Cursed Characters: How Powered Protagonists Are Viewed within Their Worlds

This article is the third in a five part series dealing with the pitfalls and advantages of creating superpowered characters. Parts One and Two may be read here and here.

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So far we have covered two items that should be considered by authors when they are creating empowered heroes. These aspects are handicaps and whether or not having a superpower automatically makes the protagonist a hero. Now we come to the third, equally important challenge inherent in the decision to make an empowered character: How is the enhanced protagonist or his kind viewed by the “normal” population within his world or universe?

For writers, this speculation offers many opportunities, but also a number of dangers. It is very hard to find a fictional cosmos which includes empowered people who are not feared in some way. From the Jedi to the Systems’ Commonwealth to the X-Men and beyond, most people without extrasensory abilities find those who possess them frightening to one degree or another. As we shall see, this is only natural – and it is absolutely imperative that authors never dismiss this public concern out of hand or treat it as trite.

The main reason they must not do this is simple: power of any kind will, if used for selfish motives, corrupt the wielder and lead him/her to the Dark Side. The mild illustration of a teenage couple breaking up due to the machinations of jealous peers should make this clear. Let us say that the girl in this relationship hears a false rumor about her boyfriend making fun of her with his friends, while he is lied to and told that she is cheating on him with another boy. In many situations like this, after breaking up, the two do all sorts of petty things to avenge themselves on one another for the “betrayal” they experienced.

Even without the addition of extraordinary powers, we can see that the odds of this scenario having a happy finale are not good. But take a step back and ask yourself this, future writers: “What happens if the girl discovers she is a pyrokinetc (a fire manipulator and/or generator)? What happens if the boy realizes he can move things with his mind, hear the thoughts of others, and/or compel them to do something? What does their desire to gain vengeance on one another for these perceived betrayals look like then?”

The probable answers to these inquiries are unpleasant, to say the least. If the girl has pyrokinetic powers, she might decide to use her gift to cause bodily or financial harm to her ex-boyfriend. If the boy is telepathic and telekinetic, then he could force his ex-girlfriend to walk off a bridge downtown as “punishment” for her infidelity. These are horrific uses for paranormal gifts, but they illustrate the temptations that these one or two enhanced characters will face in such a situation.

Now if we extrapolate this idea and apply it to adult men and women – each of whom faces some kind of heartbreak, temptation, or sinful inclination every single day – we begin to see why individuals with extraordinary abilities make “normal” people nervous. After all, what is to stop a man who can cause earthquakes from destroying a building or perhaps a city in a blind rage after he sees his son killed in a hit-and-run? And why couldn’t a woman with telepathic abilities use her talents to manipulate her way into the halls of power, killing her enemies at a distance or leaving them in a persistent vegetative state when they come too close to uncovering her sins?

Living in a world where people have superior strengths is suddenly not as appealing as it was five minutes ago, is it, readers?

Actually, it is still an attractive idea; otherwise we would not be considering writing about it. Part of what makes it appealing is that we, the authors, know that there are empowered protagonists within these fictional universes who would be appalled by such abuses of extraordinary gifts. We know that these champions, rather than standing aside and gasping in dismay, are willing to put their lives on the line to stop those who would purposely misuse their abilities for selfish reasons or to assuage their grief. And our readers will know it, too, once our stories are laid out before them.

But in most of these fictional universes, the general population will never be as certain as we are that this is the case. Lacking our narrative perspective and powers of their own, sooner or later the regular inhabitants of our fictional worlds will wonder if those with unusual abilities are really as virtuous as they claim. They will be even more inclined to question such statements after one or two empowered people “suddenly” go bad and use their amazing powers to cause a great deal of damage and/or heartache.

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The original Star Wars timeline utilized this understanding in a variety of ways. While the resurgent Jedi Order under Luke Skywalker was generally accorded respect and love, a healthy dose of fear was also present among those who were not able to touch the Force. Those with selfish ambitions and a desire for power hated the Jedi, naturally, since the Order was founded to defend innocents from their depredations. But ordinary people in the New Republic often worried about being in close proximity to Force-sensitives as well, since many well-respected Jedi had fallen to the Dark Side in the past. A number of Luke’s trainees turned to aside from the Light, too, leading to much destruction and death. Many of the common people naturally came to mistrust the Jedi after these events, keeping their potential for evil in mind at all times.

While certain individuals may have disliked the Jedi due to prejudice, jealousy, or trepidation about the unknown, the writers did not rely on intolerance as the only basis for popular wariness of the Order. This is an important distinction to keep in mind, for leaving such details out of tale or portraying them as hackneyed leaves a great deal of fictional potential unexplored. Experience – bad and good – is a potent teacher. Accumulated experiences, such as repeated incidents of Jedi turning to the Dark Side and wreaking havoc on the galaxy, would inculcate a guarded response from people who were not Force-sensitive.

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The same goes for the above-human denizens of other universes. In Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, for example, the genetically enhanced Nietzcheans were not viewed favorably by other humans after the majority of their subspecies rebelled against the Systems Commonwealth. This was due in no small part to the fact that, after the Battle of Witchhead, the more powerful Nietzchean Prides then went to war with one another. This led to widespread, pointless death and destruction across the three known galaxies formerly governed by the Commonwealth.

Following the Nietzchean conquest of worlds which were populated by non-enhanced humans, their genetically-engineered “cousins” made the lives of normal humans a living hell. Ordinary humans were subjected to purges, crucifixions, and other torturous deaths for crimes or simply for sport. By the time the Andromeda Ascendant had returned to active service, the Nietzcheans were understandably distrusted, hated, and feared throughout the galaxies. While some normal humans held violent grudges against the Nietzcheans, their reasons for doing so were neither unwarranted nor born of pure bias. Given the near universal poor experiences ordinary humans had had with their “cousins,” the reaction is entirely natural – even when the individual Nietzchean or Pride had done nothing to earn it.

Image result for x-menAnd while the X-Men of Marvel Comics’ fame were often unjustly persecuted simply for being mutants, normal humans did have reason to be wary of the mutantkind in general. Many different mutant villains used their extraordinary abilities to cause great harm to unempowered people. Although Magneto was a clear and powerful threat, even the less robust mutant villains could severely wound humans with no advanced X gene. Is it any wonder then that “baseline” humans, caught by a surprise display of unusual ability from someone they had assumed was “average,” would react to the revelation with a certain amount of fear?

Quite obviously, it is not shocking at all. In fact, it is very understandable and human. Too often, however, modern writers creating stories about superpowered protagonists, an alien species with paranormal abilities, or even an enhanced subspecies of humans focus on how this public apprehension is irrational and/or based on pure prejudice. Few ever deal with the notion that this dread has a basis in the genuine experiences that their protagonists or fictional populations have endured, and this makes their universes incomplete. Man does not live in a vacuum, and to intimate that he does – even in this minor regard – is to weaken the reader’s suspension of disbelief to some degree.

In order to build realistic worlds and characters, this understanding should not be dismissed or remain uncultivated. Such details make an author’s fantastic worlds more realistic. At the same time, they also provide writers with the ability to explore the formation of relationships between characters and species that are antagonistic in highly entertaining and interesting ways. These additions also raise the stakes, add tension, and allow a writer to investigate the human condition fearlessly.

Star Wars found an innovative way to do this in the original timeline through the addition of the Antarian Rangers. Unlike the rest of the normal galactic population, those who joined the Rangers did not fear the Jedi at all. Men and women from multiple species, the Rangers acted as a private, paramilitary army which served the Order directly in whatever capacity was required for a particular mission. Made up of Force-sensitives too weak to be Jedi and those who had no sensitivity to the Force at all, these Rangers would deploy in ones and threes with individual Jedi in situations where the Force-users needed covert aid or reconnaissance.

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Masters of their environment – whatever that might be – the Rangers served the Jedi for centuries. Some even married and raised families with Jedi. They remained an active group up to and throughout the Clone Wars. But between that conflict and Order 66, wherein the Antarian Rangers were as much of a target as the Jedi they served, their numbers were severely reduced. The survivors went into hiding to await the resurgence of the Order, which was later accomplished under Luke Skywalker.

This association instituted by the original writers in the Star Wars expanded universe opened up a number of viable, fascinating story arcs in that timeline. An example is a Force-sensitive character, Tyria Sarkin, who was introduced into Wraith Squadron by Aaron Allston. Descended from a long line of Rangers, she eventually became a Jedi, as did her son. Other stories set prior to A New Hope showed the Rangers in action, and enterprising authors today can doubtless see the potential for similarly captivating stories if they establish such organizations and characters in their own novels or series.

Likewise, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda did not paint all Nietzcheans with the same brush. Though the majority of the Prides rebelled and overthrew the Commonwealth, some remained loyal to the fallen government’s ideals. Joining with a number of non-enhanced humans, they settled on a planet called Tarazed and remained largely untouched by the intergalactic collapse of civilization. They aided their ordinary human “cousins” in maintaining the principles of that system during the three hundred year “Long Night,” until a new Commonwealth was established by the crew of the Andromeda Ascendant.

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Before and after this event, the Nietzcheans of Tarazed got along well with non-enhanced humans, forming familiar, understanding, and even kind relationships with them. While the rest of the Known Worlds were torn with strife and Nietzchean power struggles, this planet remained prosperous and safe, a glowing example that Nietzcheans could in fact live peacefully beside their ordinary human relatives. The loyal Prides from Tarazed proved that there was no need for conflict between them and ordinary humans, spending the three centuries of the Long Night building and maintaining an alliance that profited both sides. This allowed them to join the crew of the Andromeda in reconstructing the Systems’ Commonwealth later on.

For many years, Marvel’s X-Men followed this pattern. Various stories demonstrated that mutants and humans could live together in peace without fear of one another. X-Men: Evolution’s episode “Shadowdance” also explored the possibility that ordinary people would actually like a mutant on sight instead of instantly reacting with fear and prejudice, since in this episode Nightcrawler is not rejected by his prospective girlfriend, Amanda. In fact, having briefly seen his true form earlier, she was intrigued by him rather than frightened away. While other humans reacted with intolerance when they saw him, she accepted him for who he was, not for his appearance.

Lately, however, Marvel Comics has fallen into the trap of perpetually portraying normal humans as inherently biased against mutants. With some notable exceptions, both the X-Men and the general mutant population no longer receive the benefit of normal humans’ doubt. Rather, the ordinary humans in their stories are shown to be intrinsically predisposed to hate mutantkind out of pure bias.

This renders many of the modern tales featuring the X-Men sterile in the sense that they are no longer entertaining. The object of the X-Men’s existence, according to their creator, is to forge connections with normal humans in order to foster peaceful coexistence between them and mutants. Since the stories within Marvel’s current X-Men actively avoid following this mandate by concentrating only on how marginalized the heroes feel, the books carry less weight than they did before.

Due to the unspoken shift in their mission statement, the protagonists have gone from promoting cooperation to enforcing self-imposed isolation in both potential and present tales depicting the team’s exploits. This has hobbled the modern authors’ ability to tell an interesting tale using this team of superheroes. Their story is no longer about a group of outcasts attempting to encourage harmonious codependence, but a collection of eternally aggrieved individuals fighting a pointless battle for something that is utterly unattainable.

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Future writers, please – please – do not allow stories about your own empowered heroes to fall into the snare that the Marvel writers have discovered. If you intend to have your superior heroes fighting for a greater good alongside of those without special gifts, or to have them bridge the gap between those with paranormal abilities and unenhanced humans, then maintaining your storytelling options is a necessity. To leave characters or villains possessed of extraordinary abilities without a solid reason for their bias closes off an inconceivable amount of potential for your fiction.

Your audience – the people who put money in your bank account and food on your table – will not appreciate that. For your own sake, keep all the storytelling options open and available. The rewards from your audience and from the stories you create are greater than you can possibly imagine.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her novelette, “Halcyon,” will appear in Cirsova Magazine’s summer issue.

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6 thoughts on “Cursed Characters: How Powered Protagonists Are Viewed within Their Worlds

  1. The “superpowered people hated by the normie population” trope is one that will make me shut a book or turn off the TV. I just don’t buy it because it doesn’t fit what I have seen of how ordinary people act. Extremely talented people–athletes, musicians, inventors, artists, designers–are idolized by ordinary people, not feared. Even outright criminals can be made into heroes by those who admire them–think Billy The Kid or Jesse James.

    Honestly, I think that trope comes from writers who overestimate themselves and are upset that nobody recognizes their “true genius”. They feel persecuted because they have to get real jobs instead of living the life of luxury their talents deserve.

    Real persecution comes from people who think they are better than the persecuted class, not from people who feel inferior. It’s not envy of a person’s talents or accomplishments that drives hatred, it’s envy of what is perceived as unearned success. “You didn’t earn that” is the rallying cry of bigotry.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post, and thank you for bringing up these points! These are the exact issues I’ve had with a lot of the ‘superheroes are hated and feared’ stories (including many of the ‘X-Men’ adaptations): both that mistrust, uncertainty, and even fear are *perfectly rational responses* to having superpowered individuals appearing in the general population, but also that different individuals will react differently, rather than being a default “hate and fear” response.

    Also spot-on that modern X-Men stories are “a collection of eternally aggrieved individuals fighting a pointless battle for something that is utterly unattainable.” A vehicle for complaining and lecturing rather than entertaining, like so many other once-venerable franchises.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Nuances of How Superpowered Characters Are Received at Home | Serpent's Den

  4. I’ve always wondered by the coolness or utility factor to powers is never addressed in fiction. Why does nobody who walks up to the guy who has just lifted a car over his head and tell him how freaking cool that was? Or why does the person who can see electricity not….get a job as an electrician…? The person with super-hearing never ends up being an orchestra conductor, for some strange reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Of Limits and Strengths – What Does It Mean for a Hero to “Have the Power?” | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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