The Final Chapter – 4 Ways to View Powered Protagonists

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

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Well, here we are, in the fifth part of this series on the pitfalls and advantages of creating superpowered characters! Previously we looked at what makes an empowered hero, how to handicap a superpowered champion, the way a culture will regard people with extraordinary abilities, and the different types of powers such individuals may possess. All of these are important aspects of the powered protagonist, but they pale in comparison to this final point:

How does the author view his superpowered hero?

This may seem to be a futile or silly exercise, but it is not. The manner in which an author regards his empowered character(s) will affect the features discussed in the prior posts enormously. The writer’s view of his protagonists will also concern the audience. Readers expect not only to be entertained, but to be encouraged to continue on in life. Having protagonists who are empowered will not change their expectations in the slightest.

Once, writers who created gifted characters treated them in an overly Romantic manner, as demonstrated by the handling of DC’s Superman in some of his adventures. Marvel’s Captain America suffered a similar fate for a number of years when he was portrayed on television. In each case, the writers emphasized the characters’ moral superiority over their need to struggle against temptation. The higher one rises in terms of grace, the farther he has to fall, and the authors working on these heroes often failed to convey this truth properly to audiences. This led some readers and viewers to consider the two to be bland representations of their respective stories.

Sadly, this is a philosophy that has begun to creep back into modern fiction. The lackluster depiction of Rey in the new Star Wars films attests to this, since the heroine of the new trilogy does not wrestle with the temptations or even the physical manifestations of the Dark Side in a believable manner. Instead she audibly states that she is dealing with the attraction of evil, or overcomes it in fantastic displays of physical and Force-adept prowess that she should not have. Her character development, like Superman and Captain America’s on previous occasions, has been sacrificed to reinforce an ideal.

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As the results have illustrated, the Romantic view of powerful protagonists provides little to no entertainment value. Few in the audience can relate to Rey or sympathize with her. She is “perfect” and defeats her enemies or the evil of the Dark Side with the ease of a goddess, just as Superman and Captain America once “flawlessly” overpowered their corporal and spiritual opponents. Her reception has been poor because she does not behave as a real woman would.

The Romantic view, clearly, will not help an author writing about characters with extraordinary abilities. But the fact that it has been chosen as the default position for a relatively new heroine implies that this view of fiction is becoming attractive to writers once more. Those who wish to tell stories – especially ones focused on empowered characters – should be aware of the traps that this path entails.

Due to the poor reception over time of the Romantic stereotype, two other writing schools have emphasized a different view, especially in the field of empowered, speculative protagonists. These are the Pessimistic Realist and the Naturalist disciplines, each of which stresses that even those with astonishing strengths are fallible. While this is indeed true, neither of these views of empowered protagonists have served the authors who follow them well. The reason for this is that both branches of writing tend to center on man’s capacity for evil to the exclusion of all else.

Both Pessimistic Realism and Naturalism eventually progress from condemning the ills of a given time and place to supporting the evils they originally decried by endorsing the “ends justify the means” of dispelling sin. This is the consequence of Pessimistic Realism and Naturalism’s reliance on the theory of relativism. The belief that right and wrong are subjective or decided by the individual, relativism ultimately devolves into a full blown espousal of evil by those who hold to it. For while one can keep to a level of grace, there is no way to maintain a certain plane of evil. All small ills lead to bigger ones, perpetuating a cycle of more and more vile acts that quickly make wickedness the norm.

Watchmen is an illustration of a story that follows the path of Pessimistic Realism. With one notable exception, the protagonists each compromise with evil in order to bring about some apparently greater good. However, the faults they are saddled with prevent them from truly achieving their goals, as each one succumbs to the evils they have committed. Over the course of the tale they make more and greater conciliations to iniquity out of (at best) misguided attempts to stave off what they believe is a worse immorality. Yet in the end, their actions succeed in doing nothing less than making them hypocrites of the highest order and accessories to the immorality they initially wished to battle.

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The one exception to this bleak depiction of humanity is Rorsach, the only character to maintain a clear understanding of right and wrong and to adhere to it despite the cost to himself. After Rorsach refuses to allow the world to believe a lie “just” to preserve peace, his former ally Dr. Manhattan murders him in cold blood to safeguard the falsehood. Ostensibly, this action is supposed to be one that makes Dr. Manhattan a hero. It is “Realistic,” after all; why would anyone willingly surrender world peace, especially for mere truth? And what, as Pontius Pilate asked, is “truth” in fact? Is that not up to the individual to decide for himself?

Apparently, Watchmen believes that it is – and in the process, it makes two great errors which deny the very Realism it claims to illustrate. First, deception eventually must come to light; a proven truth that the tale never admits exists. The comics and the film ignore the reality that “all the people can be fooled some of the time,” but only a few may be “fooled all of the time.” Sooner or later, the lie that Rorsach was murdered to preserve will be revealed, and the “peace” Dr. Manhattan compromised himself to protect will evaporate into a renewal of the previous status quo.

Another fact which Watchmen conveniently avoids addressing is that planetary “peace” will not bring an end to evil. Mankind’s struggle with sin is personal before it becomes national; a unification of all world governments will not eradicate greed, envy, lust, wrath, or pride from humanity. Rape, thievery, murder, and other evils will still be perpetrated by men upon other men because the battle between virtue and vice is not one waged on an international stage. It is a conflict decided chiefly within the human heart, will, and soul.

For the story to suggest otherwise is childish and unrealistic in the extreme. Watchmen’s finale totally defeats the tale’s stated purpose, while at the same time it undermines the heroic model of the empowered champion. Dr. Manhattan and the other Watchmen, who allowed the murder of Rorsach to cover up a lie, are the exact opposite of heroes. They are frauds who do not have the courage of their stated convictions and who hide behind a mantle of valor to excuse their wicked choices.

Naturalism takes a similar position, but it also goes a step further by adding a layer or two of depravity to its portrayal of powerful protagonists. Where Pessimistic Realism will stop at a Chinatown-style point where evil is permitted and true justice deferred, Naturalism drives past this promontory and straight off a cliff into the morass of iniquity. It does this because, besides being highly relativistic, Naturalism indulges in the Marxist belief that there must always be tyrants and slaves. It is consumed by the idea that the powerful will always prey upon the weak and that only what can be achieved by man’s strength is, ultimately, good in and of itself. Anything more or less is, to the Naturalist, a barrier meant to hold man (and the characters who represent him) back from their true potential.

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Unfortunately, Marvel’s Ultimate comic line encapsulates this perfectly. Not only do the “heroes” make dubious choices in combat against their enemies, their personal decisions are utterly incompatible with their stated missions. Professor Xavier’s illicit love for Jean Grey is irreconcilable with his heroic objective, as is Captain America’s liaison with the already married Wasp. The Hulk cannibalizing an opponent he has defeated is also at odds with the dichotomy necessary to making his character sympathetic. And the vengeful execution of Black Widow in retaliation for her murder of the Barton family is completely at odds with the very definition of heroism.

Yet this is the path that Naturalism takes in an effort to give the protagonists of its stories “flaws.” In service to its guiding ideology, this path of creating extraordinarily gifted characters insists such corruption is the equivalent of faults and weaknesses. It also contends that the characters “need” these or similar evil tendencies in order to make them more “realistic.”

This is not true, but it has many defenders among the modern literati due to the philosophy’s acceptance of relativism. Relying on emotional appeals, it is possible for the literati to excuse these protagonists’ ignoble choices, and that is another area where Naturalism fails to acknowledge reality. Aside from the fact that these acts often lead to the very immorality Naturalism criticizes, when an action requires such prevarication to justify its use there can be little doubt that it is, at its root, evil.

Only wickedness requires such determined defenses. Truth, justice, mercy, and the other virtues necessitate no similar protections precisely because they are ends in and of themselves. Whoever strives for these things will do so in a manner that makes them worthy of attaining them. It is impossible to seek real justice unjustly, or to pursue mercy without offering it to others. But Naturalism avoids addressing this fact in order to maintain its relativistic arrangement.

Again, there appear to be only three ways by which to view characters with above-human abilities. None are satisfactory, since the first makes no room for faults and the other two allow for little or no heroism. What, then, is the discerning author to do?

First, it behooves me to point out once more that there is fourth path hidden between the Romantic and Realistic roads. This path respects champions, empowered or otherwise, and has plenty of room for both great courage and astounding failures. It is the way of the Romantic Realist, and it has proven to be the most satisfactory track for authors so far.

Proof of this comes directly from the company that produced the Ultimate comics. Marvel’s protagonists first won and have maintained their audience’s love and loyalty precisely because the characters had faults they struggled to overcome in pursuit of high ideals. Though they fell and sinned, these characters would not remain in the quagmire of human disappointment. Rather, they fought their fallen nature and returned to their original course, often in the face of enormous personal pain and difficulty.

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It was this that made them heroes in the eyes of the audience. This is also the reason why the company still commands a loyal base of fans while attracting new enthusiasts through various media. Marvel’s Romantic/Realistic formula recognized that, while men are indeed capable of great evil, they possess an equal potential for greatness. A man’s gifts do not make him a champion; it is what he decides to do with those strengths which determines whether he is a hero, or a villain.

The original writers at Marvel also discovered that the Romantic Realist’s view of power is not the same as the Blind Romantic’s, the Pessimistic Realist’s, or the Naturalist’s belief. The philosophy that guides the Romantic Realist combines the best of both its parent disciplines by recognizing that having great power does not automatically makte the one who holds it into an angel or a tyrant. What, after all, is the difference between Tony Stark and a machinist or computer technician? At the end of the day, the latter have the same skill set as the billionaire genius. Even the additional strength of his incredible armor does not take away the fact that Stark is, at heart, a machinist and technician.

In a similar vein, how is Captain America superior to the hundreds of men who have won the Medal of Honor? While the super soldier serum is a fantastic asset, it cannot add or subtract from Steve Rogers’ greatest strength – his heart. Every man who ever earned the Medal of Honor did so through the force of his determination to do the right thing for his fellow soldiers, no matter what it cost him.

Two of the most powerful members of the Marvel Universe(s), the Hulk and Thor, are nonetheless relatable to readers. Everyone has experienced the rage and fury the Hulk directs at injustices, with the accompanying desire to fight and defeat those responsible for these crimes. It is also possible for readers and viewers to understand and empathize with Thor’s search for honor and meaning in his life.

No matter the type of astonishing abilities they have, the Romantic Realist never loses sight of the fact that empowered characters are human, with humanity’s motivations, faults, vices, and graces. The powerful protagonist will make mistakes, wrong choices, and even do evil on occasion. But what will truly differentiate him from the villains he faces will not be his poor or even wicked decisions. It is his determination to recognize and recover from the fall from grace rather than continue to choose vice which raises him to the level of hero.

In this the Romantic Realist also recognizes the spiritual aspiration of those with extraordinary abilities. Whether one considers the Jedi or the Avengers, the Witches of Estcarp or the Justice League, or the Vulcans and the solar avatars of Andromeda, powerful protagonists who seek to serve the good, the true, and the beautiful invariably submit themselves and their abilities to the ultimate source of these things.

And it is that desire, that pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful above all else which makes the powered protagonist most endearing to an audience. It is not only their astonishing capabilities or their relatability. These things lack meaning if they are not directed toward an inherently good goal or aspiration. The empowered character’s entire reason for existence is to demonstrate to the audience what happens when mankind submits his will to the One from Whom all good things flow.

So, which path to writing about characters with extraordinary powers should the future writer follow? That is up to the author in question. While this writer heartily recommends the Romantic Realist’s set of values for those who wish to create stories about protagonists with above-average strengths, she cannot and should not tell others what to do.

I can, however, say with certainty that those stories which have embraced Romantic Realism have outlasted the competition. Watchmen was a one-and-done series; it has bred no sequels, nor did it create a franchise. Marvel was eventually forced to terminate the Ultimate comic line, and the sequel Star Wars trilogy has so far failed to please the audience that is still loyal to its Romantic Realist progenitor.

The results speak for themselves, and the four paths await your decision, future writers. All that this author asks is that you choose wisely, with eyes wide open and in the full knowledge of what likely awaits you at the end of these separate trails. The forest is indeed dark and dangerous – but the stars are worth the effort expended to attain them.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Final Chapter – 4 Ways to View Powered Protagonists

  1. A fitting conclusion to a great series! Particularly your point about how Pessimistic Realism and Naturalism always seem to end up justifying the evils they supposedly condemn, or at least undermining any reason for condemning them (also an astute summation of how childishly short-sighted the ending of ‘Watchmen’ is).

    Liked by 1 person

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