Men of Virtue: Or, Why Is It So Hard To Write A Good Guy?
People often complain about the difficulties of writing a Superman story. Writers just can’t seem to find enough meat to sink their teeth into when it comes to Kal-El. Folks like their superheroes gritty and complicated nowadays, and Superman is just so…well…simple. Pure. Vanilla, maybe even, although I hate that term.
Our widespread belief that superheroes must have deep, even disturbing flaws runs so deep that in 2019 filmmakers released the movie Brightburn, a film about what would happen if Superman were evil. (of course, Brightburn isn’t the first evil Superman story; far from it.)
Superman’s not the only good guy that seems challenging for writers. I’m sure we can all think of 4 zillion examples of good guys who are downright insipid compared to our beloved anti-hero Batverine. I’m not even going to write a list, that’s how much I’m convinced we can all conjure numerous mental examples of the Too-Good-To-Be-True supe.
Let’s just call this uncomplicated Good Guy Strawman for the sake of convenience. Of course, there are also Strawman’s female counterparts Captain Strawgirl and Wonder Straw. Most modern-day hero stories generally pit either Batverine or Strawman or both against a bad guy that is way more interesting than Strawman, leaving most of us wishing Batverine had more screen time and also kind of hoping that the bad guy wins.
But IS it really that hard to write a good guy? Or is the ubiquity of underdrawn heroes and overused antiheroes borne from the minds of people who have seen too many McG movies and have to get their script in to corporate before they can jet off to Martha’s Vineyard?
Well, I won’t keep you in suspense – I DON’T think it’s inherently that difficult to write a good guy and I DO think that lazy writing is behind whatever shortcomings Strawman manifests. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good guy, because who the hell am I, I’m just saying it simply cannot be as hard as people are making it.
The first challenge of writing a Strawman character is that they’re nearly always overpowered. If a hero can come swooping in like a flying brick and blast someone with laser beam eyes or in the case of the female heroes, superboobs, and solve everyone’s problem without breaking a sweat, well, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for complexities of conflict, now does it? It then falls to the writer to invent a farfetched workaround like a magic rock, mysteriously waxing and waning powers (vanishing right when they’re needed most only to reappear also when they’re needed most), or a convenient case of short-term amnesia, to yield an interesting story.
You end up never getting to see Strawman actually DO anything. It’s hard to be a fan of a character if you never get to see them rock and roll (according to LeVar Burton himself, that’s why no one likes Geordi LaForge and everyone likes Mr. Scott. Geordi never got to rock and roll). It’s even harder to love a superhero when every time you encounter them, they’re weak and lying on the ground trying to work up the wherewithal to blast someone. Not only is it uninspiring, but it’s also flat out BORING. You never get an action sequence with your hero at their best, because their best would be unstoppable.
The second challenge of writing Strawman is that he has to be good. Like, good beyond good. Dude has to be purer than a bar of Ivory. We want our Strawmen to be not only uncorrupted, but incorruptible. Why do we want this? Because the only way we can trust unlimited power is if it’s in the hands of someone who literally cannot make any wrong choices ever, because morality is built right into their fundament.
Goodness in and of itself is not an insurmountable problem for a writer, as anyone who has ever watched High Noon knows, but Hollywood for the past 50-some-odd years or so has embraced the anti-hero to a ridiculous extreme. The ability of corporate writers to produce product with a straightforwardly heroic protagonist appears to have withered away from disuse. So, because we know that Strawman is incorruptible, there’s never any doubt in our minds that Strawman will do the right thing. No doubt = no drama.
Strawman presents one final challenge, in that writers rarely allow him to experience any actual uncertainty about what course of action to pursue. The majority of superhero stories contain only one correct way to solve a problem – typically a convoluted series of miracles in which somehow evil is punished and good emerges completely unscathed, yet no ethical compromises had to be made. Not only is Strawman boringly superultramegagood, but he also always knows instinctively which fork in the road to take, no wrong turns, no whoopsie-daisies. Coupled with the overly straightforward and unimaginative plotting that plagues Hollywood these days, this leads to a tedious, obvious, deadly dull storyline. The audience never gets to wonder even briefly if Strawman is making his fatal mistake this time. We know he isn’t. Even on those rare occasions a hero does get it wrong, there are rarely consequences that last longer than an act, an episode, or an issue.
Writers do often saddle a heroic character with crippling self-doubt, of course, but it’s merely a plot device. It may as well be a chunk of Kryptonite for all that it matters. When there’s only one reasonable decision to be made, there’s no legitimate reason to second-guess yourself. Strawman’s self-doubt is either time-wasting filler or a joke we the viewer are in on; it turns off and on as needed, whenever it’s convenient. We as viewers/readers largely ignore this incessant angst because in the end we know our hero will pull out the win somehow, no matter how much the deck is stacked against him.
While plot devices are invariably part of writing, they too often devolve into a crutch for lazy writers to lean on. The truth is, real life is chock full of situations where you honestly for the life of you do not know the right thing to do. In real life, you don’t get a map and there isn’t a fortune teller making prophesies, or Dr. Strange precogging the outcome of your every decision. Your choices all seem equally good – or more likely, equally terrible. And as most of us have learned through bitter experience, sometimes even the choices you made with the purest of intentions lead you someplace awful. The uncertainty borne from remorse would hamstring superheroes even more than it does the rest of us, yet in superhero stories, the One True Path is practically always available for the taking. Their constant self-doubt never feels real, and because it never feels real, it just seems like a waste of time.
Writers try to make up for these structural weaknesses – ridick superpowers plus goody-two-shoes nature coupled with an overly straightforward path – by making good guys act like jerks to make them more complicated or something. But this approach rarely works because the writers didn’t set up any believable motivation for the jerkish behavior. So, you end up with a character that is both dreadfully vanilla and yet somehow also a huge a-hole.
Exhibit A – Cyclops. Cyclops is a Strawman-type character I personally love and everyone else personally hates. I find a lot to like in Cyke even though he effs over my favorite superhero ever Jean Grey many times and also effs over her clone which is a relationship problem so convoluted not even SuperDoctorPhil could handle it.
The thing I like about Cyclops is that he has potential. Ok, so the dude made some penis-related mistakes in his personal life and was not a terribly good leader, like, at all. But that could be INTERESTING. There are a lot of funtastic ways to write an anti-hero and a horny dude who isn’t a good leader certainly fits the description of anti-hero to me.
But it just doesn’t work, which is why everyone prefers Wolverine.
It’s easy to blame this on the fans; after all, fans claim to want their superheroes gritty. Yet they have the temerity to complain about the particular flavor of gritty? People want their superheroes to be vigilantes in the streets but a gentleman in the sheets or something, I guess. They want dark and edgy superheroes that…never go too far?? And never make mistakes??? And never treat their girlfriends bad or act pissy with the people they’re working with???? Jeez Louise what do these people want, anyway? A unicorn that shoots laser beams out of its eyeballs or something?
After giving this a lot of thought I realized it wasn’t so much what Cyclops did that was the trouble. It was how it was done. With better writing the many peccadilloes of Cyclops could have become legendary (see also: Tony Stark). The trouble with Cyclops is that the writers were unwilling to dispense with the idea that people wielding massive amounts of power have to invariably be goody-two-shoes, while still wanting the fun of writing an antihero.
In short, the writers wanted to pull their punches. They wanted to create a Clarkentian good guy in Cyclops but at the same time be able to make him do bad stuff when they needed to spice things up a little. But making a goody-two-shoes into a jerk yields Frank Burns, and the last time I checked, he was a villain.
The anti-hero approach will never work on Superman, who is not only Clarkentian, but actually Clark Kent.
I think one of the best good guys ever written has got to be Farscape’s John Crichton. He’s a good guy, there’s never any doubt in your mind that he is, even when he has a bad guy inhabiting part of his brain. But circumstances he encounters make being a good guy harder for him and on him than it ought to be – just like how it’s tough to always be a good guy in the real world. As I’ve said in the past, being a good person is easy when everything in your life is food cubes and cream, but the harder things get and the more you suffer, the harder it becomes to stay true to your moral compass.
The complexity of John Crichton’s morality grows organically as he encounters situations his simplistic Earth-based system of ethics never prepared him for. Granted Farscape had 4 seasons plus a mini-series to tell John’s story and unlike most superhero stories, was perfectly cast (Ben Browder, who probably also should have played Cyclops), but it’s more than that. Crichton makes wrong choices based on bad information and even, at times (gasp!) personal weakness. The writers allow him to make those wrong choices sometimes and make him face the consequences even when they have to write their way back out of them again. Other times all manner of badness is thrust upon John by the actions of others, then it’s left to him to pick up the pieces. Crichton is plagued with self-doubt and regret for REASONS, not just because a script has to have 120 pages in it, so the writers had to pad it a little with some meaningless angst. Despite all the compromises he makes with himself (at times, literally) he continues to make an honest effort to be the good guy.
John Crichton, unlike Cyclops, never descends into anti-hero-dom even though he has every reason to. But his journey is never easy, and every step of it is uphill, with enemies coming out of basically every crevice of time and space to stop him. He’s not even safe from them in his own head. Crichton is practically always on the verge of defeat. But that’s why he’s also a better hero than Superman, who can’t be bested by anyone other than a magic rock.
It occurs to me as I write all this, that maybe you haven’t seen Farscape. I’d tell you to watch it, but some otherwise reasonable people I know didn’t care for it (the show, which was created and produced by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, features Muppets in prominent roles, and if that’s something you cannot abide, you’ll likely not enjoy Farscape).
Luckily, there are other examples of a successful good guy to fall back on. Superman will have to wander alone in the wilderness no longer.
I mentioned High Noon above, so let’s make it easy on ourselves and revisit it, since most people have seen the film. If you haven’t had the pleasure, High Noon is the story of a recently retired, newly married marshal (Gary Cooper) who has to face a cold-blooded killer he put behind bars, Frank Miller. Since Miller has a gang of men supporting him, Marshal Kane has to go to the townspeople, hat in hand, and try to get together a posse to stop the gang. But unlike modern day fare where this happens easily after an inspirational speech, the townspeople aren’t willing to help, each of them for their own prosaic reasons, leaving just the marshal to stand against the bad guys. Oh, and also, his new wife is a Quaker who tries to get her husband to run instead of fight, and along the way she has to discuss their predicament at length with the Marshal’s old girlfriend.
The drama in High Noon comes not from our hero going around being inexplicably surly and lashing out at people who want to help him, nor does it come from him being an unstoppable killing machine who for some farfetched reason loses his powers. It comes instead from the struggle Marshal Kane faces, from having every possible stumbling block (even his ex) thrown in his way.
What happens when a good, but fallible man is put into an impossible situation? Isn’t that a more interesting question than what happens when an incorruptible man encounters a magic rock?
Marshal Kane is in that impossible situation, but he doesn’t run because it’s not in his nature. He refuses to abandon the town he’d sworn to protect even though the residents of the town abandoned him first. He’s scared and angry, resentful and bitter, and he’s deeply mourning that beautiful new life he thought he was beginning. But he doesn’t run.
Successfully written heroes are not perfect paragons of virtue. (Only boring heroes are perfect paragons of virtue.) Heroes are heroes because they make a decision to be, an active decision, and it is a decision that does not always or even usually come without a steep price (see: Ned Stark). Their being willing to pay that price is what makes a hero’s story worth telling. If there’s no price paid, no cost to one’s actions, and the answers to hard questions come easily, painlessly, then the story lacks emotional punch. We may watch whatever-it-is for the explosions, but we won’t remember it even just an hour later.
Taking the lessons of Crichton and Marshal Kane to heart, how can we reclaim the good guy narrative for poor Kal-El? Because I can hear your protests – John Crichton and Marshal Kane are not Strawmen and thus the same rules cannot apply. I mean, sure, ok, it’s easy for a couple human beings to be flawed self-doubting good guys, but Kal-El is inhuman, flawless, and unstoppable. When it comes to paying a price, Superman basically has the ability to print his own money – whatever it takes, he can afford it. Even when it comes to winning the affections of the incredibly shallow Lois Lane, the dilemma is not that she doesn’t like him at ALL, it’s that she doesn’t like him when he’s Clark Kent. It’s not exactly an insurmountable problem; Clark Kent’s disappointing love life is the equivalent of a lump of Kryptonite, something that writers fall back on when they need to and ignore when it’s inconvenient.
Is it impossible to write a decent Superman story?
Of all the superhero stories I would love to write, Superman is number one with a speeding bullet because Superman is about the nature of good and evil. Superman is the living embodiment of humans possessing incredible power en masse (an army, a government, a corporation) and when and how to use that incredible power.
And there is the answer, the way to turn Superman’s flying brickishness into a strength. Because the correct answer to the question of when to use incredible, well-nigh unstoppable power is “sparingly”.
Phenomenal cosmic power has to exist in our fictional universes since in its absence supervillains would run amok, but overusing power turns superheroes into villains by corrupting them absolutely, just the same as it does in the real world. The fundamental drama of Superman should spring from that ever-present temptation inherent to those who wield great power – whether or not to impose more than just the most basic and inarguable morality on citizens. The fundamental struggle of Superman’s existence is knowing when to use his power and when not to, and then afterwards having to face the consequences of those decisions.
Like John Crichton, sometimes Superman might act when he shouldn’t’ve, might abstain when he should acted, and sometimes even though he thought he’d made the right choice, might discover after the fact that there were terrible consequences for the call he made in the heat of the moment. The people he’s meant to be saving might come to curse his name for all the times he wasn’t perfect. They might hate him even more for the times he WAS perfect but was in an impossible situation due to ethical constraints.
In the hands of a thoughtful writer who didn’t constantly rely on cheats and short cuts and plot devices, Superman’s heroics or lack thereof would incur great cost in terms of guilt and remorse; in time he may come to find the cost too high. Like Marshal Kane, he may even come to feel betrayed by those very people he’d done so much to help. The people around him – Lois, Jimmy, Perry White, even the Kents themselves – don’t always or even usually understand his choices. Because that’s how life is – no one ever understands your motives but you and God, and sometimes not even them. Would a Strawman continue being a hero if he could never make anyone happy, not even himself? That quandary would be a great basis for an all-powerful good guy.
Rather than resorting to cheap trickery in which someone finds the ubiquitous lump of Kryptonite and Superman is reduced to a writhing heap of spandex-clad superhumanity, rather Clark Kent moping around because Lois is only into the other guy, what if the fundamental conflict of Superman was man vs. himself? What if rather than giving us manufactured drama and faux angst, Superman had to face an opponent he’s never really fought before – the man in the mirror?
Like the unstoppable robot on The Incredibles, only Superman is strong enough to hurt himself.
That’s a story I want to hear.
*On my blog, I have an original superhero story in which I try to reclaim the “Women in Fridges” trope in a more female-positive way, taking into account much of the thinking I’ve done about how to write a good guy. You can read it here: Women in Fridges – A Cold Day in Hell Part 1: “Boy Meets Girl, Girl Meets Fridge”