I’ve been seeing the pictures a lot on the internet as of late. Batman taking down every challenge with all ease and no sweat, or Goku and Vegeta of DBZ fame strolling towards the entire Marvel line-up with the feel of two friends taking a walk in the park.
More interesting yet is that I’ve seen such attitudes leak into writing, with characters facing nary anything to make them wonder whether a battle is winnable. This brings me to something that every writer must consider.
Don’t make your hero perfect. Don’t make them emotionally flawless, and certainly don’t overpower them.
I count Indiana Jones as probably my favorite fictional character ever. What’s not to love about the guy? He’s a gentlemen and a scoundrel both, he can fly off the handle at times and get in over his head, he throws Nazis under trucks, you name it. However, if you were to ask me who would win in a fight between Indiana Jones and Superman, I would probably plant myself in Team Kent. I love doctor Jones, but he can’t win all the time.
Indiana Jones is a flawed character. His hot head can get him into trouble, he often needs other people to save him, and by the time each movie is done, he’s hardly in the best shape. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that final image though of his bruised and broken body coming off his latest adventure is one of the things that makes him so lovable, because it reminds us of the insurmountable odds that he was able to overcome.
The main purpose of a hero in fiction is to create a character that takes your audience on a journey. In order for a character to do that, they need to be relatable for your audience.
It’s true that some heroes are less figures to relate to, and more for the audience to look up to. Part of the appeal of the Goku character is that he basically has the powers of a god, but also has the naive innocence of a child. The character is still challenged by equal opposing forces. However, having a hero that is overpowered can be a great risk because it can send a bad message. When you see a hero go continuously unchallenged or beat their adversaries with special powers the reader does not have, it can make them feel as if those powers are the only way to solve their real life woes.
In Lord of the Rings, the hero wasn’t the immensely powerful Gandalf, but the tiny Frodo Baggins. This worked so well since like Frodo, the reader was often in awe at the characters that filled with world, and could at times feel unable to measure up. Frodo didn’t really have any special powers or skills to get him through the day, and in the end he needed to make it on power of sheer will. It was a will that failed him at times, but in the end he was still the most important character of all. It was something that was very inspiring for the reader, in particular those among us who often feel small.
If Frodo could go Super Sayan, how would that message have been affected?
That’s not the only way a hero can be sunk, though. One equally dangerous way to deliver a hero is to make them perfect morally.
I’m a fan of the movie Krull, the 1983 cult classic about aliens invading a fantasy world. It has a certain endearing charm that makes it impossible to hate, in spite of its incredibly poor screenplay. Its main weakness is its writing, both in the story and characters. The character that suffers most is the hero, Colwyn.
Colwyn is a Disney Prince. He’s polite and charming, chivalrous, and never does anything selfish or self serving. That’s part of his problem. He doesn’t learn to be a better or braver man since he is already that way at the start of the journey. He just goes from point A to B, and that’s not what a story should be.
Going back to Indiana Jones, he does some morally questionable things often. He cuts off a man’s finger and threatens to murder a helpless woman in Temple of Doom, shows poor judgement in character when picking his guides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and allows himself to be fooled by a seductive Nazi in Last Crusade. These mistakes and flaws leave opportunity for him to grow, which is just what a character should do. He goes from threatening women to saving enslaved children, goes from picking scoundrels to surrounding himself with friends, and overcomes his lust to see what lies beneath false beauty.
An overpowered or otherwise flawless character is something I think about often. It can be tempting to do this to your hero, because your hero is a character you love, and you don’t want to hurt your baby. Take my advice though, hurt them. Hurt them bad and hurt them often, because there is something inspiring about it.
There’s something more inspiring about seeing John McClane run across a glass covered floor than there is watching Superman fly across the world in a flash. There’s something more endearing about seeing a frightened Ellen Ripley journey into an alien nest than seeing King Arthur go to take on a dragon without dropping so much as a bead of sweat. This is because these characters are us.
The best characters are always us.