Wednesday, October 1, 2008

We Need Some Superheroes

A few days ago, I talked about the royal family. They represent the wealth and power we all think it might be fun to have, but in fiction the royal family has a problem because there must always be someone who wants to take that wealth and power away. There is a similar character in fiction that has power (though not always wealth) and does not have to fear that he will lose that power. This character is the superhero.

The superhero doesn’t have to be a Superman type character. Daddy Warbucks from Annie is as much a superhero as Superman. The fairy godmother in Cinderella is another superhero, as are angels and wizards and other similar characters.

The superhero outshines ordinary people. Within the characteristics of the character, the superhero can do whatever he wants without exerting a sweat. It is nothing for Superman to fly to China and bring back Chinese takeout for Lois Lane, or for Daddy Warbucks to buy another company. It isn’t hard for us to think, “If I could do that, I would…”

Superheroes have a hard time fitting in with the rest of the world, so they must wall themselves off, either with a disguise, such as Superman’s Clark Kent disguise or a good security system and a house full of employees, as is the case with Daddy Warbucks. Santa Clause, another classic superhero, hides out at the North Pole.

For the superhero to work well in fiction, the superhero must face a problem that his position of strength cannot solve. If Superman can turn back a meteor with his strength, it isn’t very interesting if we throw one twice as big at him. If the meteor is made out of Kryptonite, the problem gets more interesting. Daddy Warbucks can buy Annie whatever she wants, but no amount of money will replace her parents.

The superhero does not have to be bigger than life. A doctor who can help most woman have children, but can have no children of her own may be a superhero. Mr. Monk, who solves unsolvable mysteries but is afraid of everything, is a superhero. The stereotypical computer geek who can crack any system may be a superhero.

Even though some very ordinary characters have traits of superheroes, we must be careful about treating out superhero characters as ordinary people. I have a character that is fairly ordinary, but she can cook better than everyone else and she owns the best restaurant in town. That is a part of who she is. Whatever problems I might throw at her, moving a better chef into the building across the street would ruin the character, unless I also provide a way for her to prove that he is just a wannabe compared to her.

The superhero is problematic because it is so fantastic in nature, but readers need a few superheroes. They give us hope and even tell us a little about God, who is the only real superhero. The superhero gives us a feeling of assurance that no matter how bad things get, there is someone who will do the right thing at great cost and save the day. They assure us that there is a safety net. When we are at the end of our rope, there is someone to keep us from falling.