Why we (still) love Superman: 5 Tips for Writing Relatable Heroes

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My high school lit teacher was pretty laid-back, but one thing that seriously tightened his sphincter was when misinformed students referred to their main character as “the hero.” He much preferred the word “protagonist” to “hero” because in the classical sense, heroes are a highly specialized brand of protagonist who are, well, not that interesting.

Starting all the way back in the B.C. days of literature, a hero was a larger-than-life, practically perfect guy, who is permitted one epic flaw –  his fatal flaw – which 9 times out of 5 was what his nemesis used to exploit and destroy him.

And he died.

Always.

If the paragon didn’t die at the end of his story, he could be a legend, a myth, or a force of nature, but he was not, by the classical rules, considered a hero (for examples of this, think of your Lancelots, your Othellos and your Achilles-s-s).

The long suffering teacher who bemoaned our incorrect usage of the word “hero” also gave us the best writing advice we ever got in our lives:

In order to have a believable characters, they cannot be wholly good or evil.

Even though this advice ruined, like, all the Disney movies forever and ever, it was still tremendous writing advice, and I’ve never met anyone who could prove it wrong.

Yet, even within the boundaries of semi-classical heroism, there are several ways to make your nigh perfect paragon more interesting to the reader or at least understand the challenges you face in trying to make him or her less boring. The list that follows is my own top 5 tips on how to write an awesomer, more lovable superhuman.

Superman ii

Since here in America, the best known fictional possesser of all these attributes might very well be DC Comics’ own Superman, I aim to use him as a reference point more than once.

  1. Weakness – Superman was the first comic book hero DC ever produced (way back in 1938, says the internet), so his creators understandably had to work out some kinks with him before he *e-hem* took off. One huge problem they cited with the early comics was that Superman was perfect. Since perfect people always win, there are no stakes, and it’s hard to get readers invested in what happens to your gallant hero’s story. To make Superman’s adventures less boring for the readers, Jerry Siegel and his team of writers introduced a modicum of weakness for the bad guys to exploit in Superman, such as kryptonite, the inability to see through lead, and the charms of Lois Lane. After nearly a century of busting Metropolis bad guys, Superman is still unlikely to fail long-term, but when he struggles to do what needs to be done, we can totally relate to him because we all know what it’s like to struggle.
  2. Motivation – True heroes like Superman or Captain America have reasons for fighting that don’t actually make sense to mortal man on a personal level. Sometimes, the only thing that drives them to do good in the world is that they were born to do it. Of course, if I’m honest, I’ve met folks who felt strongly they were born to do what they’re doing (preachers, doctors, and mommies come most readily to mind), and their approach to life might very well be reflected by the adventures of Superman / Captain America. For everyone else, there’s the more practical, less idealistic protagonist like Batman or Iron man who is motivated to do the right thing for lots of reason. Vengeance, insecurity, fear, money, love, spite, and friendship all play a part in their decision-making from moment to moment. The fact that their motives are complicated seems more real to us as an audience, because part of being human means waking up now and then and thinking ” ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ is not a good enough reason for me to go to work, today. What else ya got?” Superman iii
  3. Growth – Here’s where protagonist like Batman have Superman beat pretty completely. See, Superman is the most human when he / Clark Kent is a misfit kid who hasn’t hit his stride in heroics. We have to suffer through a lot of endless space chases and Russell Crowe to get any humanity out of The Man of Steel, but when we find it, poor Clark is in the embarrassing throws of a nigh unto autism-style breakdown because he can hear everything, and the sensory overload is freaking him out. And that’s awesome storytelling! It’s heartbreaking and visceral and shows Clark as a kid who does not see the nonsense he’s enduring as a positive attribute. He just needs all the voices he hears to shut up so he can think, already. By the time The Justice League rolls around, he’s grown all the way into his hubris, and  he thinks what he’s doing is right all the time because he’s the one who’s doing it. Batman, on the other hand, adapts in nearly every issue. He’s moody, he’s driven, he lays the smack-down on Gotham’s most wanted, he watches movies with his adopted child, he sees the child grow into a young man,  he starts getting old and has to either build a better batsuit or train his replacement… Because he’s a human who has to adapt to circumstances that arise on his life journey, he the by no means same Batman he was in the first comic. Superman hit a plateau of awesome  early on and  pretty  much stayed there. Perhaps that’s the real reason why ancient storytellers killed off their classical heroes. Once they hit the character growth ceiling, they weren’t any fun to write anymore.
  4. A Foe Worth Fighting – I aim to cover this more completely in a whole, other article about villains, but in essence, if your villain is lame, your hero is lame. The point of the villain is to provide a challenge the hero must rise to meet. When your villain is badass, so is the hero.
  5. A World Worth Saving – This plays into motivation, but differs slightly in that a classical hero isn’t actually fighting for this world. If he’s Greek, he’s killing time as a hero until he can enter the Elysian Fields in valorous death. If he’s Norse, he’s berserk-ing ass off until the Valkyries show up and escort him to Valhalla. Not so with Superman. Smallville and Metropolis are special to him because they’re home. Home is a universal theme that stirs up all the emotions, and while it doesn’t always make us beat up bad guys in order to protect it on the regular, there’s usually something that matters to us at home that would make us want to defend it, if we had to. Also, I know plenty of cops, fire-fighters, and soldiers who identify strongly with Superman and really do beat up bad guys to protect home on the regular. So there’s that.

Anyway, those are my top 5 iotas of insight about how to better understand / write relatable heroes. If I missed any glaring ones, feel free to tell me about them in the comments. I concede heroes aren’t actually my best things (something I imagine will make itself plain in the villain article, coming soon to a computer screen near you).

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