Relatable superheroes

Superheroes offer a particular challenge to writers. When dealing with characters with greater than human abilities, it is important that the writer finds a way to make them relatable. If your superhero is practically invulnerable then your story will lack tension and your audience will struggle to relate to the character. A protagonist who cannot be harmed in any way cannot lose anything and nothing can stop them from achieving their goals. We relate to characters through the fact that they, like us, can be hurt, can experience loss and can have their ambitions thwarted. A character who cannot experience this is of little interest to a reader. In exploring this issue, I am going to look closely at a few examples – mainly Luc Besson’s film Lucy, which I saw recently.

Besson is known for bringing a certain visual flair to his films – he has a distinctive style which can be seen in work as diverse as Leon and The Fifth Element. However, impressive visuals do not make a movie: engaging characters and a gripping story are also necessary. Lucy is a treat for the eyes, but lacks dramatic tension because its protagonist is overpowered.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a hapless American tourist travelling in Taiwan. Lucy is kidnapped by gangsters and forced to carry a new drug to Europe. However, there is an accident and a lot of the drug ends up in Lucy’s bloodstream. Here it unlocks her ability to use more than 10% of her brain, which for some reason her gives her superpowers and eventually turns her into a godlike being.

This ridiculous plot is little more than window dressing for a series of spectacular fight scenes and glowing visual illustrations of Lucy's new found abilities. Some of these are breathtakingly beautiful, and some are a generic series of martial arts based fights that are little different from every other similar such scene since The Matrix.

Lucy quickly becomes so powerful that the gangsters cannot hurt her, but this happens too early in the film and we have had hardly any time to get to know Lucy as a person. The result is we do not empathise with her. This film has too much of The One and not enough Neo. To be able to relate to the protagonist, the audience needs time to get to know them before they become invulnerable.

Having weaknesses as well as strengths is an important part of making your protagonist relatable, despite Superman's strength he is powerless against Kryptonite. If your character has superhuman strength, then lack of technical knowledge gives them a weakness and makes them relatable. Another useful weakness for a super-powered character is to have a social dysfunction. They may have greater than human abilities, but if they cannot relate to other characters then they will suffer in the world of your story. Your super-powered protagonist should not be so powerful that they do not need friends.

The character of Wolverine in the X-Men films is a good example of this. Wolverine’s abilities make him practically invulnerable, but due to psychological damage he struggles in trusting other people. Wolverine’s greater than human physical abilities are not enough to achieve his goals and his less than human social skills make working with others to achieve them difficult. Tension comes from the audience waiting to see if Wolverine can work with the other X-Men or if his lone wolf personality will thwart him despite his super powers.

Speaking of friends, the supporting cast of your story is a great way to make a protagonist more relatable. Having friends who are vulnerable is a good weakness for a superhero to have. The Superman movies do this very effectively, as Superman can be hurt because he cares for Lois Lane and villains can threaten her. Superman stands to loose something important to him in the story, and so it has more tension and he becomes more relatable.

Lucy’s lack of character development injures the film in regard to the above. The eponymous heroine is not the only underdeveloped character, as all of the supporting cast suffer from this as well. It is with the supporting cast where this lack of development is mostly keenly felt. We do not learn much about Professor Norman (played by Morgan Freeman) other than that he is a scientist with theories relating to using more of the human brain. Similar Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), a Parisian police officer with whom Lucy works to defeat the gangsters, is also a mystery to us. We do not know about these people, their lives, dreams and goals (beyond presumable staying alive) so we cannot relate to them. Thus we cannot relate to Lucy through her relationship with the supporting cast. A better-developed and more sympathetic supporting cast would add tension to the film.

Usually Besson is good at balancing striking visuals along with solid character development and a gripping story. He managed this well during both Leon and The Fifth Element, both of which are well known for their visual spectacle and are well-loved for the strong bond which the audience gains with the characters on their journey. The latter is a good example of what Lucy could have been: The Fifth Element has breathtaking action as well as Besson's trademark provocative visuals, but it also has the Earthly charm of Bruce Willis at its core. The Fifth Element also features a woman of incredible powers as a protagonist, but in this case we empathise with Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) through her personal journey to find love in a chaotic and violent world. This is something we can all relate to, but by contrast we cannot relate to the physiological changes which Lucy is going through because we have never experienced anything like it. More could have been made of the personal losses that Lucy experiences to make her a more relatable character, but this is missing from the film.

The Matrix is a film which successfully creates a relatable protagonist in Neo (Keanu Reeves). We follow him as he discovers the truth of the world around him and eventually becomes the all-powerful ‘One’. Neo gains his godlike abilities right at the end of the movie and we have spent a long time following Neo while he was still human and vulnerable. Reliability comes from his very human vulnerability in the dangerous world of the Matrix.

The TV series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer also does a good job of making a super powered protagonist relatable. Buffy is powerful but not invulnerable. The slayer can be killed, so when she faces powerful antagonists like Spike there is a tension which Lucy lacks when she faces the Taiwanese gangsters. Buffy also has the same emotional vulnerability as any normal teenager, which means we can relate to her through shared experiences.

When creating a protagonist with greater than human abilities how relatable they are and the level of tension which you want for your story are important considerations for any writer. The character should have some vulnerability: either a physical weakness, the lack of a certain skill or an emotional vulnerability. The supporting cast of non-super powered characters need to be developed properly and the protagonist needs to have experiences in common with the audience. These experiences should be the everyday experiences of love, loss and emotional vulnerability, as it is through these shared experiences that we can relate to the character.

Above all, avoid a situation like Lucy, where the protagonist is invulnerable and underdeveloped, as the audience will struggle to relate to them. This is especially bad in a story with undeveloped supporting characters, thus closing off other avenues of empathy. A good place to start is looking carefully at super hero stories you have enjoyed and thinking why you relate to the protagonist of that story.