Lately it seems rare for protagonists to rise above the muck. I suspect it has something to do with the seething undercurrent of rage, frustration, and general insecurity of people the world over. Few countries seem happy with their leadership, at least on the news. It could also be that the limit of genre deconstruction has been reached, for now. Be that as it may, I’m somewhat suspicious movies about sad superheroes and read books about wizards and assassins who spend all the time brooding about their personal drama these days.
To illustrate my point I will use the most recent Iron Man and Batman series. Both are excellent and entertaining. In Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Batman trilogy the character gets evermore dark and brooding, eventually rejecting the idea of heroic sacrifice and even the responsibility that comes with power and wealth. Iron Man is positively gleeful, manically flawed, and ultimately about moving from a selfish perspective to one of acceptance of power and taking responsibility. Both are billionaires, both are brilliant, both are powerful, but Iron Man seems to actually enjoy life while Batman broods more and more.
There have been quite a few excellent attempts over the last few decades to make powerful characters seem more human, but brooding has become nearly as formulaic as honour, courage, and melancholy for a mythic past used to be. Brooding, dark, even perverse anti-heroes are the low hanging fruit of modern genre fiction and comic books. Darker protagonists have frequently been popular in western literature, after all. There’s a reason guys and gals in cloaks with knives decorate the covers of most modern fantasies. Of course, after a while those characters and covers start to blend together. Skilled creators can still find ways of making characters like these shine, but in an ever-crowded field it might be more attractive for a novice to try other options.
There is a definite connection to salacious tabloid sensationalism here to boot. The qualities that make tabloid stories sell will make stories about superheroes, mages, and assassins fly off the shelves as well. Sex, violence, duplicity, scandal, and melodrama. This tabloid mix works for reality TV and the 24 hour news channels and to be honest it works in genre fiction too. This is not to say that using these elements is bad writing or lowers the work to the level of a tabloid, far from it. It the case of the masters, it is often a poignant commentary on society, or the truth about the nature of power. Just keep in mind it took some time for the greats to be able to make those points without seeming trite.
One of the reasons a good deconstruction is admired, is because it is hard to do without being banal.
Modern audiences do demand human, “realistic” characters, however. That is hopefully not going to change anytime soon. Depth of character in genre fiction is awesome. Powerful characters in particular need to be interesting if you are aiming for something other than escapism (I’m not saying that escapism is bad BTW). However beyond the very popular brooding and scandalous protagonists that populate the shelves of book and comic stores there is quite a bit of room for characters with very flawed personalities. Here a few useful traits:
1) The Failure: The failure is just horrible at everyday tasks. They might kick-ass when the time comes for action, but they generally just suck at the things that people need to do to get through the day. T.H. White’s Lancelot spent so much time perfecting the knightly arts in his youth that he never learned to do things like climb a tree, which turns out to be more of a disadvantage than you might think. Jim Butcher’s Dresden has trouble with technology of all sorts, and is a magnet for trouble, which makes it rather hard for him to hold down a steady job and makes relationships rocky (though he keeps trying instead of brooding.) A Darker version of the failure is someone who keeps losing their friends and loved ones, like Jon Constantine. These characters are all extremely powerful in their own right, but seem more human because of their inability to lead a normal life.
2) Recklessness: Power and recklessness make for an interesting combination, at least in works where actions have consequences. Conan is nearly invincible in combat, a great leader, a cunning thief, and tough as nails. Yet he always runs into trouble due to impulsive behaviour and suffers his only serious defeats due to his own overconfidence. Power is well known for making people reckless, and the consequences of great power and great irresponsibility can make a great narrative.
3) Lack of Empathy: Power can make a person lose touch with the rest of the world. Dr Manhattan from the watchmen is an excellent example of this. He is so removed from human that he simply cannot really understand other people anymore, becoming a sociopath of sorts. This is not only interesting, it makes a fair bit of sense.
4) Narcissism: Narcissism is a common trait in villains, but Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man shows how it can be a really fun trait for a protagonist as well. Being self-centered and arrogant does not always mean you are unlikeable and evil, and it makes quite a bit of sense for a billionaire with his own suit of powered armour. It also gets him into a lot of trouble, creating nice conflicts with other characters.
5) Thrillseeker: A thrillseeker is a character who lives for danger. Boredom is the real root of this character, they need action and new experiences to drive away the tedium that haunts them. This one strokes me as hard to pull off without seeming fidgety and annoying.
6) Curiosity: Curiosity is both a virtue and a flaw. There is nothing more noble than the love of knowledge, but pursuit of knowledge can be dangerous. This is the root of many mystery series. Kvothe in the Name of the Wind and Elric of Melnibone are defined by their curiosity in many ways. This simple trait drives them to adventure, and gets them into trouble. Curiosity seems to have fallen out of favour, but I expect it to make a big comeback in the information age, especially with the emphasis on secrecy that seems to overshadow much of modern interactions. A curious character would be an excellent protagonist in a story with an evil NSA-like (did I just make a list somewhere?) organization.
7) Substance abuse: Alcoholism and drug addiction make for interesting traits in a protagonist. These simple, commonplace problems are faced by millions of people. Power and addiction make for an interesting story. Elric leads the way here, although Caramon Majere also springs to mind. Superstrength and awesome fighting prowess don’t actually help you against addiction, they might even make it worse in some ways since power isolates and the most effective ways of dealing with addiction is the support of others.
8) Envy: Even the powerful can know envy. Again, envy is usually a trait reserved for villains, but I see potential for a protagonist who has this kind of flaw. It is a very human emotion, and a powerful character could envy others for many reasons: romance, happiness, a normal life, and so on. The envy could drive rivalries, or even erratic behaviour.
9) Low Self-Esteem: T.H. White’s Lancelot leads the way here. His low sense of self worth drives him like a whip, pushing him into rigid self-perfection. His physical ugliness spurs him to become mannered and gracious. Despite being the best knight in the world, it is never enough for young Lancelot and he is always seeking for ways to prove himself to Arthur, then Guinevere, and lastly God. I try for this a little with Gavin in Bloodlust: Gladiators Tale.
Those are just a few I can think of off the top of my head 🙂