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We discuss in detail a new mechanism of nonlinearity of the light-current characteristic (LCC) in heterostructure lasers with reduced-dimensionality active regions, such as quantum wells (QWs), quantum wires (QWRs), and quantum dots (QDs). It arises from: 1) noninstantaneous carrier capture into the quantum-confined active region and 2) nonlinear (in the carrier density) recombination rate outside the active region. Because of 1), the carrier density outside the active region rises with injection current, even above threshold, and because of 2), the useful fraction of current (that ends up as output light) decreases. We derive a universal closed-form expression for the internal differential quantum efficiency ηint that holds true for QD, QWR, and QW lasers. This expression directly relates the power and threshold characteristics. The key parameter, controlling ηint and limiting both the output power and the LCC linearity, is the ratio of the threshold values of the recombination current outside the active region to the carrier capture current into the active region. Analysis of the LCC shape is shown to provide a method for revealing the dominant recombination channel outside the active region. A critical dependence of the power characteristics on the laser structure parameters is revealed. While the new mechanism and our formal expressions describing it are universal, we illustrate it by detailed exemplary calculations specific to QD lasers. These calculations suggest a clear path for improvement of their power characteristics. In properly optimized QD lasers, the LCC is linear and the internal quantum efficiency is close to unity up to very high injection-current densities (15 kA/cm2). Output powers in excess of 10 W at ηint higher than 95% are shown to be attainable in broad-area devices. Our results indicate that QD lasers may possess an advantage for high-power applications.