Sunday, November 10, 2013

Finding the Soul of a Character

Four months ago, Mrs. Magnetic Monkey and I were blessed with the arrival of our first baby monkey and she and I could not have been more excited. As an INFJ, having a child lead me to serious amounts of soul searching, questioning my own life choices for the future, and lengthy conversations with people about how to best nurture this precious life that was now entrusted to me.

And then I thought about Star Wars.

My son has never seen Star Wars but as soon as I can possibly convince Mrs. Monkey...we are doing it. For years, I thought I had the question of how to introduce my children to Star Wars ironed out: start them with episodes 4 and 5, then jump back in time to watch 1 through 3 2 and 3, then end with Return of the Jedi. Boom. Done.

But between then and now, a ton of new content has been added to the canonical Star Wars universe. A new movie coming out (2015!) and there's the Clone War cartoon show. Between now and when Baby Monkey watches Star Wars, who knows what Disney will have done with the franchise? Will they have done a full reboot and redone A New Hope? What parts of the story that I knew and loved will remain intact for me to introduce to him?

Retelling and reimagining the myths that we inherit from our parents is a critical component of human existence. Hercules, Odysseus, and Beowulf are all characters from antiquity that have survived and been reimagined for generations. My son will reimagine and retell the stories I share with him just as I reimagined and retold those given to me by my father.

So all that has gotten me wondering: what are the critical pieces of a character that can't change from generation to generation without losing the soul of who the character is? What are the immutable characteristics that have to remain the same for the character to be the character?

What it isn't

A hero's soul is not the costume. Over the years most characters have had massive redesigns to their basic costume, especially Iron Man and Batman. The X-Men exchanged colored spandex for black leather. Superman recently lost his red underoos on the big screen and no one really cared about that.

A hero's soul is not determined by his or her villains villains. A villain derives her or his identity from their heroic nemesis but the reverse is not true. Man of Steel showed that Superman can still be Superman with nary a hint of Lex Luthor. The first Iron Man was brilliant without Mandarin.

A hero's soul is not bound by an era. The Marvel characters that inhabit the world of Neil Gaiman's excellent 1602 were just as vibrant while living several centuries before the normal Earth-616 timeline.

What it might be

At the end of the day, I think each fictional character's soul is demonstrated on the page in how the character reacts to the dangers and events of the fictional world they inhabit.

If that changes...I think that's when a character's soul is lost. Or, at a minimum, changed to the point of essentially being someone else. The trick is whether each generation will respond and keep the soul of the character they've inherited or whether they will discard it for something new. That's why the ending of Man of Steel was a bridge too far for many fans: Superman's soul, to them, contained a morality clause that Superman...Never...Kills. Personally, I haven't picked up a Spider-Man comic since Brand New Day because I was so horrified and offended that the writers had Peter Parker making a selfish, juvenile choice when he could have made the adult and noble one.

I think the anger comes from people believing that as a group, "we" had all decided these are facets of the character's soul that would never change. But change happens. Just as with my father and my son, as each generation revisits the the myths of their fathers and mothers some things are bound to change. I accept that.

With that said, here are the immutable soul characteristics of my favorite heroes that represent who I think they've been to this last generation and, selfishly, who I hope they will be to my son and his generation:

  • Batman: unwavering self-confidence and belief that his methods and his team will win the day
  • Captain America: unfailing nobility in all choices and dedication to his ideals
  • Cyclops: single minded focus and clarity on the task at hand amidst crushing self doubt
  • Spider-Man: mature choices amidst juvenile joking; chooses the path that secures happiness for someone else at the expense of his own
  • Superman: an overwhelming optimism and serenity in the face of intergalactic challenges
  • Wolverine: a profound, relentless, and unstoppable will to protect those weaker than himself
So to comic book and movie writers of the world I say this: change whatever else you want and I'll be fine. Put Spider-Man in a silver metal suit. Give Superman a mullet again. I will still read your books and take my son to your movies. That's not what makes them who they are. Just please. Please. Be gentle with the souls of these characters. These heroes informed my childhood and the adult I became and I hope that I still recognize these characters when it's time for them to hopefully do the same for Baby Monkey.

See this? This change is fine.

This is not.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. The challenge of serial writing is how to progress a story while keeping things the same. Marvel hits the thing on the nose, referring to changes as a "new status quo." I think if you look at the X-Men books, they are the most remarkable at changing characters over time, while keeping them true to their souls, as you put it. What is interesting about the Brand New Day retcon is that the editorial staff thought Spiderman had lost his soul, and they were trying to give it back. I heartily disagree with their compass for Peter Parker, but it's interesting that their intentions were really to preserve him in amber, not to make changes.