Looking at Character

Looking at Character: The Invincible Hero

As an author who writes superhero books, I have a long-held love of the comic book medium.  I’ve been reading them since I was a little kid and still keep up with them in various formats.  The other day, I came across a discussion of what people thought were the rights and wrongs of the latest Superman movie and what it boiled down to, in essence, was a talk about the difficulties of writing an interesting story for so powerful of a character.  I came away from that forum mulling it over myself and decided to take the musings here to my blog.  It’s time for another round of Looking at Character with today’s guest, the Invincible Hero.

At first blush, the Invincible Hero looks a lot like our other friend, the Ace, but there are some vital differences.  Like the Ace, the Invincible Hero is the best of the best, a seemingly unstoppable force.  Nothing seems to slow him down and even the rare setback is fleeting and temporary.  However, unlike the Ace, who is a supporting character and used in various ways to interact with the protagonists, the Invincible Hero *is* the protagonist.  Hercules, Achilles, Superman, Hulk Hogan … all of those characters in their prime certainly fit the bill.  So the question remains: How do you write an effective plot about a protagonist that, by definition, easily overcomes any direct conflict?

There are a few ways to go about it.  The first one is to go about deconstructing the myth of the Invincible Hero.  In a deconstruction-based story, the conflict is generally not the obvious external one, but conflicts generated by the flaws and foibles that are hidden behind the shining facade of the Hero.  Concepts such as alienation from the rest of humanity, hubris from his/her invincibility, loosing touch with one’s humanity, the burden of the expectations of the masses (realistic or not), and so on can be explored to shine light on the realistic problems of being put above the rest of the Hero’s peers and relations.  In such a way, the Invincible Hero becomes relatable; though his problems may still be on a different scale, they are simply larger versions of issues everyone faces, allowing the reader to connect to him/her.

Another way to spark conflict and plot is the approach of ‘the bigger fish’.  Yes, the Invincible Hero is unstoppable compared to his usual opposition, but that doesn’t preclude an even more awesome threat from existing, thus creating a new conflict where the normally triumphant Hero is faced with the prospect of being the underdog.  As with straight deconstruction, this makes the Invincible Hero relatable by injecting all-too human feelings such as fear and a sense of inadequacy into the equation.  The potential stumbling block, though, is the possible temptation to inject these feelings then quickly have them ‘overcome’.  This is usually meant by the author as a show of the Hero’s true courage or what-not but it usually comes off as just another problem the Invincible Hero can shrug off, unlike the reader, causing an even larger rift in relatability.

The last way that came to mind to give an Invincible Hero a good story is to approach the primary conflict in a way that is outside of the Hero’s element.  However unstoppable the Hero may be, there are undoubtedly areas and problems where his/her particular set of abilities and skills are not useful.  Making the conflict revolve around some problem that cannot simply be directly confronted once more brings the Hero down to the human level, allowing the writer to showcase and develop the Hero’s character as he/she struggles with a problem instead of running it over as per the norm.  Another facet of this that could be fascinating to explore is the Hero’s social and familial life.  Again, it’s a source of conflicts, vital ones, that build character but cannot simply be approached by kicking down doors and beating up bad guys.

It’s not hard to see that all of these approaches revolve around finding ways to interject a strong dose of relatability into the Invincible Hero.  As characterization is usually the heart of a good story, that ability to relate to the protagonist is vital.  If we have no way to connect, we usually cease to care about the character in a short period of time and no amount of finely crafted action or well-rendered description will fix that.

What do you think?  Have you ever had to write an Invincible Hero?  If so, how did you tackle their relatability?  Comment below!

Looking at Character: The Load

Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each.  As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas.  Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them.  Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.

The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’.  Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece.  The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters.  The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin.  Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them.  Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.

I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character.  For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above.  In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists.  However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying.  Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all.  In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group.  One is a Load, the other is something else.

Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing?  Well, no.  Not always.  There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations.  Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure.  The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger.  He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization.  A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.

The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically.  If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly.  Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust.  Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character.  Don’t do it!

I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype.   These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers.  If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.

What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction?  What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element?  Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature?  Let me know in the comments!