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