Not including deeply disturbed individuals, most members of an audience want the hero to win in the end.
We’ve been trained by centuries of storytelling and our inherent need to create three-act tales with defined character roles to identify who a protagonist is and what we want for him or her. Sometimes, it’s unhealthy, like when we apply it to ourselves and our unwilling friends. Other times, it’s exactly what’s needed to digest a compelling story.
In the best of times, our inherent need for the success of a protagonist and a storyteller’s unique vision will dance around one another, clashing and collaborating in all manner of ways so that expectations are subverted and a story remains compelling. The fates of characters are unknown and the experiences we have engrained in our subconscious through countless books, TV shows, and films do not allow us to see the tracks upon which a story has been set. That’s called good storytelling.
But in the worst of times, a protagonist is so perfect, so unbeatable, that the character becomes boring and, in exchange, the story as a whole becomes predictable. That doesn’t mean that stories must end in tragedy to be entertaining. In fact, the most exciting stories can center on knowing that the hero will win, but being entirely unsure of how it will happen. Victory seems unreachable. Death is imminent. And the protagonist is surely done for. But there is still hope.
If a protagonist is all powerful, there simply is no tension. This story-breaking power can ruin even the best of narratives. Should a villain be too powerful to live, the solution is simple. Kill him. Can you really kill the hero? Especially in the midst of a franchise and a continuing story focused on this one specific, yet very problematic, person? Then again, an unbeatable protagonist may make a story bomb long before it becomes a series.
Superman Can Be Boring, But the Copycats are Worse
Truth be told, I’m a staunch defender of Superman. Yes, the Man of Steel is all powerful and morally centered at all times. But that’s an irremovable piece of his character. In a world filled with morally gray heroes, Superman should stand as a beacon of light and hope. Changing that weakens the character as a whole.
Simply put, Superman makes the creation of a compelling story difficult. But the strength of the character makes it worth it. When other characters have all the powers that a yellow sun/strange radiation/The Force could give them, they drain all possible dramatic tension from the story. Of course they’re going to win, all they have to do is wave their hand and the enemy will turn into a puff of smoke. When they don’t us their powers just because it would cut the narrative short, the audience will know it’s the invisible hand of the writer keeping these awe-inspiring powers at bay. That’s just annoying.
The problem with depowering such characters is that the audience can smell what you’re doing a mile away. The videogame series God of War has each game begin with rageaholic protagonist Kratos start with the full breadth of his powers, most often carried over from the end of the previous game, only to have them drained by some Deus ex Machina, only from hell, a Diabolus ex Machina, if you will. Everyone knows exactly why this happens. Nothing would be challenging if you simply had every power immediately at your fingertips.
But, in the end, this depowering is absolutely necessary. You need not look any further than the Star Wars videogame The Force Unleashed II to see the pitfalls of an overpowered character. From the very beginning, lead character, Starkiller, has nearly every power at his disposal from the very beginning. The result? The ability to plow through any enemy in mere moments. It’s invigorating at first, but quickly drains the fun and challenge by the time you’ve slaughtered the thousandth juggernaut in your path. While this problem is especially evident in a videogame, where the player is the one propelling the narrative, it can just as easily make film viewers or book reader drop out when the story has lost all sense of tension.
It’s why almost every superhero created since The Man of Steel has been given strict guidelines regarding their powers and very real weaknesses. This may be a cliché now in the superhero genre, but it keeps narratives interesting and allows protagonists to remain compelling without breaking their stories.
Highly Visible Plot Armor
Not every protagonist has to be filled with the raw power of a thousand exploding suns to be invincible. Oftentimes, it’s the plot itself that gives the hero godlike powers.
While no one wants the main character of a story to be unceremoniously killed off or otherwise taken out of the plot, many a protagonist has been saved thanks to the simply being at the center of a plot. It’s almost as if the rules of reality and all logic bend around them, shielding central characters from harm. Good storytelling will keep this from being obvious or reroute stories in new directions that do not simply exist to save the main character.
If a character is caught in the middle of a giant explosion, he or she should not be able to simply walk away without a scratch. While this is an extreme example, it encapsulates the degree to which many central characters have been given plot armor.
If there are any characters who suffer this cliché to the most obvious degree, it’s TV show protagonists. These central characters are the reason why viewers tune in week after week, but writers must continue to put them at the center of dramatic tension in order to keep the stories compelling. Shows that center around character relationships and comedy can avoid these traps since their stakes do not involve life or death. Failure is possible since dynamics may change, but the plot can continue forward.
Action, crime, and mystery series, on the other hand, face a far greater challenge. Death needs to be a real threat, but cliff hanger endings can’t always be compelling, since the audience innately knows that the hero will survive and be back next week somehow. Once the hero has escaped death for the umpteenth time, there is no more threat and therefore no more dramatic tension.
However, there are some classic examples of “plot armor” falling away at just the right moment. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the greatest examples. Actress Janet Leigh was already a leading lady and was billed as the film’s star. In fact, the entire first half of the movie is centered on her. Except that at about halfway through she’s killed in what quickly became one of cinema’s most shocking scenes. Psycho became a classic and the scene in question has been a hallmark ever since.
The Game of Thrones book and TV series have become well known for specifically bucking the trend of plot armor. Anyone can die at any time, no matter how long they have been part of the story. It’s what makes the series compelling and what makes spoilers that much more horrific for fans. These cloudy narratives keep storytelling tropes from being predicted easily. Yes, it may seem cruel, but author George R. R. Martin is a genius for taking what audiences expect and doing the opposite when they least expect it.
Vulnerable Heroes and Compelling Stories
The greatest protagonists in fiction have become classic characters because of a potent blend of two elements. One, they have innate qualities to which we aspire. This can be morality, willpower, the ability to triumph over adversity, or just plain coolness. Two, they are relatable. The greatest relatable characteristic is vulnerability. We’re humans. We stumble, we fall, we screw up, and sometimes we get beaten. The best heroes do this too, except they get back up and win!
A hero that never falls will never have to get back up. And since we’re an entire species that has dedicated itself to falling directly on its own face, audiences often find it hard to connect with a character who does not experience relatable adversities. When a hero is vulnerable but overcomes obstacles in order to achieve victory, the victory is that much sweeter. That’s why when Superman punches out Metallo, it’s fun, but not amazing. When Daredevil knocks out Bullseye, it’s completely awesome. Only one of those guys had to go through hell to get there.
Vulnerable protagonists don’t have to leap through flames while wearing a cape to encapsulate our human strengths and weaknesses. Films, shows, and books based on real life stories or retelling actual events can connect with us even more than stories that could never happen in the real world. In either case, we all find our own heroes to relate to over time. These characters speak to us in unique ways, but no matter who they are or what they face, we root for them Why? Because deep down we feel like they need to be cheered on to win. Anyone who doesn’t need cheering to be victorious isn’t out hero. They actually sound a lot more like the villain.