I recently discussed high powered characters in a two-parter starting with how to make super-powered characters interesting, and then the isolating effect that power has on a person. Frank Herbert made an interesting comment in Dune: “It’s not that power corrupts, it’s that power attracts the corruptible.” As interesting as this is, it’s not a truism, and indeed power can very well be a corrupting influence. Let’s delve into the more traditional view of “power corrupts” from a character (and villain) crafting perspective.
The thing about Superman is that his character is perfect. I don’t mean “character” in the writing sense, but “character” in the integrity, morals and ideals sense. He has a fundamentally good set of values, and these are unwaveringly fixed. So, in this sense, Frank Herbert is right. Superman won’t be corrupted by his power because Superman’s character isn’t affected by his power.
But that’s not true for most people. Real people have to develop and grow into their character. We may have inherent natures (personalities), but we’re also highly shaped by “nurture”… our environment, our upbringing. I don’t buy that we’re complete tabula-rasas upon birth, as many parents with multiple children have told me, but each of us grow and are heavily shaped by our environments as we mature. In many ways, we are our memories and experiences (which is a spinoff topic for more sci-fi stories, for a different day). Star Trek: Nemesis attempted to tackle this topic.
Getting back to power…
Power takes many forms: social influence, intellectual ability, money, or its most basic form: might. Boiled down to its essentials, let’s define power as:
Power: the ability to make real one’s desired will in the world.
In fantasy, of course, magic comes under this umbrella as well. Wealth, magic, swords, guns, knowledge, education, influence… all metaphors for power. And, the concept of power is tightly linked with the concept of freedom.
Power can be internal or external. A character can desire change of their perceptions, change of their abilities (as an athlete trains, for example) or change in their external world (buy a house, protect the family, enslave a tribe of goblins…)
In the abstract, power is neutral. So what makes it a facilitator for corruption?
- The state of a person’s character while utilizing power vs. how checked or unchecked the power being utilized is.
- Relative power with surrounding people (the size of the “power gap”).
- Power’s Addictive Qualities
1. The State of Character
The first consideration is: who is wielding the power? Let’s dig a little deeper than the “Sure, it all depends on who has the power.” Let’s consider for a moment that each person, every character, both you and I, are corruptible. No one has a perfect, accurate view on everything, has the sight to foresee all consequences, and has perfect resistance to frustration, doubt, fear, etc. All of us grow and change.
This growth and change process through life (and for a character, through the plot of a story) brings up a key question: at what point, what state of growth, does the character exercise power?
Let’s consider that the character has power to enact his or her will. Let’s assume the power is great (meaning, obstacles to will can be overcome with relative ease… and the easier they are to overcome indicates the level of power). When does the character, in their growth progression, have this power? What are the character’s motives, desires, weaknesses? Is the character governed by fear and uncertainty? Then the choices the person makes on how to wield such power are likely to be uninformed and have unintended consequences. Is the character governed by greed or lust? Then the choices the person makes on how to wield such power are likely to disregard the effects the choice might have on others.
If we chart a character’s progression on a timeline, we can look at the start point (adolescence, perhaps, or Chapter One, wherever that might be) and the end point (a protagonist will move towards enlightenment and compassion, or a villain might tragically move towards cruelty or callousness). At what point does the character acquire power?
If early in the character’s development, the power is not earned. It is given, or inherent. We run into the Superman scenario where we are now dependent on the nature of the person as to whether it’s used for good or ill. Most of us aren’t Superman, so there is often a correlation between unearned power and corruption. (Kim Jong Un, for example, or Uday Hussein).
On the other hand, the zen master who spends a lifetime acquiring power through mastery, for example, earns it through discipline. Usually, wisdom is acquired along the way. One might argue there’s a correlation between wisdom and perspective (maybe not always, but it’s useful for story purposes) and the effort and difficulty involved in acquiring power. (Remember, I’m also linking power and freedom, so I’m not arguing that seeking power is, inherently, evil. William Wallace, for example).
The final consideration I want to make in the “state of character” section is to remember: Power allows you to remove obstacles to achieve your desire, and: power can be an inner struggle. If change and obstacles can come from within, then those obstacles can be removed by power. For example, one’s moral compass might be the obstacle to achieving a certain goal (e.g., those pesky gnomes have infested my garden again. I could just exterminate them all. That would be wrong. My powers of rationalization might ignore that obstacle as I throw my moral compass out the window… and viola. Dead gnomes=well manicured garden.)
Thankfully, Superman’s powers don’t include sidestepping his moral compass.
2. The Power Gap
Oftentimes, the presence of other people is an obstacle to achieving our desire (whatever that may be). Other peoples’ power check’s our own power. This includes moral and societal considerations of living peacefully together.
If we sit at the pinnacle of power, and the gap between us and others around us is large, then we have the ability to ignore others’ desires. Their power becomes irrelevant obstacles (because, by definition, we have more power). This can apply to money, influence, pull, societal authority, or military and economic might. What happens when my freedom to achieve my desire is dependent upon preventing others from achieving power that could become an obstacle?
Anakin Skywalker: he became too used to having much more power than those around him (“This is Jedi business!”), and even outperforming other Jedi. He became convinced he deserved more respect than he was given, and the Jedi order (his immediate society) became a hindrance to his desires (more respect and sleeping with Amidalla). He was eventually twisted into desiring power for its own sake, and rationalized “power to do what I want” (“Who’s going to force them, Ani, you?” “No, but the right person”) under the self-deceit of “protecting those I care about”. Once that rationalization blocked any inner moral compass, the Dark Side of the Force became his avenue to removing his other obstacles.
What determines whether the use of power is corrupt (evil)? Whether or not its use achieves the person’s goal at the expense or harm of another. There is a greater risk for this (consequences to others, intended or unintended) the wider the power disparity (the “gap”).
When the power gap widens dramatically between the person and other actors in the world, it becomes extremely easy to group other people in the same category of “obstacles to be removed or circumvented”. The character’s own inner values will be the ultimate factor as to whether they allow corruption to grow from the garden of power or not.
Power’s Addictive Nature
When a person’s power vastly outclasses anyone around them, then there is a lure to its ease of use (reference “The Dark Side of the Force” and “Anakin Skywalker”). They say once “you go down that Dark Path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” While I don’t hold to the literal morality of the Force as set forth in Star Wars, there is some truth to that: once you sidestep “the rules (whether it’s law, ethical rules, or what have you) once, it becomes easier to compromise your principles a second time. And a third time.
There is also an inherent joy in overcoming obstacles (ask any athlete). There is joy in being the victor in conflict (whether it’s a board game, video game, sports game, barroom brawl, gladiatorial match… or war.) As humans, we *like* feeling vindicated (victory in an argument) or teaching that asshat a lesson (the one who shoves us in the bar, or cut us off at the light). That little thrill has an addictive quality, and if we make a habit of indulging it, the seed of corruption blooms quickly. The aim for people falling into corruption can morph from their original goals into achieving victory over other people. It can become a personal vendetta to make the other person realize how wrong they are (even if they’re not), or even suffer.
We all have the seeds of corruption within us (none of us are immune to temptation and rationalization). When you consider giving a person (or character) unchecked power to achieve their desires, remove obstacles to include others’ objections or counter-power, the moral and informed state of their being, and the emotional rush that comes with overcoming such obstacles, it’s easy to see how we might say that power, itself, corrupts. Given that power is also freedom (or, freedom requires a certain amount of power), then I’m not willing to accept that power, in and of itself, is something which should be avoided. However, while Frank Herbert might be right that power attracts the corruptible, this statement is wrong to imply that power, though morally neutral, is without moral risk.
Therefore, I now argue:
It’s not that power corrupts; it’s that power provides a permissive environment for the seeds of corruption to flourish.
And we’re all susceptible to that.
Until next week!