Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lady Kickass & Superman: Why Too-Good Characters Are Still Good

I was on a certain writing forum once. An aspiring Epic Fantasy writer asked our crowd:

“I’ve written too good a character.
She’s smart, fast, generous, and good with a sword.
She’s too resourceful to ever lose. What can I do with her?”

It attracted the typical response: don’t write her like that. She was berated for creating a one-dimensional character and stifling all potential conflicts. “Mary Sue” was typed several times. Somebody even accused her of expecting readers to pay her to pen her own wish fulfillment.

That would have been my response if she caught me on a bad day. But, I arrived lucid. I recommended she write this protagonist into situations that weren’t simply win/lose. The following is closer to what I told her than is professionally flattering.

The gremlin war machines are pouring from the coastline.
They’ve laid siege to the north and south.
Lady Kickass is within half a day’s ride from
a nunnery in the north and a mechanist outpost in the south.
She may not even make it in time to assist saving either,
but she definitely can’t do both. One will be lost.
Which does Lady Kickass choose?

Okay, I renamed her character for the author’s anonymity. But the rest stood then as it does now. Situations abound in life where the stakes aren’t 100% Victory or 100% Failure. It ranges from who you sit with at lunch to how you allocate troops in Afghanistan. You do things for multiple reasons, and only have so much time and resources to accomplish anything at all. Writers always bellyache about there being too few hours in the day. Why not make that a problem for Lady Kickass?

It’s the dilemma of writing Superman. Since college, I’ve realized I love this character. But his bulletproof morality isn’t typically best displayed in a fistfight against someone’s bulletproof immorality. It’s in the decisions he has to make and the person they make him. My favorite thing Alan Moore ever wrote was For the Man Who Has Everything, which revealed the Man of Steel doesn't dream about us, but about living somewhere that doesn’t need him all the time.

I love Superman, at the very least as an archetype. I hold other people’s disdain for him with my own disdain. There is a grotesque demand in Literature, spiraling into all genres, to write “relatable” and “realistic” characters. Too often this means viewing your audience as cretins. They are vile, unimaginative subterranean spawn, all hideous, craven, and incapable of enjoying stories about anyone scarcely above their own level in any way. Something happened in the last five, ten, hundred or thousand years that eradicated wonder and aspiration. At some point, common readers became incapable of finding inspiration in characters who had capacities beyond their own. This marketing insight would mystify Christians and Muslims, whom adore deities and mortals they deify. From Hercules to House, M.D., we know the grubby audience stereotype is at least overblown.

Most of my characters are defined by one incapacity or another. It’s how I generate fictional people. But I’d never stifle the outrageous only for being outrageous. Like most bugbears of fiction, it’s not that a highly capable character is intrinsically bad. It's that you have to earn it, make it entertaining, and generally, make it worth the reader's time. Often that’s as simple as giving Lady Kickass some consequences.


  1. Thank you. It's refreshing to hear from someone not on the "good hero bashing" bandwagon.
    Sometimes I want to read about someone larger than life. Isn't that a part of fantasy?

  2. Today I'm going to be agreeing with you. Yes, a Mary-Sue CAN be a problem, but it's only a problem if she has too many tools for the problem. Basically it doesn't matter how inhibited or awesome your character is, if they don't have real conflict, they are going to be boring.

    And I think that's why superman was successful. Sure he was...well superman, but he did have some weaknesses and they were exploited.

    Now getting to the moral side of things, (yes, I'm going back there slightly) I personally prefer a character that shows some lapse in moral judgement once in a while to let me know they are still a human, but I think that's just the literary snob part of me coming out.

    Thanks for the post

  3. Well put, John. Even the superhero has faults and weaknesses, but to take it a step further and display his character through tough choices and consequences is even better.
    I'm trying to think why I liked Richard so much in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth Series - he was definitely the superhero archetype...I might have to go revisit that character.
    Thanks for the great insight, John.

  4. Erin,

    Having read that series, Richard may have had amazing powers, but most of the time he was limited in the use of them by either his lack of knowledge of how to unleash them, or he had them taken away (Mord Sith, Sisters of Light, Necci, etc.)

    In that case he had to rely on his natural intelligence and instinct, but again he was almost always in a situation that he was lacking the appropriate knowledge.

  5. Sheesh, it took me long enough to respond to comments. My apologies. Spent most of today editing the manuscript. Couldn't let midnight come before responding to these thoughtful comments.

    Laura, happy to stand up for the good hero. I think it was Moses Siregar III who wrote a nice piece earlier this year on characters with ethics. I dislike the modern trend of every protagonist having to be some sort of crumby anti-hero or worse. I actually suspect there are some unsavory urges behind it. Not entirely, but they're there.

    Michael, glad to be on your good side this time. Anything that makes you think 'Mary Sue' is a problem, right? You defuse that issue by removing the many tools, or expanding the scope of challenges. In many modern Fantasy works, especially anime, you can create very popular ultra-handy characters by putting them at only one front of a conflict. And you're totally right that Superman has weaknesses. Some days it seems like they're more exploited than the weaknesses of we earthlings.

    I can enjoy characters who have lapses in moral judgment. I think it's the mark of a great writer who can make me deeply sympathize with a character whose mentality or morality I'd otherwise find repugnant. But I'm also interested in circumstances where she/he isn't purposeuflly doing the wrong thing, but doing the mixed thing, or doing the one good thing and living the consequences of not doing the other. Can these also work for you?

    Erin, on superhero faults, yeah, they are handy to have. Usually gives you some room for creativity in conflicts. But consequences - I think the real sense of consequence is something missing in a lot of superhero comics. Some Fantasy novel series also eventually struggle for appreciable scope, and punch themselves out on implied grandeur. I'm working diligently to avoid that in my book now.

  6. Well I like larger than life characters, but even if they are a hero, I think they become more exciting when they have to face a real challenge, and when we are shown that they are not perfect that makes the whole thing more interesting.

    PS: Batman is my favourite ^__^ he's a super hero and yet he has that brooding anger about his parents death that drives him on makes him colourful.


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