses and real human traits in order to remain interesting, and to allow a story to progress. Pitting two bad-asses against each other may seem like fun, but that can develop into an over-the-top Clash of the Titans that will leave readers cold. Environmental and internal conflict are a good way to deal with characters like these. And always remember, no matter how much you like your characters, there will always be somebody who likes the bad guy better.