Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2012


Many protagonists in fantasy and science fiction are larger than life, almost super-heroes. They have incredible magical powers; they have suffered terrible pain and overcome it; they have built a cadre of friends and allies of people who are natural enemies; they are brilliant overachievers and conquer the world at an age when the rest of us were still spending most of our time thinking about pimples. But the best super-heroes are also the ones who have a weakness that makes them as human as the rest of us. The greater their powers, the more terrible and simpler the kryptonite needs to be.

Although "kryptonite" is a specific and obvious term, I recommend that you do not use a device so obvious as an object that takes away a character's power. There are too many fantasy stories in which a special amulet takes away the super-hero's (or super-villain's) power. It may work if you are going for a more symbolic allegory, but I think it usually works better if a character's kryptonite is something more organic to the story. Yes, Superman has actual kryptonite and it only has to be opened near him to make him weak, but the real kryptonite in his story is only hinted at by the stone. His real weakness is his past, and the fact that he comes from another world, not ours. He is an outcast, always pretending to be one of us, but never able to live quite fully in our world. He has loving human foster parents, but he also has a history that he knows nothing about, and that history will always be partly hidden from him and partly a reminder of what he has lost and can never regain.

When you are considering writing a super-human character, be sure that you design your kryptonite well. On the one hand, the kryptonite needs to be a weakness that feels human. It shouldn't just take away the hero's super powers, it should make him less powerful than an ordinary human. More physically weak, mentally feeble, erasing memory, making them an infant again or an old man, taking away eyesight or balance. It is a little bit like the Little Mermaid who trades her beautiful voice for human legs. She gives up the part of her that is super-human to be an ordinary human, and she ends up with less capacity than an ordinary human because she isn't used to tottering around on those spindly things.

Maybe super-heroes need a kryptonite because we feel that it is only fair for those who have super-human capacities to be afflicted with super-human vulnerabilities. But I think it is also true. As a parent of several gifted children, I have found that the more gifted they are in one area, the more they tend to lag behind in other areas. It seems a limitation of the human capacity. If you spend more and more time focusing on a particular skill, like math or music, you end up not able to spend time on the things that ordinary humans naturally spend time on. You won't understand their in-jokes about TV shows you have never seen. You will be unable to enjoy popular music because you can hear the clichés and the hackneyed lines in the lyrics. And the world that other people live in may just seem to move too slowly to you. It would be just as dangerous for them to jump onto your carousel as it would be for you to jump off yours and onto the unmoving ground.

If you are working in a science fiction world (or even in a fantasy one), you can make something of the law of conservation of mass and energy. If a super-hero is able to push back a huge weight, there must be some cost. Does he end up burning off his hands? Does he have to shield himself or others? If he expends an enormous amount of energy, how can he replenish that? Will he have to sleep for a hundred years a la Rip Van Winkle and return to a world that he has to learn about all over again? Will he have to eat so much food that he becomes a burden to any society that has to support him? Would they try to give him up to some other tribe or culture so that they didn't have to deal with the cost of his power? There are a thousand stories hidden in the idea of the cost of a super-power.

Think about Bean in the Ender's Shadow series, who is born with the acknowledgment (even if he isn't told about it) that he will be brilliant and grow very quickly, but will also die young. There is a kind of internal sense in this. You mess up the human genome, and you can't figure out how to change everything. You sacrifice one thing for another. If the thing you are getting is a very important thing, then the thing you give up has to be of equal weight in the minds of your readers.

Falling in love is a common kryptonite, and I don't know that you can use it too often. You see it in everything from James Bond to Nikita to Buffy and Air Force One, not to mention Twilight. What is it about humanity that makes the super-human fall in love with someone human? Is it the ordinariness? Or is it something specific, like a shared moment, a particular memory, a smell? What kind of choices will a super-human who is in love make? How will your readers react to a character who makes a coldly logical choice that no ordinary human would? How will they react if your character chooses what is emotionally right, but logically wrong? Will they forgive or not? Joss Whedon's Buffy was often put in impossible situations where she had to choose between different kinds of love and her own powers. She has to choose between her friends and her power, her mother and her power, her one-true-love and her power, and her younger sister (in some ways her child) and her power. In different cases, she chooses differently, but it's always a wrenching twist.

Another interesting kryptonite to play with is a villain of equal power. The idea of Superman having to deal with other super-humans is a good one, though I don't think Superman III adequately explored with the idea. I like The Master in Doctor Who better, a character who has the same ability to regenerate and thus, never die, but who has a shared history with the Doctor. They were childhood friends and they both witnessed the corruption of the Time Lords of Gallifrey. Both are tired of war and destruction, but have very different reactions to it. But because of their shared history, the Doctor also finds himself unable to destroy his old friend, even if it costs him his life, or his beloved Earth.

Sherlock Holmesian social impairment is another kryptonite. As brilliant as he is, he cannot relate to the people around him. He seems incapable of holding down a normal job, simply because it is too boring and he cannot observe the social niceties that doing normal work would entail. Thus, Watson becomes his bridge to the regular world. Watson tells the stories that Holmes would never tell, but we readers only get as much of the story as Holmes is willing to tell Watson. I love the pairing of Holmes and Watson in almost every version I've seen. I think the TV show House was a great medical version of the story, where House believes that he cannot be happy, that his happiness would in fact lead to the end of his need to solve the mysteries he has become so famous for. He has to continue to be an addict in order to suffer for his science. Or his art, I suppose. We can't really like Sherlock Holmes because he is so different from us. We can admire him. We can wish that if we died mysteriously or had a mysterious illness, he was called on to take our case. But we don't envy Watson his role. A Watson can be a useful way for a writer to deal with a literary super-hero, but be careful because a Watson can also end up feeling too distant from the story to feel it matters. Sherlock Holmes also faces other great kryptonites, in the terrible villain Moriarty, and with his brother Mycroft, who is his rival in so many ways.

In Spiderman, Peter Parker's uncle tells him, "with great power comes great responsibility." This responsibility can also be a kind of kryptonite, especially if the responsibility turns into guilt. How dark your version of the super-hero's story is may depend on how much guilt your super-hero feels for his responsibility. Is it Spiderman's guilt? Superman's guilt? Batman's guilt? Buffy's guilt? In the most chilling episode of the series (in my opinion), a demon makes Buffy believe that she is actually in a mental institution, and that her adventures in Sunnydale and her place as a Vampire Slayer are actually the delusions of a crazed mind. She is a mentally disturbed human who dreams that she is a hero, and the episode ends on an uncertain note, forcing us to wonder if she is actually in the mental institution or not. If so, the whole series would be a fantasy, and in the end, we viewers have to choose which reality we want to be true. Is it better to live in an ordinary world as an ordinary person or to live in a world with demons and vampires to be slain and have the power to slay them? It depends on your capacity for guilt, I suppose.

A mistake in the past that needs redemption or a parent who has been disappointed can also work as a kryptonite. You don't want to use either of these in hackneyed, throw-away fashion, but a truly devastating mistake with real consequences can be something that an ordinary human determines to overcome, and thus makes herself into a super human. In my novel, The Princess and the Hound, a young Prince George witnesses the burning of a man with the animal magic that George has himself. This memory haunts him the rest of his life. He did not have the courage to stand up and say that the magic was his, that he was the guilty one. As a young man, he has to figure out a way to make this right, even if it seems there is no way to do it. He has to use his magic in a super-human way, in a way that only legends of the past make possible. And then in addition to that, he has to go beyond the magical and accept the consequences of being seen as having the magic among his people. He has to stand between the mobs and others with the magic.

One last caution about kryptonite: don't allow the kryptonite to be reversed too easily. If you simply have an ordinary human who is able to pick up the kryptonite and throw it away, that may work the first time, but make sure that the kryptonite comes back when the super-hero is alone and can't just ask for someone else to get rid of it for her. Like any other challenge, the reader will feel it more deeply the more it is struggled against. Readers come to stories to learn how to struggle. They don't want to be cheated out of it and given a pass. And remember that your super-hero will feel more super-heroic if she faces her kryptonite with real courage. If she risks death, let her come close to death. Make it difficult for her to escape it. Take the narrative time and effort necessary to make a final climax worthy of a real super-hero with super powers. This is narrative writ large. The super-hero is only as strong as she is when she faces a real weakness, a real kryptonite.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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