On Heroes and Tropes

I recently saw a literary agent on Twitter ranting about the types of books that are a turnoff for them, and it struck me, exactly because my most recent book fit right into one of those categories.

Now, I’ll freely admit the book I’m writing is a story that’s been told countless times, and I could see how the market could be flooded with them right now. At its heart there’s a normal kid who discovers superhuman powers exist in the world. They come to grips with this and grapple with their own humanity and those who have lost their humanity. Yadda yadda yadda. Big whoop dee doo. That could be the tagline for any number of comic book tales from the last century. I completely get where this agent was coming from.

Why then do people keep writing them? And why do people keep reading them? Things become overdone and cliché for a reason, right? Are there any super powers that haven’t been explored? Are there any personal stories that haven’t already been walked? Are we just at the point of mixing and mashing up these combinations to see what sticks?

Over the last month I’ve written over 50,000 words. (BTW yay I won NaNoWriMo again!) I just spent those words walking in the shoes of a kid who just wants to do whatever kids do. It just so happens that their geeky and mischievous endeavors have landed our protagonist with a super power. Again, how many existing characters have I just described?

This kid’s power is interesting to ME though. I’ve heard from many authors telling me to write for your first audience first. The first person who’s going to read my book (over and over again) is me, so even though I’ve heard the countless tales of kids getting superpowers this one interests me. So it passes the first test in my book (pun intended).

So what’s this kid’s power you ask?

Well, they can’t fail. That’s it. The kid literally can’t fail as long as they listen to what the power tells them to do. The power is basically a guide. Whatever our hero wants to accomplish the power will tell/show/guide the hand and voice and body to whatever needs to be done. The trick is whether or not the thing they want to accomplish is worth the actions that need to be done. Brain hurt yet?

Let me put it this way. If that item you covet can be yours, you just have to betray those who help you, abandon your family, commit crimes, etc. how far would you go before saying, “No Thanks, I didn’t really want that.” How far would you go before even realizing you didn’t like that path? How far before you’re past the point of no return?

One thing about this character that interest me is exactly who it reminds me of. In that regard it is riffing on something that’s been done in another book, and several movies for that matter. The character, this kid who can’t fail, either subconsciously or not on my part, shares a lot of traits with the Kwisatz Haderach of Dune. The power is prescience, knowing the golden path to save humanity. In the original Dune Chronicles books there were at least three such people, Paul, Ghanima, and Leto II who each took the power down a different path.

Dune, however, is on a totally different plane of time and space, literally. Paul never had the chance to be a kid. The events of the Dune Chronicles are tens of thousands of years in the future exploring the worlds of the known universe. This one is in a typical urban town of the here and now. Paul only knew what had to be done, and through the power of being born to a duke and a Bene Gesserit priestess had the training, resources, and upbringing to follow through. My character has the resources of an upper middle class kid, and a power that’s more, shall we say, hands-on.

So the power’s been done, but in a totally different way. The kid is a trope, but so is every kid. Repeat after me, “We’re All Individuals.” That’s why people keep writing these stories. The realm of infinite possibilities lay before us writers, if we can pull off a good story.

So what makes a story, which is more or less just a mashup of stuff that’s already been done, into something compelling? And what makes it fall short?

As most lovers of comics and sci-fi I’ve got a pretty deep library of nerdtastic history in my head. All the movies,TV, comics, games, and books I’ve read through the years should give me an idea of what works and what doesn’t, right? You’d think…  So the first test for me is, “Would I want to read it?” Stephen King in his book On Writing says to walk away from your book and don’t look at it for 6 weeks after you finish writing. You need to look at your work with a fresh set of eyes that are more tuned to reading good books than to writing this story. And believe me after living this story in my head for over a month it’s time for a break.

So after taking a break, reading a few good books by other authors, maybe writing or editing something else by me or others on Scribophile, I take a look back at the story, the premise, the characters, their journey, and I ask myself, “Self, Is this a good superhero story, or just another one for the heap?” To which I reply to myself, “Self, First off, define good in this context. Second, stop it with the ‘Self’ joke already.”

So what is a good superhero story in this context? Where have stories in this genre taken off, and where did they flop in recent memory?

Obviously Marvel holds most of the superhero cards these days. They have the advantage of a near-century-long catalog of successes and flops to draw from. They pretty much know when they reintroduce an old hero to a new audience, as they’ve done regularly now for a few decades, that the hero needs to draw from the best that character offered in its history, and leave behind the chaff. Can an author do that with a new character? Why not? We’ve already established that the character is a mashup of old ones anyway.

How about the flops? Even Marvel has had a lot. Just because they can print their own money today doesn’t mean they didn’t try, and try again, and again over the decades. Who would think you could re-invent Guardians of the Galaxy? Did you know that Ant-Man was an abusive spouse?

How about one that just can’t seem to get it right no matter how much it tries?

One that comes to mind is Heroes. Even though a good deal of its failings come from the TV industry and the writing and constraints that go with it, still Heroes is a quintessential example of a super story that left a lot of people disappointed. What went wrong there? Well, I’ll leave the bulk of that to IO9. Rob Bricken does a great job of displaying the heights and the deep never-ending pits of despair that come with being a Heroes fan. (And the linked posts are just from the Reborn miniseries. Don’t get me started on the original.)

My shorter take on that trainwreck is this, like I said above, the TV industry’s constraints are a big part of the issue. Even if I give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and I assume the budget, actor contracts, studio execs, and in the case of the original series, a poorly timed writers’ strike, were the bulk of the problems, then I’m still left with characters that just consistently fail to stay consistent, characters that lose all their mystery and jump from fumbling with their powers to fighting the superbads overnight. I’m left with villains that make no sense, or at best leave me with an eye rolling, “not again.” And I’m left with climaxes that just feel anticlimactic. One thing the writers do well, unfortunately, is hook people with the initial build up. They’re really good at that origin story and the confusion that follows. They fall apart when all the supers try to work together, or against one another as the case may be.

So are there lessons here?

  1. Learn from the past and use what worked.
    1a. Keep it fresh if you’re recycling old tropes.
    1b. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but let’s face it, it’s probably been tried in one way or another. Do your research. READ.
  2. Hook the reader early with a compelling origin and character.
    2a. Maintain the mystery.
    2b. Let the reader grow with the character.
    3c. Keep your characters consistent even as they grow.
  3. Don’t let outside influences drive your plot.
  4. Keep it interesting. When there’s a climax, make it Climactic.

OK, time to read…