Character Crafting: Challenging Super-Powered Characters

…or, “The Superman Effect, Part 1”

Anyone who’s read When Dragons Die knows that the protagonists are essentially superheroes in a fantasy setting, and this gets even more pronounced in the upcoming third book. Aradma is ridiculously powerful, and Arda and Anuit grow to similar power levels as well. Kaldor, the incarnation of the Gold Dragon, also wields power of epic proportions. All of them are as far beyond the powers of the normal citizens of Ahmbren as Marvel and DC heroes are in the comic books over the normal citizens of Metropolis, Gotham, and New York City. How does one write an interesting “supers story”?

This is the question I’m going to explore in this two-part series dealing with superhero-level characters. As a study, Superman is the quintessential ultra-powerful hero, the “god-character.”

A good story requires that the hero is challenged. How do we create dramatic tension for a “god character”? It’s written over and again that a character like Superman is a challenging character to write for, since it’s hard to come up with a villain that challenges him. The easy thing to do is to rely over and again on the hero’s deadly weakness, the achilles heel… the kryptonite.

The other common technique is to bring out more and more powerful villains. While I do this from time to time in When Dragons Die, simply throwing a series of progressively more powerful villains at the heroes is a recipe for boredom.

But, there’s another dimension. They’re heroes. Which means, they’re moral characters. If the story is as simple as straightforward action, where the hero has to confront, fight and destroy the villain, then the god-character can become problematic. But, if the world and story is more complex than that, god-characters have more freedom to be interesting.

To look at it a different way: if every problem is a nail, all you need is a hammer. But, not every problem is a nail. Clark Kent could make pretty much anyone do what he wants. He doesn’t, because he’s not that kind of character. In When Dragons Die, Aradma has equally dramatic levels of power. She could, in theory, force Reverend Rajamin to leave her out of the Church and stop preaching that she’s a religious figure… if she resorts to violence. But violence, force, isn’t usually an acceptable way to solve our problems. Writing a world where violence is always used makes for a world that’s more barbaric, and less relatable, to our own. For most of us, violence is not an acceptable way to solve any of our problems.

To make a real-world comparison, as Americans we have the right to own personal firearms, and get a license to conceal-carry (I believe in most if not all states?). Any of us who hold a gun have unmatched lethal power compared to someone not carrying such a weapon. However, none of us can think of it as the means to solve our day-to-day problems (for those of us who do, we immediately cross into the cast of ‘villain’).

Superman doesn’t beat his way through every single one of his personal challenges. He might try to convince friends (as Clark Kent) to make better choices, but he respects the rights of people to make their own choices, and respects the rules and fabric of society. He’s not a “might makes right” kinda guy.

Assuming most heroes, even god-characters, aren’t “might makes right” people, then all we need to do to make them interesting is throw them in the world that has more moral and social nuance than villains who break the rules of society. Villains who come at you with violence are easy. Villains who come at you within the system without breaking any laws… those are more challenging, especially if they tempt the hero to break the rules he supposedly upholds.

What becomes more interesting is the choices the hero makes. How do I apply my power? Whom do I support? Which faction reflects my values? Do I choose to follow the responsibility of power and help society, or do I choose the personal connection of family instead? What consequences and heartache do these choices bring? These are the things that can make a god-character interesting, and relatable. Sometimes, the greatest struggle for the character are the inner struggles, the moral choices and temptations they face. Not every hero can be as pure as Superman. Sometimes god-characters make the wrong choices and have to learn from their mistakes.

The main books of The Ahmbren Chronicles mostly feature superhero-level characters in a fantasy setting. At some point, however, I’d like to do an anthology featuring the normal citizens of Ahmbren, the everyday people who have no special powers or abilities to rely upon. In a fantasy world, that can be a scary prospect.

Next week we’ll look at the other facet of ultra-powerful characters: the isolation effect.

Until next week,

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