Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stepping on Superman's Cape


So every so often, I work with kids on how to write stories.  We talk a lot about creating characters that we love, that we’re interested in, and that we want to cheer on to success throughout the story. 
Then we talk about giving them problems.  Big problems.  Little problems.  It doesn’t actually matter.  It should just be a problem that almost seems like more than their characters can manage.  And no one wants to do it (including me—because I hate giving my characters a hard time). 
So then we stop and talk about Superman. 
Superman is pretty awesome, right?  He can fly, for starters, which is my very favorite superpower.  He is strong, bulletproof, can melt things with his eyes, and has higher than genius intelligence.  He’s also good-looking, pleasant, kind, and honorable.  He’s someone you can always count on: The sort of person I’d like to have as a neighbor in real life.*     
But if Superman were just simply super, I wouldn’t want to *read* about him.  His stories wouldn’t be stories, they’d just be boring scenarios that have a beginning and an end, but no real middle.  They would look something like this. 

1. There is a problem (An evil villain has a planet-destroying laser pointed at earth.  T-Rexes are brought back to life in the Natural History Museum and are terrorizing tourists.  A kitten is up in a tree and won’t come down). 

2. Superman fixes it.  The end.

            Fortunately, the creators of Superman realized this, and so they gave him a very big and very mean problem: kryptonite. Basically, Superman is super unless he’s around kryptonite.  Around kryptonite, he’s a sniveling mess.  Kryptonite is what changes these simple scenarios into real stories.  It’s what gives the story a middle instead of just a set-up and an ending. 


1. There is a problem (An evil villain has a planet-destroying laser pointed at earth.  T-Rexes are brought back to life in the Natural History Museum and are terrorizing tourists.  A kitten is up in a tree and won’t come down). 

2. Superman heads off to save the day, only to discover that the laser is made of kryptonite/the T-Rexes have been brought back to life with kryptonite/kitten in tree has kryptonite and a zealous hatred of all humans).  Now, even though Superman is the only one in the world who can die from kryptonite exposure, he’s still also the only who can save the day—so he has to risk everything.  He will be tested.  He will lose the strengths he’s always relied on and will discover new strengths he didn’t realize he had. 

3. Superman overcomes his weakness.  The laser is destroyed, the T-Rexes are subdued, and the kitten is stopped, even if only temporarily (because there is no way that kitten is done trying to destroy humankind yet).  The audience cheers.  The end. 


So I’d say the meanest thing I’ve ever done to the characters I’ve created is been too chicken to give them a problem worthy of their abilities.  It leaves them stranded without a story worth telling.  And that is a very sad place for a fictional character to be. 


*well, maybe.  Superman’s lawn is probably always perfect in the summer and the sidewalk in front of his house is probably always the first one shoveled in the winter.  He also probably never takes the recycling out while still in his pajamas.  So it's possible probable I would grow to resent how bad he's always making me look.  I can be very petty.  

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