Thursday, June 21, 2012

Heroes and stereotypes, or Why I Refuse to Watch "Lost Girl"

Giving your hero everything he or she needs is boring. Stop that.

Stop giving your heroes weapons and gadgets. Or, if you give them every advantage they can possibly hope for, take it away.

I am sick of stories coming out featuring some kind of solo, me-versus-the-world hero who has access to weapons and tactics and all the toys a kid could need to take out the Bad Guys. It's cheap story crafting and eliminates the really interesting part of your character: getting to know them.

Between the super spies, super heroes, demigods, half-human creatures, and other stories that have super-saturated the market over the years, the stories that involve heroes that already have access to guns, explosives, military tactics, support staffs, and all the other goodies that you could hope for, I just can't find it in my heart to watch, read, or otherwise subject myself to yet another tale featuring the same old tropes.

I get it. I really do. You want your character to have that shoot-out at the O.K. Corral or on Main Street at high noon. You want to have some incredible fight scene with swords (incidentally, there are way cooler swords than a katana. STOP USING IT.) or some other key scene. But you know what? Those have already been done. And probably better than you'll do them.

Give me something new. Instead of giving me a character who knows how to fight, give me a protagonist with a limp or a bum knee from high school football who has to find a way to pursue the Bad Guy. Instead of a character who is a crack shot, give me a character who just had all his shit stolen while he was having laser eye surgery and has to rush into the daylight before his eyes are healed and OH SHIT I'VE DAMAGED MY CORNEAS! Instead of giving your character a sword, or a gun, or any kind of weapon or martial arts training, give me a character who breaks his hand throwing his first punch because he has no idea how to fight or survive on his own. Oh, and make him an alcoholic, or a recovering one if that's too dark for you. THEN make him--or her, I'd dig this in female characters too--struggle to find out how to survive in a world where everything is stacked against them. There's no ex-Army Ranger one cell phone call away who can roll up with automatic weapons, explosives, and a team of master badasses who will ride in and save the day. There's no Super Secret Big Sword That You Must Have, or The Sword That Killed My Father, or My Favorite Gun, or any of that nonsense. Having your character already equipped to face the climax of your episode, movie, or story makes their journey one-dimensional and I WILL NOT CARE.

Change it up.

Or, going back to my original point, give them everything, and then take it all away and make your protagonist claw his/her way back from the brink. Got a super powered character? Not anymore. Bam. Superman II that shit. Take it ALL away. That's when you give your character lots of moral and ethical shit to work through. Do they sacrifice all or part of themselves? How much do they hold on to? Why do they make that choice? What happens if it doesn't work out? How do they get or get back to what they need in order to succeed at the end? Do they, or do they die trying? Those are much more compelling questions than "How hard is the Bad Guy's face gonna hit the ground when the Good Guy is mopping the floor with him?"

Another tactic to use if you're going to ramp up a character trait to the point of super power is show me how awful that really is. That was one of the only good things about the movie "Troy," Brat Pitt's Achilles was shown as this mighty, powerful warrior who was so bored by his existence that he wanted to die. Literally. He wanted to die. Go back and watch it again if you need to, that character has a death wish for most of the movie.

Look, whether it's Superman somehow finding ways to put himself in situations where he knows he's gonna get his ass handed to him, Batman finding ways to keep fucking things up or having things keep getting fucked up around him, or Achilles being so bored he wants to die, these are all viable ways of subverting the archetypal heroic mold that everybody seems to be drawing from.

Next time you're facing a moment where you need your character to have a weapon, a skill, a side-kick (read: support character), or anything of that sort, ask yourself "how would my character react if that didn't work?" The answer you get is probably going to be much more interesting than what you had come up with originally. And the "why" of it is very simple. Triumph. If you have a character who is so perfectly suited to the dangers he or she is facing that triumph is the only likely outcome, then the triumph isn't all that spectacular when it happens. If we know going in that the Good Guy is going to win, it's not engaging. If there's doubt that the Good Guy will even make it back alive, then we're engaged because we want to see the triumph.

Basically, if you have a character with some kind of bad-assery, make it irrelevant, obsolete, or otherwise negate it. What does that character do then? In the face of insurmountable obstacles and infinitesimal odds, how does a character with nothing going for him or her work up to the climactic battle against the Bad Guy? THAT's interesting. THAT's something that I'd watch or read.

And this isn't even touching on the believability aspect of things.


  1. Have you watched Burn Notice Xach? Intelligent, extremely "good" CIA is burned by his agency, his identity is blown, and suddenly everyone and their grandmother are trying to blow his head off. Sure he has the ex-buddy and the ex-girlfriend, but the entire show is him trying to figure out how life got so fucked, and dealing with his family issues (i.e. mommy)

    A very fun show :) But give Lost Girl a break, it isn't half so "let's give our character magic bullet proof suit and future genius/inventor of the world on speed-dial" as Continuum

  2. Jayda,

    Don't even get me started on Continuum. But yes, I've been watching Burn Notice since the pilot episode. And as it turns out, the head of my grad program writes the Burn Notice novels--which I now own (all?) four of, and you can borrow when you come visit.