Starting this month, I’m hosting guest articles! To start us off, my first guest is author and Geek Mom Corrina Lawson, on how to create balance when you’re writing powerful characters.
Balance. Readers always need it in fiction. A protagonist has to be balanced by an antagonist. A hero’s strengths have to be complimented by a heroine’s strengths and the same for their weaknesses, or else they wouldn’t work for each other.
But that’s not always easy, especially when creating superheroes. For instance, DC has a Superman problem. They don’t know how to write a hero who’s so overpowered that he can fly into space, toss around cars, and is basically invulnerable to harm. Instead, in movies and in comics, the go-to solution is to depower him or make him angsty or unconcerned, so he doesn’t want to use his powers to help mere Earthlings who don’t understand.
Neither of these solutions work. The best Superman stories are the ones that show him as that good guy from Smallville, the one who can say “Don’t worry, miss, I’ve got you.” Superman is the hope of humanity, our best self. That’s his strength. It’s also his weakness because his enemies will often use his concern for others or his refusal to kill against him. That conflict is what makes a classic Superman story.
Or take a darker character, Daredevil. His obvious weakness is his blindness but, of course, that also provided him with his other strengths. Emotionally, like Superman, he wants to help people but, unlike Superman, that need to help is balanced by the “devil” inside of him that enjoys violence. He’s at war with himself and ultimately comes out on the right side. His mirror self, the Kingpin, ultimately falls on the wrong side.
These are the types of tradeoffs that have to be considered when creating a superhero. For example, too much power, and there are no good antagonists. Worse, the ego of an overpowered hero can run away from him. (Though this weakness makes for a good villain: see Doom or even Tony Stark on his bad days.)
How to solve the conundrum? Well, first, don’t create a zillion types of Kryptonite that change your character’s personality, especially don’t create one that turns him gay for laughs. (Yes, look up Kryptonite in Wikipedia. All types are in there.) In short, a plot device isn’t the answer.
The solution always comes down to character.
When I created my first superhero, Alec Ramsey aka Firefly, for Phoenix Rising, I tossed a lot of power at him, making him not only a powerful telekinetic but a firestarter as well. He can deflect bullets with him mind. He can control a raging fire. He’s handsome and confident and he loves his abilities. He’s almost too perfect.
But on the flip side, Alec’s been raised in isolation by a man who wants to use him as a weapon. He has little knowledge of regular life. He doesn’t even know how to drive. He especially doesn’t know how to relate to people who might be afraid of his powers. Alec’s problem is not how to use his abilities. It’s about where and when he should use his abilities.
To make things harder for Alec, I tossed a heroine at him who has the ability to switch off his powers. Beth Nakamora is a powerful telepath but she also has issues, such as being scared of her gift, because she ‘heard’ her mother die when she was a child. Alec loves his power. She’s terrified of what her telepathy can do to others as well.
It was important to strike the right balance, to make sure strengths and weaknesses balanced out with Alec and Beth, with each other and even within themselves. I also did one other thing.
I made sure not to forget about the “hero” part of the superhero label.
These are people who want to do the right thing. When Beth hears about Alec being raised in isolation, her first instinct is to rescue him, even if she risks her telepathy being discovered by the villain. Alec was sold a line about having the ability to save the world. He took that literally. Once he knows the truth, he’s not bitter or angry. He’s going to be the hero he always thought he was.
Most of Phoenix Rising’s reviews note how much they adore Alec because he’s alpha but he’s a nice alpha, one who’s eager to learn about the world he can save. That’s the kind of superhero that I love, somebody like Steve Rogers/Captain America, a person good at heart, even if they struggle to stay on the right side of that line and even when they have the power to cross it with impunity.
That’s the kind of balance that all fictional characters need but it’s especially necessary when creating a characters who can drop a mountain on a city or take over your mind or knock aside bullets with the twitch of a finger.
The more emotional dimensions they have, the more real they become.
Corrina Lawson is a former newspaper reporter with a degree in journalism from Boston University. A mom of four, she now works from home writing romance novels with a geeky twist and as the Content Director and co-founder of GeekMom.com. And, every now and then, she’s Wonder Woman.