Wednesday, January 4, 2006
I’m more than a bird, I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train...
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see
It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed...
It's not easy to be me
--"Superman," Five for Fighting
I got three seasons of "Smallville" for Christmas and have been watching them with the frenzied fanaticism I previously reserved for "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Although "Smallville" is a recent phenomenon, Superman has been around since the forties. He's not just a fictional character; he's an icon, one of the three characters virtually the entire world recognizes (the other two being Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan). The writer in my head wondered exactly what's so great about Superman. How come he's been so wildly popular for all these years? Sure, he's noble, handsome, invincible, and an all-around great guy... but isn't that kind of boring? Would anyone want to read a romance novel about a perfect, noble, invincible guy with no problems?
No, which helped me analyze exactly what it is about Superman (or his alter ego Clark) that's so compelling. He's more than just a pretty face, and two aspects of his character in particular keep him interesting. Number one, even though he's "the man of steel," he has a really big weakness, namely Kryptonite. (I remarked to DH last night, "This kid is immensely fast, hugely strong, and totally invulnerable, yet every criminal in Smallville can kick his ass." Well, that's Kryptonite for you.) Yes, in theory he's virtually invincible, but in actuality he has weaknesses just like the rest of us. Just like everyone else in the world, he has to work through his problems and deal with them, even when he's flat on the floor and in a cold sweat because someone's waving a chunk of green rock at him. As viewers or readers, we're more interested in characters when they're struggling. Conflict is what keeps us interested, and if there's no weakness, there's little conflict and a lot of boredom as a result. Vulnerability creates conflict, and conflict helps create a compelling plot.
The second aspect is Superman/Clark's big secret. We the viewers know Clark is an alien, but no one around him does, and he has to keep this secret. There's conflict involved in keeping a secret, too. Clark has to lie to his friends, and they sense that, which causes a more personal kind of conflict. In romance novels, the characters often have a secret in their personal history that isn't revealed until late in the story, and this creates a powerful sort of conflict in the plot, particularly when the secret is kept from the readers as well as the other characters.
I think this helps explain why I'm enjoying "Smallville" so much. As a writer, I tend to love big, strong male characters who are extremely vulnerable beneath the skin, and who are hiding secrets. My first hero hid his vulnerabilities (and secrets he himself didn't want to remember) behind a cold mask of sardonic bitterness and alcoholism. My hero in All I Ever Wanted had pretty much become a recluse to avoid dealing with his vulnerabilities, which were caused by a couple of big secrets in his past. The hero of Love Remembered suffered from some serious phobias he didn't want to expose to the world. The hero of Never Love a Stranger had a humongous secret and a physical vulnerability not unlike Clark's reaction to Kryptonite. Characters are at their most compelling when we don't know all their secrets, and when they're vulnerable, just as we all are, under the skin.
Few writers will ever create a character for the ages like Superman, but we want our readers to love our books. So our characters can be strong, handsome, and powerful, but they also need to be vulnerable and have a secret they're desperate to hide. Every character doesn't need an enormous secret like an alter ego or a huge vulnerability like Kryptonite, but in order to win the hearts of readers, fictional characters need to keep aspects of themselves hidden from the world... and they must bleed and cry just like real people do.