Character Crafting: The Isolation of Power

“The Superman Effect” Part 2

Last week we talked about the challenge of making god-powered characters interesting, and the mistaken assumption they are boring because nothing for them is challenging. I argued that’s only true in a one-dimensional story where all conflicts are resolved through violence. The second dimension I want to look at in regards to godlike characters is the interpersonal dimension it sets up with other characters: power isolates.

The case study I want to look at is an episode of Smallville. (Unfortunately I can’t remember which season or episode, but that’s not important). In the story, Clark Kent’s friend Pete has his mother threatened by criminals. Pete wants Clark to use his super powers to go after the guy who made the threat, possibly using preemptive violent force. Seeing how the bad guys haven’t actually done anything yet, and they don’t know Clark’s powers so that when Clark tells them to behave they don’t take him seriously, Pete is upset. Clark can’t be everywhere at all times, and he’s worried if Clark doesn’t do something preemptively, then they’ll get his mother first when Clark’s not around, and it will be too late.

And if that happens, then Pete will forever blame Clark for his mother’s death.

This story comes in the midst of the recurring Smallville theme of whether Clark should be keeping his powers secret from his friends or being honest with them. They all know something’s different, and they all sense he’s hiding something about himself. This continually sets up barriers to their friendship and disappointments as he’s obviously not honest with them. As each of the storylines leans towards the “should” of Clark being honest with his friends, this Pete storyline with the threatened mother ends up being an argument for “should” of keeping the secret. The bottom line with Pete’s character is that in this (and other episodes), he can’t handle knowing Clark’s secret. All he sees is the power, and a person who can just magically “solve anything” (which echo’s last week’s post). But, Clark isn’t a villain, and can’t just throw his strength around and force the people in his life (friend and foe) to behave the way he wants them so.

From a certain point of view, Clark’s powers isolate him from Pete once Pete learns about them. Pete treats him completely differently than before. In a way, considering wealth as a kind of power, this would be like winning the lotto. You’re an average Joe or Jane, and then one day your a multi-gajillionaire. Everyone wants something from you now. They can’t just see you as the person you still are; now they are always mindful that with a casual expenditure of funds that you wouldn’t miss, you could just solve all their problems. Right then and there. The wealth disparity is a form of power disparity, and power disparity isolates.

Ultimately, Clark Kent has to have a secret identity in order to have normal, human relationships and friendship. Superman just can’t, because Superman is a god.

While the characters in When Dragons Die are powerful, there are enough heroines and heroes that they do form a peer group of such, and are never quite faced with this question of isolation. However, I’m working on the prequel right now, Myth and Incarnation, about the rise of Aaron the God-King. Aaron ends up being the single most powerful living being in Ahmbren’s history, and I’ll definitely be looking at the concepts of how power can isolate a person from stabilizing friendships and social relationships.

And on that note, hope you all are having a great summer. Until next week,
Kyle

7 thoughts on “Character Crafting: The Isolation of Power

    • Right. One of my favorite lines in Dune was that “It’s not that power corrupts; it’s that power attracts the corruptible.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that power can’t be corrupting, but it’s an interesting spin on it. The problem with this line in Dune is that if the corruptible person attracted to power gains power, then what is it that corrupts them if not power?

      But, I do agree with the possibility that power is not necessarily corrupting to everyone. Just because you’re powerful doesn’t mean you must fall to evil.

  1. Interesting! I’d love to hear your analysis regarding why a character with godlike powers would suffer from the effects of isolation and ostracization. I can see an argument being made that a person who is all-powerful would soon lose the ability to empathize or relate to the petty needs of people and would even eventually lose their own humanity. Or perhaps transcend it. Huge topic for exploration!

    • Good point. I didn’t really talk about the effects of power on the character of power, but rather the effects of power on everyone else around him or her. In Superman, it’s not really an issue of power corrupting, because Kal El is pretty much not corruptible. In When Dragons Die, very few of the ultra powerful heroes are ones who achieved power because of desire for power, with the exception of Anuit. She sought power to control her own destiny and safety, and struggled the most with power’s corruption… but even so, this is not a big theme with the heroes. Their challenge in WDD is whether they use the power they’ve been given (the whole ‘with great power comes great responsibility’).

      I’ll have to delve further into the corrupting effects of power itself in the prequels, but I’m going to be careful on this. I’ve always liked the line in Dune that “It’s not that power corrupts. It’s that power attracts the corruptible.”

      In this light, Superman didn’t seek out his power, so he’s not attracted to power. He just has it. Aradma is the same way, as is Arda to a degree. The dynamic becomes more nuanced for characters who had to acquire their power. To a degree this includes Kaldor, because he learned to become a wizard before the Archdragon made his presence known within him. To the character that seeks, learns, or acquires power (which would include Anuit, Arda, Attaris, and anyone else who had to go through the discipline of learning), the ease vs. work aspect of acquiring the power might correlate to the corruptibility of the character.

      Seredith makes the comment later on that she detests sorcery because it’s the easy path to power. It’s not earned. Although, Seredith ends up going down a dark path as well in Tides… (teaser for Covenant’s sequel). But, there is some truth to that. Anuit is given access to a lot of power through her sorcery, even by sorcerer’s standards. She doesn’t really *earn* it early on.

      But, this leads back to characters like Superman, and Aradma. They don’t really earn their power either. They’re born with it. But then, they’re not the characters who seek power, so maybe those around them are just lucky. If General Zod had fallen as a babe into Kansas (especially with his genetically programmed character concept in the movie Man of Steel), he would have been “the kind of character who is attracted to power” (corruptible?) and already having power without having acquired it through discipline. Then, the life of Smallville and the rest of the world would indeed SUXOR.

      • In the real world, power that isn’t earned is every bit as corrupting as power that is. Consider the Roman Empire, or North Korea… Kim Jong-un certainly didn’t earn his power. Nor did Saddam Hussein’s late, unlamented sons, Uday and Qusay.

        • Is power itself *necessarily* corrupting, or does it depend on the person wielding it? Is the moral character of Superman (one given power, without working for it, but still in touch with people and uncorrupted) even possible in real life?

          • The historical examples of George Washington and Cincinnatus do suggest that an individual’s character can resist even enormous temptation and corruption. Hell, I’m even impressed at the way that Pope Francis is dialing back the trappings of power – it’s just cosmetic on one level, but still, it’s not something his predecessors did.

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