Kill This Character: The Superman

| Thursday, February 25, 2010
Today's Tune: Superman

Two ideas for themed series posts in one week? OMG.

This concept came to me when I was considering characters that really didn’t work for me, and why they didn’t work. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference.

One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. Onward!

Kill The Superman! (or Woman)

Who this character is: Mr. (or Miss) Perfect. They’re flawless, incredibly good-looking, brilliant, talented at everything they do, obsessed over by every possible romantic interest, and generally have all the characteristics that make them the most awesome, overpowered character in the story. If the story involves some sort of life-threatening situation, they’re also excellent fighters who are impossible to kill, either due to super strength, impenetrable skin, wicked mind powers, or basic sheer badass-ness.

Why this character doesn’t work for me: They’re too perfect. There’s nothing normal or wrong about them. Occasionally they have some Dark Secret, like being The Only One of Their Kind or having a Deep-Seated Insecurity, but it’s not usually something big enough to sway me from the fact that they are too massively incredible to be serious. It doesn’t ring true. No one is good at everything, AND a genius, AND unkillable, AND the Hottest Person Since Ever.

The problem with being an Absolute Winner from the start is that there’s little room for them to grow, which is what a story needs. Any problems that are later tacked on (everyone loves this person, but ONE new kid doesn’t think they’re ALL THAT) seem trivial because they already have everything.

It’s also very, very difficult for me to connect with or root for a character I know can’t be seriously injured or threatened. You can toss an army at them, and they wipe everyone out and walk away with barely a scratch. How am I supposed to feel tension there? This character is usually painted as incredibly brave, but I always wonder how someone can be truly brave when there’s no way for them to lose.

How to make this character work: They MUST be flawed. Not superficially flawed, but not flawed beyond reason, either. Don’t give them everything. If the character gets to be very good-looking and smart, they can’t also be amazing at athletics and a musical virtuoso. They should be bad at something. We all are.

Don’t make them indestructible. The bad guy has to win sometimes, or else you’re just watching cheesy episodes of old-school Batman. BIFF! POW! ZAP! Curse you, Batman! Foiled again! There should be a point in almost any story where I’m seriously afraid that the hero isn’t going to get what he wants. And I should CARE.

Even the real Superman has a weakness. Even he can be killed.


{ Shelley Sly } at: February 25, 2010 at 2:14 PM said...

I am so with you. Down with super perfect characters! *throws Flaws at certain characters she's read about* Take that!

This looks like it's going to be a great series, by the way.

{ jjdebenedictis } at: February 26, 2010 at 1:28 PM said...

Yeah, the super(wo)man is usually the author's self-insertion fantasy, and super(wo)man weakens the story for exactly the reason you say: the plot has no tension if there is no possibility of the protagonist losing.

Plus it's embarrassing to read about the daydream someone's insecurities birthed.

I, erm, once had such a character. I think it's a fairly normal part of a writer's learning process. When I realized what she was, however, I split her into two characters. That worked much better because not only were they both believable now, they didn't get along with each other. Conflict, hurray!

{ Mohamed Mughal } at: June 2, 2010 at 8:18 AM said...

Some of my favorite literary characters seem to be the very antithesis of the stereotypical superman. Case in point: Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim in "Slaughterhouse 5." Now there's a fellow far from perfect!

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