The Invulnerable Man Rule

This blog entry . . . ANYONE CAN DIE!

Okay, probably not.  Because that’s not something I do.  It’s not something that interests me.  I’ve got a pretty light touch when it comes to killing characters.  I’ll admit that.  I’ll usually kill or destroy or otherwise get rid of the bad guy, but it’s not my thing to introduce a colorful supporting cast and then pick them off to establish the credibility of the threat they face.  It’s probably yet another thing that keeps me from being taken as seriously as I’d sometimes like.  Nothing like a little blood on the page to remind everyone that you’re not screwing around.

I think this is probably because of my love of comic books.  Comic book superheroes are some of my earliest influences.  But I have a bad habit of liking the strange and obscure characters.  The very same characters that tend to die whenever a writer needs extra drama.  It puts me in a strange position.  If you’re favorite hero is Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man, you can rest assured that they aren’t going anywhere.  They might die for a gimmick, but no one with any sense believes they’ll stay dead.  Same with all the popular villains.  But if you, like me, enjoy Quasar, Diamond Lil, or Arnold Wesker, you are stuck walking a very difficult line.

Quasar, for example, is a character who was never popular but nonetheless had his own comic book series that lasted 60 issues before fading into complete obscurity.  I had the whole series and really loved it.  It also had the unfortunate side effect of making me a fan of several other even more obscure characters in his supporting cast.  Seriously, does anyone else out there like Makkari the Eternal?  If so, love to hear from you.

But then Quasar disappeared into comic book obscurity.  He did eventually reappear.  Only to be killed by an evil alien.

Story of my life, a comic book fan of the little guy, the obscure, the forgotten.

I think Quasar is back because death is rarely permanent in comic books if someone likes you, so clearly someone out there has a soft spot for Quasar.  Good luck, buddy.  I’m rooting for you.

Danger is often an important aspect of adventure fiction, but it shouldn’t be the only aspect.  Or even the most important one.  The conflict from adventure fiction should rarely be about the protagonists’ continued survival, but on their ability to achieve their goals.  Danger is only one of the obstacles that can get in their way, and it is, more often than not, an artificial one.

I call it The Invulnerable Protagonist Rule.  The rule says that if making your hero explicitly invulnerable to physical harm removes all the tension from your story, then you’re doing something wrong.

Almost all adventure protagonists are invulnerable.  Not explicitly.  But they’re invulnerable just the same.  Batman is not going to get shot and die, no matter how many times he leaps from the shadows into a mob of thugs.  Indiana Jones is not going to be killed, execution style, by the Nazis.  And no matter how many times James Bond is facing incredible odds, he won’t die.  This is necessary for most adventure fiction.  Without it, most protagonists would probably perish in very short order.

We might thrill to the adventures of action heroes, but for the most part, we know they are in no real danger because who wants to watch an superhero movie where the heroes spend all their time in traction?  Or watch Conan the barbarian get eaten by a giant spider?

The tension in adventure is found in whether our heroes can triumph.  Can Superman save Earth from an alien invasion?  Will Indiana Jones keep the Nazis from finding that magic superweapon?  Can James Bond keep Goldfinger from nuking Fort Knox?  Being invulnerable helps an action hero, but they usually have to work at it still.  Just because no one is going to shoot Batman in the back, it doesn’t mean he automatically wins.

I’m often surprised that this source of tension is lost among both writers and readers.  It’s one of the arguments most often used for why someone prefers Batman to Superman, for instance.  As if a Batman story is going to end with Bats getting mortally wounded.  The only difference between Batman and Superman is that Batman conveniently jumps out of the way of bullets while Superman doesn’t usually have to.  At the end of the day, they are both functionally invulnerable as their stories demand.

Yet there seems to be no greater joys for most writers than to get to write the story where ANYONE CAN DIE!  And the audience tends to dig it too.  And that’s their choice.

But I always get a little angry with it.  I don’t like stories where a character I’ve invested in is killed.  I don’t like them even as imaginary stories, as alternate universe adventures.  I find it annoying, manipulative.  Sometimes, it even seems a little abusive of the artist / audience relationship to trick the audience into caring for a character only to kill them off to supply drama.

I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t be done.  I’m all for a diversity of stories, and if some stories make life cheap and the fans like it, well, good for them.   But in my fiction, if I’m going to invest in a character (or ask my readers to invest), I’m not going to yank the rug out from under their feet just because I can.  Frankly, I’ve lost too many important people in my life and in my fiction already.

This one goes out to you, Thunderstrike.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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4 Comments

  1. Posted September 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I think death is an essential character in some stories. Now, in adventure stories, I think what the audience is often doing is looking at a situation and saying, “If it was me in that situation, there’s no way I would survive that, but the hero is indeed heroic and deserving of my admiration, because he can survive it.” It really doesn’t matter that it’s all artifice. We believe in the rules of the artificial universe, even when they lie to us. The Batman universe tells us that Batman is mortal, he can be shot and killed—it really doesn’t matter that something like that’s never going to happen. The fact is, Batman can run down a hall with all the Joker’s henchmen shooting at him and we can identify with the danger of that. Batman will obviously dodge bullets and make it out of the situation alive, but there’s a chance, based on the “rules” that he might just get mortally injured. Superman, he has a completely different set of rules to deal with—which is why Superman has to rescue mortals, like us, and we love him for it. I’m never worried that Superman won’t defeat the giant robot from space. I’m worried that he might not manage doing that and rescue Jimmy from the shark tank Lex Luthor has him and Lois Lane dangling over with a flimsy rope. There’s no way I’ll ever identify with the dangers Superman faces, which is why he really needs strong secondary characters around him who we love and are capable of getting into all sorts of trouble—facing death. The more godlike a character, the less the story becomes about that character. Now I can’t speak to comics, because I don’t read enough of them to be any sort of authority, but I know in certain genres the death of secondary and sometimes main characters is an absolute necessity, to better illustrate the value of life in the fictional world. I just saw the movie Drive this weekend and the value of human life in this film is cheap, but it does an excellent job of showing the ramifications of a closed society that puts the values of a fixed system over the value of human life. That theme wouldn’t have worked if so many characters hadn’t lost their lives in the attempt to illustrate that theme. Death for death’s sake, I don’t think that works. I think killing just to illustrate that people can die in the world is a cheap gimmick, but I think there are times when characters have to be sacrificed [and it should be a sacrifice in the truest sense of the word] to properly illustrate the theme of the story. If some great value isn’t gained or some great illumination made, then it probably wasn’t worth killing off the character.

  2. Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a bit of an over-simplification to suggest that writers like to kill off characters just because they can or that the hero’s success or failure is the only source of tension in adventure writing. Sure, some writers might be guilty of both, but I suspect most editors would nip these tendencies in the bud.

    When I see supporting characters killed off, it’s usually used to heighten the emotional tension: especially when the hero is implicitly or explicitly invulnerable. If our perspective hero can’t be hurt physically, then something that delivers an emotional gut punch is the only way to really put them in jeopardy. Executed well, this technique works fine. Unfortunately, in some media and genres it tends to be over-used or handled really poorly.

    It’s hardest in episodic stories, like the Bond movies/books or in comics. Bond’s emotional distance from everyone and everything lessens the impact of supporting characters’ deaths on the reader. Bond shunts aside the emotional impact, and so we’re just pulled along in his wake. He gets over it quickly, and so do we. In most comics, death or danger to the hero’s loved ones is used in practically every issue. This constant re-use just makes us numb. I mean, how many times can Aunt May really be about to die? I think that finding some way to tap into the hero’s emotions effectively in an episodic story is one of the most challenging aspects of episodic writing. Lacking a defined emotional arc for the character with an intended end-state, I’d suspect it’s fairly impossible. Non-episodic storytelling lacks that repetitiveness, which means that when the device is used it is more likely to be fresh because our hero (and by extension the reader) has never experienced it before.

    And BTW, I’ve also got every issue of Quasar. Granted, I haven’t read them in years, but they’re still bagged and boarded in my long boxes. They were fun.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree that my post is an oversimplification. Let it never be said that I think I’ve tackled this issue (or any other) in a single blot post.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Werner Wolf
    Posted October 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Hello there.

    Sorry for bad english. It´s not my native language. I believe you mention a good point there. Oversimplification or not. I started to dislike fantasy or science fiction storys of any kind in which sidecharacters are killed only to keep the plot dramatic. Sometimes i read further. Sometimes i didnt. (Especially, when i liked the supporting character more, than the hero. ) As a creative person, i constantly create characters as a game master for my role playing game, i can tell that one puts much energy and love into characters to make them interesting and lifelike. Especially for chatacters, who support them, or are friends of the players characters. The same is then felt by the players. I shure could kill them, to give a game session more tension. But i never do that, because there are other ways to produce tension. And the players would lose the opportunity to find out more about the character and interact with him/her. And i think its quite similar with charakters in books/storys. Only in books or stories you get only the opportunity to read more about them. :-) And i remarkably often notice, that that is the way in stories, where you as reader already know, whats going on. Where the evil villain or his plans are no mystery to the reader. The most exciting stories i read, watched on tv or enjoyed in computergames, made a mystery about whats going on. So as a reader you are forced to put clues together yourself, without knowing what will happen next. Which produces way more tension, than believeing that anyone can die. (Personal opinion) Sure. It makes them lighthearted. But enjoying a lighthearted and exciting story isn´t so wrong either. Isn´t it? Life is sad enough the way it is.
    Sure thats not true for many horror stories out there. Some make a mystery about the evil monster/s and kill most of the characters in their way.

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