Last week I posted on one of the potential problems of writing about characters that are super human, using the Harry Potter books as an example. To read the whole post, you can click here, but just to reiterate, the basic problem with a story world in which some people are “special” and others aren’t is that it’s only fun to live in that kind of world if you happen to be one of the special people. If you’re not, it kind of stinks.
So the question is, if you’re going to pick favorites among your characters by creating a superior race or group, how do you make life tolerable for members of the inferior races as well? How do you make life a little bit more fair to the non-special people, so readers don’t see some characters flying by while everyone else suffers? Here are a few different suggestions, and examples.
Idea One: Show that being superhuman comes with it’s own problems. As I mentioned before in my post about flight and invisibility, flying around can be fun, but only until other people noticed you could do it and became jealous. The truth is, it’s kind of lonely being the only superhuman on the block, or on the planet, as the case may be. To complicate life further, as Spider man once put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Someone who can do more than other people really ought to use his powers to make the world a better place, but that does take effort
And, unfortunately, most superhuman characters in fiction still share human nature, which means they have a tendency to beat up those weaker than themselves. Power corrupts. So, if you want to be a good superhero, not only do you constantly have to battle your own selfish tendencies, but you have to fight back against the superhuman bullies, which, chances are, won’t make you very popular among your “peers”. There are good reasons that lots of “special” characters in fiction sometimes wish they were normal.
Pros: This idea mirrors true life. Most people have known what it’s like to be better at something than other people, and maybe even felt like they were misunderstood because of it. Smart people, or people with wealthy parents, often feel a sense of pressure to do something important with their lives, because when life has given them so much it would be a crime to waste it all.
Cons: This has to be done carefully. If your characters genuinely want to be good, this isn’t so bad, but if they use their powers selfishly a lot and then gripe about the “problems of being special” when they get in trouble, they’re just going to be annoying. After all, the comment, “Having super power is as tough for me as not having any power is for you,” in the ears of an un-super character sounds a lot like the idea of white man’s burden.
Idea Two: Compensate for strengths with weaknesses. It doesn’t seem fair to give other races special capabilities that humans miss out on, but if you compensate by making other things harder for them than for us, so that we can’t tell for sure what the most desirable race is, then the whole story becomes much more interesting. Maybe your fairies have wings and magic powers, but are so tiny that we humans make them feel a bit uncomfortable, or your virtually immortal race is incapable of feeling emotion.
Pros: When done well, this method becomes an excellent way to explore the strengths and weaknesses of humanity and human nature. Also, it’s always fun to imagine members of what we would consider to be a “magical” race, looking at us in awe because we can do something that they can’t.
Cons: This method works well if you deal with different races, but in other cases, such as when all the characters are human, but somehow certain “powers” always go with corresponding “disabilities,” it can seem a little contrived Also, since we’re used to being human, it’s hard for us to think of anything we can do as being a “super power.” The thing that makes us really special among other living things is our minds, but in many ways, our minds are also what makes us worth reading about. So sometimes it’s hard to imagine a race of creatures that’s clearly inferior to us in some way, but is still believable and is intelligent enough for us to consider it’s members to be “characters.”
Idea Three: Remember that “Pride goeth before destruction.” Sometimes a “superior race” gets so complacent about its powers that in the end a biologically inferior race that works harder happens to gain advantages over it. The Harry Potter universe follows this pattern. It it, the wizards know they are superior the the muggles, so for the most part, they ignore us, and view whatever technologies we use as mere “compensations” for our disability. However, as most Harry Potter fans are aware, real world muggle technology doesn’t just make up for our lack of magic; it actually surpasses magic (or at least, magic the way the wizards currently use it) in a lot of different scenarios
In fact, thanks to the internet and other new technology, we’ve reached a point where people can actually have a debate about who would win a worldwide wizards vs. muggles war. Obviously, a fight between one wizard and one muggle with all other things being equal would be no contest, but not only do we outnumber the wizards, we know how to use technology in ways that sometimes work better/faster their methods. So, (assuming that both sides knew the war was going on and the wizards weren’t just slaughtering people and making it look like natural disasters after the fact) we muggles might have a chance.
Pros: This situation also rings true to real life. As a real example, China has been a lot more advanced than Western Europe for much of history. Most of the technologies we like to think of as major breakthroughs at the end of the middle ages were actually thought up centuries earlier by the Chinese. However, when Europe finally caught up to China technologically, the Chinese Emperor refused contact with some of the Europeans because he felt we still had “nothing” that he needed. This kind of thinking led to China’s falling behind the west, being persecuted by other nations, and then having to try desperately throughout the twentieth century to catch up.
Cons: While this fatal underestimation of the “inferior” group is realistic if you’re dealing with cultures distant from each other, the more integrated the different groups are into each other’s worlds, the less easy this is to pull off. One of the flaws in the Harry Potter universe, actually, is that given the number of muggle-borns at Hogwarts, one would think that wizards in general would be more aware of muggle technology and some of it’s advantages. They’re not all muggle hating purebloods, after all.
Idea four: Suggest that the difference between the “superior” and “inferior” has more to do with peoples’ perceptions and temporary circumstances than with the people being fundamentally different. An example of this is the Star Trek episode Plato’s Step Children. This episode is centered around the theme of human equality, not just because it contains the first televised kiss between a white man and a black woman, but because it shows the Enterprise crew members interacting with members of an apparently superior race, who aren’t particularly nice to them. In fact, if you want to see what I believe a universe like Harry Potter’s would have looked like in real life, this is the episode to watch. Be warned though, it’s not pretty.
However, near the end of the Episode, the crew learns that their tormentors are not really as superior as they believe themselves to be, but are merely benefiting from chemicals in the local food. After injecting themselves with the magic chemicals, the crew becomes equal to the other race. The inherent “superiority” of their captors was a myth all along.
Pros: This is my personal favorite method for dealing with inequality, because, being an optimistic person, I like to think that people really aren’t as different from one another as they sometimes appear, and that, given the right opportunities, we’re all capable of a lot more than what we give ourselves credit for. This connection to reality and/or my own wishful thinking make this plot development really appealing to me.
Cons: Of course, the trouble with suggesting that everybody can be “super” is that, “When everyone is super, no one will be,” as Syndrome stated it in “The Incredibles.” Having everybody be special kind of defeats the point of a “special person” story altogether in the minds of some people. Personally, I kind of liked Syndrome’s statement about making everyone super (not that it redeemed him from his villainy), but just like the audience of “The Incredibles,” people like the idea of superheros in a normal world. It appeals to their pride to fantasize about being exceptionally good at something, and if the superheros aren’t really so exceptional after all, that dims the fantasy somewhat.
In a way, the “inequality is more in perceptions than ultimate reality” method is actually the reverse of the superhero fantasy. It’s the fantasy of an underdog who triumphs. It’s the fantasy of a “superhero” who didn’t start out as a superhero at all, but thanks to his determination, in the end, it didn’t matter.
- Dumbledore’s Idealism vs. Dumbledore’s Reality: The Problems of an Unequal Fantasy (mgirouxstories.wordpress.com)
- Harry Potter, King Arthur and the “Changeling” Myth: The Meaning of “Specialness” in Fiction (mgirouxstories.wordpress.com)
- The True Superhumans Are Already Among Us (bigthink.com)
- A Closer Look at The New Heroes (wired.com)
- When just being Ordinary is special! (hrmexplorer.wordpress.com)