This week’s The World Of … takes a look at The Push Chronicles and how the book series tackles deconstructing and reconstructing the superhero genre. Also, I get in some more (fortunately on-topic!) gripes about Batman v Superman!
The image above is from Kingdom Come, one of the best DC Comics graphic novels out there, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. It’s a tale that covers both the best and worst, the highest and lowest concepts of the superhero, both as savior and destroyer. It was written and drawn by people who obviously understood the characters that move the plot and also have a deep respect for what these characters, our modern gods and heroes, mean and represent.
The alien immigrant who uses his uniqueness to make his adopted home a better place (a concept so incredibly American it hurts in today’s quagmire of xenophobia and idiocy) … a man who, through grit, determination, and skill, can manage to stand among gods (again, that spirit of determination and hope that we can all better ourselves) … a warrior who uses her strength not for conquest, but for peace (again, a paradox that is oh-s0 American, yet strangely compelling). Above all, these archetypes, this Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are bound by the principle extolled in the panel above. Though they might not always be successful, these heroes, these paragons, always try to find another way, a way to succeed that doesn’t cost in the lives of others, no matter whose lives they may be.
Before I move on, from here on out, there will be spoilers for the recently released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you read further, you have been warned!
Tropes are bad. Archetypes are hackneyed. Stereotypes are horrible.
Except when tropes are great, archetypes resonate with our souls, and stereotypes have that hard kernel of truth.
Genres, tropes, and archetypes form the building blocks of fiction, something that’s very hard, if impossible, to dispute. We use these things as guidelines and molds because that resonate with our culture, our history, and our life experiences. However, that doesn’t mean these things are perfect. Often they are far from it. Couple that with the march of progress and the changes our culture undergoes at a progressively faster speed, you can be left with a sense that these tried-and-true story bricks can crumble with age. There are some things you can do about that though, namely deconstruction and reconstruction.
Today was the day I began writing the final two books in the two trilogies I have been working on and I found, as I usually do, the beginning of the books to be the hardest. There is a particular reason for that and it’s something I realized would make for good material for a blog post so … here we are. The thing I run into most when beginning a new piece, especially one that is a continuation of an earlier work, is wrangling with the possible preconceptions that my readers have.
It is just human nature for a reader to begin to think about the future of the book’s (or the series’) plot and the outcome of the entire thing. Often, we form our thoughts about those things based on preconceptions and ideas gleaned from other similar works and genres. It’s how our minds work, helping to sort so many different facts by categorizing and sorting them by similarities and differences. For me as a writer, and possibly for others, there is a trap in those preconceptions.
If our plots run directly along those lines of thought, those tropes and plot devices, readers may think the whole thing is simply a stale retread of previous works. As artists and creators, we want our works to be distinctive, to stand on their own, and not be so linked to other works in the same genre that we simply copy what has been done in the past. On the other hand, preconceptions are not all bad and they aren’t all rote. Tropes, plot devices, and archetypes are there for a reason … they often represent points of connection to the human experience. Just as staying to close to them can lead to boredom and unoriginality, radically departing from them or excessively deconstructing them can lead to a sense of wrongness and bad logic to your work.
It seems to me that it is a constant dance we have to deal with as authors, fulfilling enough of our readers’ preconceptions to make them happy while changing or reconstructing enough of them to keep those same readers off-balance and entertained by originality. That’s the tightrope I find myself fussing over at the start of a new book and I’m fussing over it now.
Oh well, at least it usually passes in a day or two!
Do you feel that same tension when you write a new piece, especially a sequel? What tools do you use to help get around it? Talk about it in the comments below!
After recovering from the horrible experience of trying to do a coordinated midnight release (which I will talk about in another blog post), it’s time to get back on track with what most people like to see here: talking about writing! So, for today’s Looking at Character, we’re going to look at something that can either be a serious problem or a bit of clever writing: Designated Heroes and Villains (referred to for the rest of this piece as DHVs to spare my fingers). For those of you unfamiliar with the term, DHVs are protagonists or antagonists that share few, if any, of the classic characteristics of their classification in the story, but is treated by the story and most of the other characters in it as the opposite of their actions.
For example, a DHV that is the ‘hero’ of the piece may commit multiple crimes, act like a complete jerk to his friends, and have several ‘kick the dog’ moments, but for some strange reason, his actions are heralded as heroic and his ‘victories’ are celebrated by the masses in the world of the book. Simply flip the script for how a DHV that is an antagonist is portrayed: no matter how moral his/her actions and how much good he seems to do, the world treats him as the villain. On top of that, in both cases, it is obvious that the author intends the reader to feel the same way.
On the surface, this looks to be just a case of very bad writing. In some cases, it *is* just that: the DHV may be the result of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to actually portray his hero or villain as such or the author has a significantly different moral viewpoint than his readership, leading to a significant case of moral dissonance. However, that isn’t always the case.
A good way to use the DHV can be to highlight characterization. For instance, the ‘hero’ above may be celebrated early on because he/she hides his/her misdeeds behind good press or some legend or prophecy. However, over the course of the piece, he/she begins to realize how horrible of a person they are and begins to rise to the expectations people place before them. The ‘villain’ may likewise be obscured by societal expectations/bad reputation/etc. and over the course of the piece overcoming those barriers leads to an inversion of the book’s initial protagonist and antagonist. In such a way, you can use these constructs for good dramatic and characterization effect.
Another possible way to use the DHV in an interesting fashion is in comedy and parody pieces, especially in deconstructions of older tales and themes that rely on DHVs. I’m not a comedic writer myself, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I have seen such deconstructions and parodies be very funny and is a worthwhile use of the character construct.
So, when you write your protagonists and antagonists, make sure the consequences of their actions fits their deeds or at least be ready to explain why that isn’t the case, or you might wind up with a pack of characters designated into their roles. If you aren’t going for comedy, you might find that your readers feel such a dissonance with the situation that they put don’t your book and don’t come back. At the same time, don’t shy away from using DHVs if you utilize one of the dramatic or comedic structures to make them into truly interesting characters.
Feel free to comment and discuss below!
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!