Superman Syndrome

Sat Apr 30 2016

Let me just say it: Superman makes a lousy protagonist.

I mean look at the guy: He's the strongest dude on the planet. He has genius-level intelligence, and stunning good looks. He can hear the faintest sounds from miles away, literally see through walls, and he's probably a super-taster too though that might not have ever come up in the comic books. He's polite and respectful to a fault, and follows an unswerving moral compass.

He can fly, for goodness sakes, and at super speeds. Duh, obviously at super speeds. He can even somehow shoot lasers out of his eyes. Yet, despite his superiority to everyone else on the planet, nevertheless somehow manages to remain humble. How does that even work?

And of course, he's invulnerable to everything except a fictional substance writers had to make up just so they could have a way to threaten him. Remember that.

What is Superman Syndrome?

Superman Syndrome is what you get when your protagonist is too well-suited to whatever situations the story is going to throw at him.

(Yes, him, by the way. While I see Superman Syndrome fairly often in clients' male characters, somehow I never see it happen with female characters. Make of that what you will...)

Got a fantasy story where the hero has to rescue the princess from the evil king's castle on the other side of a monster-filled forest? Better make him super-strong, brave as anything, and the best swordsman in the land, right? That guy can get the job done.

Got a story where the hero has to chase a spy through half of Europe in order to recover the critical secret documents? Better make sure he speaks at least German, English, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and if he has to go to Eastern Europe, Russian. And speak them like a native, of course. That way he'll totally have no problem getting by reading all those foreign street signs and train schedules, or talking with locals who can help him track his quarry. Oh, and of course he'll be a ninth-level black belt in whatever the hot martial art is these days too, so he can take down the bad guy in a flashy mano-a-mano climax. Get the job done? You betcha.

Got a story where your small town family doctor hero has to save the world from a virulent outbreak of some new virus? Better make sure he's an ace general practitioner and diagnostician so he can figure out what the new virus is. It would be good if he got a masters in microbiology before becoming a doctor, too, so he knows how to whip up a serum lickety-split. Oh, and better make sure he's best buddies with some big-dog at the Centers for Disease Control, so he can quickly get his serum into distribution. That'll take care of the situation.

Supermen, every one of them.

Why Superman makes a Lousy Protagonist

Drama comes from the reader's perception that a situation's outcome is uncertain, and therefore may end badly. If the outcome of a situation is obvious, then nobody's going to be interested in watching that situation unfold. You may as well skip over it.

Supermen are simply over-powered characters. And what do all forms of power have in common? They make problems easy to solve.

Power turns uncertain situations into foregone conclusions.

Where the fantasy hero might have stumbled into a nest of trolls and gotten injured or at least had to run away, the Superman fantasy hero will simply cuisinart those trolls into paté and continue on his way. Where an ordinary spy might have gotten on the wrong train out of Amsterdam because his Dutch sucks, Superman spy won't ever have such embarrassing mistakes happen to him. Where the family doctor might have had trouble determining why people in town were suddenly dying, or might not have been able to do anything about it once he did, or might not have been able to get anybody in power to believe that a simple country doctor has the cure to the plague, Superman doctor is going to waltz right through those problems.

Power kills drama, just as easily as Superman could kill Lex Luthor if he wasn't such a goody-goody.

Hence, Kryptonite

This is why Superman's writers had to invent kryptonite: because they realized that they'd created a character who was too powerful. Nothing was a challenge for him. They needed a way to take his power away sometimes in order to actually challenge him and create some uncertainty about outcomes so as to restore drama to their stories.

Does it work? Meh. Sometimes. Ultimately it's a band-aid solution to a fundamental issue in the whole premise of the character. Bottom line, even with kryptonite Superman is just too powerful to be all that challenged by much of anything. And what are they going to do? Use kryptonite in every single situation? That would get old mighty fast.

Dealing with Superman

The way I see it, you have two approaches to dealing with Superman characters. One addresses the fundamental issue, the other is essentially a better (more savage) form of Kryptonite.

Method 1: Costanza Character Creation

Remember that classic episode of Seinfeld, in which George Costanza figures out how to fix his life by doing the opposite of his natural instincts?

Likewise, you can create a character who's going to generate tons of drama in the story by imagining the perfect Superman, then doing the opposite. List every strength the character would need in order to accomplish the job perfectly, then give us a character who has none of that. In our spy example:

Superman Opposite
Is a spy. Is not a spy. Knows nothing about actual spy field-craft.
Speaks six languages fluently. English only, stutters, and gets tongue-tied all the time.
Physically fit athlete. Pudgy desk-jockey with no stamina and poor eyesight.
Martial arts expert. Can't throw a punch to save his life.

Is this anti-spy going to have trouble catching the enemy spy? You'd better believe it.

The Costanza Method works well because it casts your protagonist as someone who is highly ill-suited to the jobs the story requires. The premise of the character therefore immediately sets him up for massive challenges at every turn. He's going to have to struggle, be clever, and maybe even have a bit of luck, in order to succeed. He's going to fail sometimes and be forced to adjust his plans on the fly. That's drama!

While this method dumps tons of dramatic uncertainty into your story's situations, it does raise a question that your story will have to address: If this character is so ill-suited to dealing with the story's central conflict, why is it even his job in the first place?

Your story must answer this in order for readers to accept your protagonist as a plausible choice.

Maybe our anti-spy isn't a field agent, but he at least works for the CIA as an analyst so he's familiar with the foreign agents the CIA keeps tabs on. And while on vacation in Europe, happens to see one of those agents coming out of the U.S. embassy, looking all shifty. He might call it in--because of course he knows it's not his job to catch the guy--only to have his bosses tell him he's crazy, he's seeing things, leave the spy work to the real spies and have a relaxing vacation because obviously he needs one.

If our anti-spy believes he's right, he's going to decide that he better deal with it--no matter how ill-suited he might be--because he's the only one available.

Method 2: Steal his Shoes

In this method you go ahead and create Superman and put him in your story.

Then you systematically take away everything that made him super.

In our fantasy hero example, sure, give us a Hercules-like swordsman. Why not? Let him be a guy whose self-image is entirely based on his genuinely awesome physical prowess. Resident dragon-slayer, reknowned across four kingdoms. Wields the fabled MunchkinBlade that's so sharp it can cut you in half and you'll never even feel it. Throw everything you can into that character.

Let that guy be recruited by the good king to rescue his daughter from the evil king's castle. Let him swear upon his good name and his honor that he will see the princess returned or die in the attempt.

Now bring him to ruin.

First, why not arrange to break his sword? Maybe the first thing that happens as he's riding out of town is that a snake spooks his horse, which rears up. His sword slides out of its scabbard while he's fighting not to be thrown, crashes to the ground, and breaks against a rock. Tragedy!

Oh well, he can get another. At the next town, he buys a five gold-piece blade--the balance is crappy and it totally doesn't work with his style, but he'll be ok.

Off he rides into the woods. There, he meets a trapper out checking his traplines. Nice fellow. The two decide to sup and camp together that night. Safety in numbers and all that. But when he wakes up the next morning, his horse, his pack, his crappy new sword, and even his shoes, are gone! Curses and humilations!

Well. He can't go back to town. His reputation would be ruined! He figures he'll just have to make his way carefully through the forest and figure things out as he goes. If he runs into any monsters, he'll just have to take them hand-to-hand.

Ten minutes into the morning, he starts to itch. Bugbites all over. As he walks, itching gives way to trembling, aching joints, and fever. It's all he can do that afternoon to curl up, utterly miserable, on a bed of hastily-gathered fern fronds. Those pestilential bugs have given such an awful reaction there's nothing to do but sleep it off.

When he wakes, he can barely stand. His limbs feel like lead. His head is throbbing. He's hungry, thirsty, tired, in pain, unarmed, penniless, shoeless, and worst of all, weak. Even if he had a weapon, his limbs are trembling too much to wield it. He's just grateful that trapper didn't steal his shirt and pants too. Though if you wanted to strip him of even his dignity, you certainly could do that too.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And now, with a forest full of monsters between him and the evil king's castle, with nothing left but his own grit and determination, do we feel a sense of uncertainty in how things might turn out? What's going to happen when he stumbles across those monsters, or they across him? If he somehow makes it to the castle, how's he going to get in now that he can't just fight his way past the guards? How on earth can he possibly rescue that princess?

Beats me. But it's sure going to be fun to watch him try. Way more fun than watching Superman blow right through it.

Shoe-stealing works well because it forces the character to rely on traits he's not used to using. It makes the character choose strategies he's never used before, and therefore, has no idea whether they'll actually work. This method works by taking all of the character's comfortable, never-miss strategies off the table.

Object Lesson: James Bond

Ian Fleming's most famous creation is practically the Platonic ideal of a spy. A Hollywood spy, anyway.

However, he has evolved over time. As one actor has given way to the next over the decades of the Bond franchise, the character has changed.

The early Bonds were, in my view, very much in the Superman mold. Unflappable. Experts at everything from marksmanship to demolitions to wine tasting. Sure, Bond would get himself in a jam now and then, but he'd always get himself out of it with a well-placed fist or Q's latest magic laser-beam watch or dart gun or whatever. Between Bond's extraordinarily wide range of expert skills and Q's extraordinary gadgetry, basically every problem he confronts has been pre-solved for him.

And after a dozen films or so, it starts to wear thin.

So in the later films, we've seen changes. Bond is darker. His moral compass is not so assured. He has personal weaknesses. He seems to actually, you know, feel pain and stuff now. Why? Because by making him more human, less super, the writers make it harder for him to complete his mission.


In any guise, a superman is ultimately an exercise in fantasy wish fulfillment. Sure, we'd all like to have an easy life. We'd all like it if every situation we faced was something we could handle without breaking a sweat.

But it's not realistic. The real world isn't like that, and if you make your protagonist a Superman you're sabotaging your story. All the challenges become too easy to solve, thus killing any sense of drama those challenges might have offered.

Drama aside, Supermen are story-killers for another reason: your readers aren't them. Who can empathize with Superman? How many of Superman's qualities do you possess? Probably no more than I do. Or James Bond's? Or Dumbledore's? (There's more than one reason he wasn't the protagonist of Harry Potter.)

A Superman necessarily stands at an emotional distance from the readers, simply because none of us can know what it's like to be him.

But an underdog? An ordinary schlub just trying to get by in the face of challenges that seem insurmountable? Yeah. Every single one of us can empathize with that.