Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm No Superman (Thank Goodness)

So you've finally gotten out of the habit of inserting yourself into your stories. You've moved forward as a writer. However, your characters still feel a little flat. This could be due to several factors, but the one I'm addressing today is Superman.

Here we see what it would look like if Perry Mason threw on the costume.

Don't get confused and think that I'm saying that Superman is a boring or shallow character. On the contrary, he's pretty interesting (but not as much as Batman). I'm just using him as an example of a character-type. To avoid confusion, I'll refer to this type of character as the Invincible.
Now, lets define what I think of as the Invincible in terms of his traits and actions.
• He doesn't have any weaknesses. Nothing can defeat or harm him in any way. The Invincible doesn't even have that debilitating emotional weakness (i.e. a girlfriend) to be used against him, unlike a certain Clark Kent.
• He's already the best at what he does, and he does everything. Not only that, he does it perfectly on the first try, and without even practicing beforehand.
• He knows he's the Invincible, and so he doesn't have to fear anyone or anything.
• He actually shows the other characters just how weak they are by simply going about his day.
Every character needs a weakness. Even Superman, in all of his almost godlike power, has that one weakness.

Without that weakness, the comics, nay, the series would end on the first page. “Superman crashed on Earth, rose to power and fought petty criminals forever and ever and ever. Nobody could stop him. The End.” I suppose he could also end up like Doctor Manhattan from the Watchmen. I'm not recommending that you see the movie, (actually I recommend staying as far away from it as possible,) but essentially Dr. Manhattan is Superman without any weaknesses. In fact, he's so powerful that he is incredibly depressed and detached from the world because there isn't a thing in the universe he can't do. He's too powerful for his own good. It's depressing (just like that whole stupid movie).
Strengths and weaknesses define characters. It's very difficult to have a character without both. If they have only strengths, they're Dr. Manhattan; if they're all weakness, they're Woody Allen. Both extremes have their own sets of problems, so let me explain by using a good middle-road character. Lets take Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter. The kid is a mess. He's neurotic and he never wins at anything. For most of the series, he's a quivering bundle of nerves. He's used for both comedy and tragedy, but as a character he's about 90% weakness. As the series goes on, we see Neville actually getting a little bolder and doing a little better. By book five, we find that with a little encouragement, this heretofore pathetic character is actually quite good at defense against the Dark Arts. His continuing rise to bravery is one of the best parts of the whole series. If Neville had been a tanned, buff Invincible at the start of the series, he'd be the worst part of it. We'd think, “of course Neville could win at Quidditch. He never loses.” Offhand, I admit that I can't remember if Neville ever actually played Quidditch. Someone comment and tell me if he did.

And while you're at it, tell me how this happened.

What makes the Invincible so detrimental to a story is the fact that he doesn't seem to grow as a character, and that makes him boring. Growth is everything. Readers (and watchers of television and movies) expect to see a character, and usually their relationships go from point A to B to Z by the end of the program. If the character is the same at the end of the story as he was at the beginning, he seems flat. This is one of the reasons people didn't like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, because Alice stays basically the same throughout, except for the very end where she tells that ugly suitor where to stick it. It was a pretty minor journey. I'd say it was a point A to B progression because she didn't go very far.
Look at Lord of the Rings: The characters at the end of the story are quite different from how they began it. It's point A to Z, easily, or perhaps point A to something that comes after Z. Think of how boring it would have been if Aragorn could have single-handedly taken on all of the armies of Mordor!
Another example of an interesting character progression is Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451. In the beginning of the book, Guy is actually one of the bad guys, or at least he's working for them. He even enjoys burning books. By the end of the book, Guy's opinion on almost everything is changed. A to Z again!
The reason audiences want to see a flawed character succeed is because flawed people are what people can relate to. Having a perfect character isn't relatable and it isn't interesting. Don't do it. In fact, you have my recommendation to screw up your character as much as possible, as long as you promise to fix them up (a little) by the end.