Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

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