Stronger than Superman: Power in our Stories

Power is the great and necessary evil in our fiction. Some characters pursue it single-mindedly (and chances are, even if they start out with the best intentions, it will corrupt them). Others will do anything to avoid power, only to have it thrust upon them. But in a time where so many people feel powerless in the real world, I’ve been thinking a lot about how power actually works – in life, and in our fiction.

When we use the word “power,” it has several different meanings. In the broadest sense, I think power is a person or character’s ability to do stuff. That “stuff” could mean flying, or magic, or hacking a computer, or changing a law, or helping people in need, or maybe just making a perfect cup of tea. Some of these powers are more useful (or more dangerous) than others, but they’re all forms of power we can play with in fiction – or seek for ourselves.

Let’s look at some ways power manifests in the stories we tell, and equally importantly, some forms of power that tend to be absent from our fiction.

Superman

Innate Power

Some characters are naturally powerful in a way that ordinary humans can’t be. Think Superman: he’s super. He’s super at everything, and it all comes easily to him. These characters are fun to write and fun to follow, and there’s more than a little wish fulfillment involved. We enjoy powers in our characters that we can’t have in real life, whether it’s exceptional charm or the ability to fly.

Often, innate power is genetic: you get magical abilities because it’s “in your blood.” Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter both get their power from their parents. If you’re in a story and you have this sort of power, you have to use it, even if you don’t want to – you’re inevitably going to be sent on an unavoidable quest. Such power can be a birthright and a burden, and the stories we usually tell around extraordinarily powerful characters are about their choices, not their abilities. A good Superman story isn’t about whether he can punch hard enough to defeat the bad guy – he always will. The story is about how he’ll do it, and what he might sacrifice along the way.

Money and Political Power

These forms of power are darker and more real: wealth means power in most stories, just as it does in the real world. But too many stories portray wealth and political power like innate power, equally important and equally immutable. I’ve written before about speculative fiction’s excessive love of monarchies and dictatorships. People in power tend to be monolithic – you don’t see a lot of stories with leaders getting voted in and out, though we see plenty of wars and schemes and spying and plotting for the sake of securing power. In some worlds, if you happen to be born as a prince or princess, even if you were raised in secret, once you discover your true history, you’re set for life. In others, well, as they say: in the game of thrones, you win or you die.

I think these sorts of stories appeal to our ambitious, cynical sides. We might not find wealthy or politically powerful characters appealing, but we can easily understand their motivations. They feel real to us because we see so many of these people in real life – which makes these kinds of stories believable but depressing. At best, we can hope for such characters to get their due from another power-seeker. Justice isn’t likely, and we know they won’t reform their ways, because in stories like these, no power comes from being a good person.

Quests for Power

In stories, if you want innate or political power and you don’t have it, then tough luck. In the real world, innate power is usually called privilege, and it’s not magic – it’s toxic and ever-present, usually invisible but very real. If we don’t have privilege, we have to work extra hard for our achievements. But in fiction, seeking power you haven’t been innately granted is usually presented as a bad idea. To get it, you’ll probably have to make a deal with a demon or a witch or otherwise corrupt yourself, and it won’t turn out the way you hoped.

The usual moral here is that power is dangerous, and the hunger for power is doubly dangerous. But perhaps there’s a subtler and more disturbing message that, if you don’t have privilege or power, you shouldn’t try to get it. I’d like to see more stories that subvert that trope: where characters without magic or superpowers work really hard, achieve them, and then use them awesomely.

But there are other ways to work toward power:

Power via Skills

Superman might be an all-time favorite, but I feel more of a connection to Supergirl. She has all the same powers as Superman, but at the beginning of her series, she’s still figuring out how to use them. She doesn’t have the skills yet, and in the process of developing them, she messes up. A lot. That resonates because we all make mistakes when we’re learning new things. It’s one thing to have a natural talent, but as any professional athlete or concert pianist (or writer, for that matter) will tell you, talent is no good without practice. We love stories about people who try hard, make mistakes, learn from them, and get better, because we can all do that too.

Power via People

What I don’t often see, and would like to, is power in fiction being achieved on a mass scale. That’s how political change really happens: not with one bold, skilled, innately talented hero, but with vast numbers of people coming together to bring change about, with or without a leader representing them. When organizers — the people leading real-world movements for change — talk about power, they mean people power. This sort of power is built gradually through a lot of hard work by a whole lot of people. It’s a wave rather than a lightning bolt, building force to drive a change through influence. Organizers grow their numbers, win allies, and seek influence to achieve their goals, and this process lends itself well to stories.

A good example is Seth Dickinson’s brilliant and heartbreaking novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Baru works her way up through the ranks of the very government she hates, seeking first to change it, then to overthrow it. One of the reasons I love this book is that Baru’s super skill is accounting – yes, any skill can be a power. But she also realizes early on that she can’t win alone, and needs to figure out who to trust, eventually forming a series of powerful alliances and winning growing numbers of people over to her side. I can’t say more without massive spoilers, but watching Baru’s successes and failures gives us a good look at the real, messy process of building power.

Right now, I believe we need more of this sort of story. Preferably some with happy endings, please! Because this is what’s necessary to resist, and it’s what people who never got involved in politics before have been learning to do this year, because Superman isn’t here to save us. We have to do this ourselves, no superpowers allowed. Let’s have more stories to show us what power and change look like, and what it takes to win when you feel like you have no power.

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