Whatever happened to the heroes in science fiction?

One of the themes of my writing is the way ordinary people find the strength in themselves to do extraordinary things.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s a real human thing – it’s how New Zealand’s ‘citizen armies’ achieved so much in both World Wars of the twentieth century. Everyday people – shopkeepers, labourers, clerks, drivers, teachers and so forth – suddenly found they had to face extraordinary circumstance. They weren’t professional soldiers: they were ordinary people who had been drawn into a conflict not of their making. And (as the song goes) they found the heroes inside themselves.

That was the key theme of most of my military histories – check ‘em out on Amazon now.

New Zealand is not alone in that experience. And that ability, to me, marks one of the greatest sides of the human condition. I know. I wrote a book exploring the psychology of military heroism (out of print at the moment.)

Public domain, from http://www.clipartlord.com/category/fantasy-clip-art/superhero-clip-art/

And that’s why I did  a double take the other day when I saw a poster advertising (wait for it) Ant Man. The new superhero. Apparently his super-power, delivered via a super-suit, is to shrink and thus become super-strong. Although I always thought things that shrink don’t increase in strength. They increase in density.

OK, well this one seems a bit OTT, but to me it reveals the problem. More often than not the heroes – especially TV or movie heroes – are defined by a single ‘thing’ they do that others can’t, and are often physically ideated in cartoonish ways. You know – men in long johns with more muscles than a steroid abuser and women in clothing designed less for practical use than to show off various pneumatically endowed body parts. To me it’s not compelling. Even humans do a range of things.

Now, I know it’s all about character. Watchmen (1986) set that ball rolling – exposing the human flaws of the superheroes for the world to see. Today, superhero SF drama draws from Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s tradition. The superhero has some issue that they have to overcome. Or there’s a limit to their power, or maybe the power itself irks them. They are seldom ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. But the story is always framed around that super-power – and making that compelling is always the first hurdle in the suspension of disbelief.

It’s also still a ‘top down’ approach, where the story revolves around how the character copes with a ‘super power’.

I miss the idea of the ordinary, everyday person who becomes a hero (or ‘great’, or ‘overcomes adversity’) through deeds they didn’t know they were capable of when they began. All without being ‘super’. Physically and mentally, these people are nothing very special, and that doesn’t change. But they become heroes, because of the extraordinary situations in which they are placed – and in ways that surprise them. That’s the character development arc.

It’s deliberate, not least because I’ve done SO much technical work on the psychology of how it happens for real that it seems the right way to go about it.

To me, the movie superhero is one way of allowing people to imagine what they could be, if only they could find the confidence and, of course, the super-suit or whatever. The story of the ordinary everyday person who does the same thing in character-arc terms by their own efforts – and becomes great, without any ‘super’ ability or special technology – is something that we can not only aspire to. We can actually do it.

Will my idea of self-made everyday heroes in fiction get traction? Soon, you’ll be able to judge. And yes, this is dropping a hint about something coming up. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the heroes in science fiction?

  1. I’m not sure I agree with the entirety of this argument. True, the superheroes are almost always portrayed in some physically impossible form, and the concept of having some personal flaw is a cliche. But I would trace the superhero genre back to the old tales of mythology where the likes of super-Achilles had his dodgy heel. They were tall tales, usually with a moral and a bunch of over-inflated unbelievable characters.

    Taking the super out of the superhero genre is a bit like taking the murderer out of a whodunnit: you end up with a totally different genre. I bet if you do a study of literary fiction you’ll find a lot of novels about everyday folk finding some hidden unknown strength to overcome difficult times. Superheroes are a branch of science fiction, and the weird science and bizarre technology are the main vehicles of entertainment rather than the study of the human condition.

    However, I don’t want to come over all sci-fi superhero fanboyish; I think there’s been a trend in the last ten years or so for superhero film makers to take the genre way too seriously, and that’s when the criticism you outline becomes valid. Superheroes are not the best genre to carry out a serious study of people overcoming adversity. The end result is usually overblown and ludicrous. (The X-Men franchise a notorious example.) The likes of Alan Moore bring a certain quality to the genre, but he has a lot of poor wanabee Moores trailing in his wake.

    The big issue for me, is not the unbelievability of superhero protagonists, but the lazy one-dimensioned portrayal of antagonists. Why are they always mad/spurned/twitchy and prone to apocalyptic monologues?

  2. When I was little I wanted to meet, and often wanted to be, a superhero–especially superman (that would have been hard to do since I’m female, but I never wanted to be supergirl). As I grew, naturally that urge fell by the wayside. Yet the enjoyment from watching all my old favorites and the new superheroes has never faded.
    Like you brought out in your blog, some of the movies have failed to deliver; but I don’t blame my superhero for their mistakes. I try to ignore the producer’s stupid moments and enjoy the rest of the show. The movies are an escape from the hassles of daily life for me.
    I think each of us is a superhero at one point or another. Some of my patients called me a hero and all I was doing was following doctor’s orders! Parents are frequently heroes to their kids. My big sister was a hero to me on quite a few occasions.
    I am working on writing a children’s fantasy and hope readers will like my superheroes and, of course, the villain.

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