Thursday, February 6, 2014

Holding Out for a Hero(ine)

This is one of my favorite posts. It was originally published on March 9, 2010 as part of a blog chain (which seems to be defunct now, alas). The only thing I've changed is I embedded a different video of "Holding out for a Hero." Also, since I wrote this post, Across Two Universes has been published as Twinned Universes, and "Move Over Ms. L." has been published as Lyon's Legacy.

Yep, the Blog Chain post is making its first appearance on my blog this month. Eric posed this question:

Do you create characters that are larger-than-life or are your characters more like the average Joe?

(For discussion purposes, let's use his definition of "larger-than-life" as meaning exceptionally talented. It doesn't have to be a supernatural talent--an Olympic athlete would be larger-than-life.)

In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card discusses how these two types of characters go in and out of fashion. Most of my esteemed fellow Blog Chainers, from Eric to Kate, have been on the side of the average Joe or Jane. I think some of this is due to genre. A few people admit their characters have a slight supernatural twist, but for the most part, larger-than-life characters are considered too perfect, too hard to relate to, or even too cliched. We're at the end of the chain now, and there's only one person left to champion the champions: a short, overweight, almost-middle-aged speculative fiction writer. In other words, me.

Let's cue some music for our discussion:

Most of my protagonists have had some extraordinary gift. My first two books featured magicians, as does my short story "A Reptile at the Reunion." My NaNoWriMo book from 2007 had a pair of shapeshifting sisters. Paul, the hero of Across Two Universes, lives in a science fiction universe, but he has a "quantum quirk" of his own. The only protagonist who might be considered an "ordinary Jane" is Paul's mother, Joanna, in my novella "Move Over Ms. L." So, how do I avoid the previously mentioned pitfalls of larger-than-life characters?

First of all, I don't think a larger-than-life character is necessarily perfect--or should be. Many legendary characters had flaws as big as their virtues. Hercules was very strong, but he wasn't above using dirty tricks in battle. Lancelot was in love with his liege's wife. Modern-day larger-than-life athletes like Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods have shown what I'll call lapses of judgment. Even my beloved Beatles have done drugs, had affairs, made poor business decisions, and otherwise proved they're not perfect. Having an extraordinary talent doesn't mean you're invincible either; just look at Achilles and Samson. I could go on, but the point I want to make is that the larger-than-life characters may be good at what they do, but if they're too good, then the story loses any suspense factor. Struggle is at the heart of all stories, so your characters have to face challenges that force them to stretch themselves. Heck, much of the time my characters struggle just to get along with their allies!

Another concern writers have about writing larger-than-life characters is how to make sure the average reader can relate to them. It's not as if most of us turn into animals every full moon or perform magic and read others' minds. Here, I think the key is to focus on emotions or experiences that can be universal. Many larger-than-life characters in speculative fiction face problems readers can relate to; for example, Carrie Vaughn's werewolf Kitty has a mother dealing with cancer. A classic Star Trek episode, "The Devil in the Dark," features an alien that's basically a sentient rock. Yet this creature is also a mother trying to protect her young. How can any parent not relate to that? If you can relate to a rock, magicians and other larger-than-life characters ought to be easy.

As for whether or not larger-than-life characters are cliche, I think anything can become one. It's not always easy to find a unique spin on a subject, but it can be done.

Going back to Eric's question, why do I prefer larger-than-life characters? Part of the reason is escapism and wish fulfillment. I live in Midwestern suburbia, and I like taking mental breaks from it with my fiction. Having high-powered characters means you can demand more of them; they buy you a seat at the high-stakes plot table. But there are other reasons for enjoying larger-than-life characters and speculative fiction. By looking at the extremes of the human condition (or even examining non-humans), we can learn something about the ordinary parts too. And while ordinary characters in extraordinary situations can do astonishing things, extraordinary people can inspire us to transcend the commonplace and reach for something we never thought possible. Our future depends on how far we can see and our drive to try new things. If we work at it, what was once considered extreme or even impossible can become part of our mundane reality.


  1. Plus, Hercules was saddled with his love for Meg. Or is the Disney version non-canon?

    This was well-written. You've hit on the key to creating any character, man or superman (Nietszche can't sue, can he?)(Did I get that reference right?), which isn't necessarily empathizing with them, but rather the idea that there is potential conflict and the ability to rise above it.

    Sometimes the conflict is easy: Hercules wants to be a god, but wants to save Meg's life, for example (sorry: I have 7-year-olds). Sometimes the conflict is harder: Superman wants to save the world but they might hate him because he's a superior alien. (I'm leaving aside the kryptonite and killing things for now.) Batman fights crime by being half-criminal himself.

    So it's not whether your character is larger than life, but whether she has something to rise above, anyway.

    I've often said that I wanted someone to write a story about an all-powerful wizard or something that can literally do anything, no limits on his or her power, and see what they do with that. That's the supersuperhero, so to speak. So I did kind of that thing, in my story "hoc nunc est, quod tunc erat, et nunc... et nunc... et nunc"

    (This isn't a totally shameless plug, of course, but it is a plug:

    As that is the link to the story), and what I realized was that even with godlike powers, there might still be something nagging at a person.

    So I think my supersupergod comes off as kind of human. Not as human as a rock trying to save her kids (that sounds AWESOME, by the way) but it's that bit of humanity that gets emphasized by the superiority that makes a character fun to read about.

  2. I think "larger-than-life" has more to do with what a character does with what he has rather than what he could do with what he has. Hercules could have sat around playing video games all day and no one would have known about him.

  3. Also, Briane, that character you're talking about... that's Molecule Man from Marvel. Or the Beyonder. I'm not sure whatever happened to Molecule Man once they did the whole "he can do anything he can imagine" thing.

  4. Briane, I'm more familiar with the classical Hercules than Disney's version. And I do think we want characters to feel human, even if they're not.

    Andrew, good point.

  5. I read this the other day, but clearly, did not comment. So, yes, I think I like everyman sort of characters myself. I'm told that readers love experts, or folks that are exception at something. But I really like a regular person that overcomes despite not being even remotely qualified to do anything.

    I do think that larger-than-life characters are generally personalities, and I think they're necessary for good fiction too. So, basically, I want an average Jo that is also completely abnormal.

    No problem.