On November 24, 2018 we paid tribute to the late Stan Lee with a discussion around modern super hero stories and how he changed our perception of the superhero. Here are the show notes:
Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer
Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor
Theme for the day
Stan Lee and Superheroes in modern fiction and movies
- Who we are and why we’re here; NaNoWriMo check in
- The topic for the week: Stan Lee and Superheroes
- Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
- Craft book discussion — The Fire in Fiction
So, how’s NaNoWriMo going?
Kasie abandoned the third vampire book to try her hand at writing a romance novel this month and it’s gone pretty well. She got in 10,000 words in the first two days. Yes, that’s bragging.
We jumped right in talking about the villains. So heres’s that segment of notes:
Need the Supervillain as a foil to make the Superhero seem needed.
The rivalries between superheroes and supervillains represents the battle between good and evil as a whole. It could be said that, without villains, there would be no heroes. Supervillains provide the opportunity for comic book characters with superpowers to become superheroes, as opposed to just regular everyday super people.
But would supervillains even exist without heroes to fight against? The answer is probably not. Heroes tend to either be born with their powers or gain them accidentally. Crime suddenly becomes a difficult way to make a living in whichever city they are based in. The simple solution would be to start a new, crime free, life. But with criminals being criminals, this never happens, leading to them taking often unethical steps to acquire comparable superpowers.
Villains Should: Have Clear Motivation
Villains Should: Have a Strong Dynamic with the HeroEither as a foil or flip sides of the same coin.
Villains should: Have Competencies and Flaws
Villains Should: Entertain Us!
Comics nowadays are simply the ancient myths in a modern setting, The Mythology of the 20th and 21st Century. Only we understand that our moral lessons and myths are fake.
- Forget about the Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is one of those holdovers from literature that has caused more damage to the superhero genre than any other trope I could imagine. Literature, just like any other genre, has its own rules. Unfortunately for many writers, they are taught to believe that literary rules apply across the board. And, if those rules are ignored, then it’s not good fiction.
- Make the Superhero Story Vicarious
Let’s face it, superheroes are escapist literature. Nothing wrong with that, despite what the creative writing professors would have you believe. People do in fact read for entertainment.
- Make Superheroes Relatable
Peter Parker is a teenager. Bruce Wayne is a man dealing with the loss of his parents. Clark Kent is an immigrant, and a small-town boy dealing with the big city. Wonder Woman dreams of the world beyond Paradise Island. All of these heroes have endured in no small part because readers see something reflected of themselves in those characters. Superheroes are our eyes and ears into their world. They let us do the things that we wish we could do. In order to do that, we have to be able to meet them on some level.
- Make the Hero Someone You Root and Cheer for
The rise of antiheroes in the 1960s in cinema took a little bit longer to come into the comic book world. Now, this may have had to do with the Comics Code Authority which mandated certain treatments of heroes and comic book content, or it may just have been a reflection of the changing comic book marketplace with the rise of the dedicated comic book shops and the move away from convenience stores, bookstores, and supermarkets. Antiheroes really didn’t become a part of the comic book world until the 1980s.
And since then, they’ve never left.
An antihero is someone who does heroic things, but doesn’t display any heroic characteristics. In fact, antiheroes would be just as comfortable in the super villain role, as they would in the superhero role. There are a lot of antiheroes in the comic book universe. You could argue that characters like John Constantine, Wolverine, Deadpool, Punisher, Cable, and many others all fit the role of antihero. Even more mainstream characters, such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, have all started taking on anti-heroic qualities. Batman, for example, has long since been turning into a paranoid curmudgeon who has contingency plans for any of his allies turning rogue. The cosmic Boy Scout Superman, in the Injustice: Gods Among Us comic series, kills the Joker and starts to realign his morals to a more evil bent based upon the guidance of Wonder Woman of all people.
- Make the Superhero a Reflection of Their World
They say that Superman is Metropolis, and Batman is Gotham. Both of these heroes fit perfectly into their cities. You can’t switch these characters around and have the stories remain entertaining. The cognitive dissonance readers would feel from having the cosmic Boy Scout of Superman dealing with the machinations of Gotham’s super villains would only be surpassed by that of Batman trying to blend into the shiny glass and steel structures of Metropolis. The superheroes you create should match the world that they operate in.
Characters like Spiderman, Moon Knight, the Punisher, and Daredevil all fit their setting which is the darker side of New York City. The Avengers on the other hand all fit into the bright and gleaming world of Manhattan.
- Never Subvert the Superhero’s Moral Code
Every character has a moral code. It may not necessarily be a good moral code but it is still there. It’s that moral code that helps define the character to the readers, and done right, can give the readers the opportunity to root for that character.
- Make the Superhero the Solution to His Own Problem
Back in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, television writers would sometimes write themselves into a corner and so they would have to come up with solutions in a real hurry. If they were writing superhero stories, the solution was to give the superhero a brand-new power. If they were writing science fiction, then the solution was to come up with some technobabble that somehow allowed the heroes of the story to wave their hands and make the problem go away. The problems surrounding the “power of the week” ended up making an awful lot of those shows unwatchable both in the original viewings, and even years down the road.
- Give us a reason to care. This does not mean that your character has to be similar to your readers. However, if your character is a prince from Atlantis or an alien emissary, you do have to convince us that we should care about his story. Readers tend to prefer stories that feel relatable. Although you can probably convince readers to look at a book about Atlantis’ court intrigue, it’s more of a struggle than selling a story about Peter Parker, the guy next door. One way that you could help readers care about a highly exotic character is by giving him a few distinctly human characteristics.
- Don’t make your hero a Chosen One– give him a chance to prove himself. Characters generally make their strongest impressions on us as they fight through adversity. But if your character was born into a highly powerful caste or inherits some great power, that robs readers of the chance to see him prove himself. How has your character earned his story? For example, the Green Lanterns recruit someone only after they have proven themselves worthy. Likewise, the Amazons choose Diana to be Wonder Woman not because Diana was born a princess, but because she snuck into the Amazonian trials and won the competition. She became Wonder Woman despite her high birth, not because of it.
If you would like a character who has an unusual birth story, I would recommend making him the victim of chance. Instead of being born a prince, make him born into a low caste. Instead of making him an object of unbridled admiration, like Eragon, may he has to overcome widespread doubt and/or contempt.
- It may be useful to tie your character’s origin story to the villain’s plot. Ideally, your hero will have some link to the villain. At the most cliché level, the villain killed the hero’s family or received his superpowers in the same accident. (Fortunately, you can create more original links in your story).
- Is the character’s background too exceptional? For example, instead of being just a soldier, your character is a Navy SEAL. Instead of being just a government functionary, he’s a cabinet secretary! Instead of being a corporate flunkie, he runs the company… he won a Pulitzer… he’s won several Nobel Prizes, etc.
It’s much harder to write a gripping story about Bruce Wayne (the company’s owner) than Peter Parker (an entry-level nobody). No one’s going to get in Bruce’s face like a supervisor would. Additionally, someone who has truly mastered his sphere, like a Navy SEAL or Nobel-winning chemist, will probably be completely self-confident. Real people sometimes doubt themselves, so they can relate to heroes that have some doubts. (However, for a mainstream story, pushing the self-doubt too hard will drive the story into emo wangst territory).
- Give us a chance of a happy ending. If the character’s origin story hinges on an overwhelming tragedy, what’s he fighting for? No matter how many criminals The Punisher executes, it won’t bring back his murdered family. Your ending doesn’t have to be happy, but if readers think that a happy ending isn’t possible, they probably won’t care about the story. Effective tragedies usually generate drama by playing on the readers’ hopes and expectations that the ending will be happy.
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