The World on Their Shoulders

Perfection is a hard life to sell. Especially in literature.

You think I’m joking.

Think about it though. If the main character of a story is the strongest, most powerful being in the universe that everyone loves (and the ones that don’t love them are so irredeemably awful that it doesn’t matter) and they can do anything they want, at anytime they want-

Wouldn’t the easiest description for that be “boring”?

Ignoring the other problem that conflict requires some real risk in order to be conflict, the cold, dirty truth is that we love an underdog.

We see this in all walks of life, not just in literature, but there is something intrinsically satisfying about the relatively powerless facing and fighting the relatively powerful.

(In part, because we often see ourselves as not very powerful and it is so much easier to relate to someone who feels the same way.)

Writers recognize this.

Writers turn themselves into pretzels to try and convey this feeling, even when the characters involved make it a completely ludicrous proposition.

There are a variety of ways to convey the nature of the underdog. Physical, magical, mental, and emotional weaknesses are often used to create a bond between the reader and the character they are carefully following. There are, of course, excellent exceptions to this rule, but an enduring trope in most genres is that the hero starts less powerful than what they fight and works their way towards being able to overcome overwhelming odds.

The problem is that in order to maintain this convenient stance of less powerful versus more powerful, sometimes the readers are asked to suspend all sense of logical connection. If the hero can carry the world in one hand whilst romancing the rest of the universe with the other, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that the cardboard caricatures that they are fighting can really stand up to the Force of Awesomeness. We won’t even get into the ridiculous power creep that happens in many long-running Fantasy series, because what fascinates me the most out of those situations is the desire to still paint the main character as the underdog.

Why?

While I see the fascination of a plucky David, or a completely confused Alice in Wonderland, why not embrace the character’s power and explore the problems that arise from it?

If the main character insists on being the most powerful being in the universe with a bevy of love-lorn followers, perhaps it might be interesting to see what conflicts arise from that position.

The world is a heavy burden to carry and I would love to explore the costs and consequences of that weight.

Just don’t try to tell me that the character with the rock is a superior force to the character wielding a planet on their shoulders.

 IMG_1046As lovely a place as the world might be, I have zero desire to bear its weight

I like to look at power and our complicated love and hate of the way it manifests in writing.


My own underdog is more Alice than David. If you’d like to see that for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

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