Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Peter Petrelli Effect

Last week's teaser we found out a bit more about Giaan, that he has a rather strange ability. Someone said she always thought my WIP was "realistic fiction" and nothing to do with powers or stuff like that, and was quite shocked at the reveal (which pretty much mirrored what everyone else was thinking, judging by their: "Woah, I didn't know he had a power!"). Lol it is realistic fiction, in a way, and I'm happy about her reaction, cos it means I'm on the right track. I didn't have to result to any "my character has this weird power and he's confused and he doesn't want to use his powers but he has to, blah, blah, blah" to generate tension and make her feel for Giaan.

Giaan's biggest problem is not power-related. He's in a bad place right now and he can't come out of it through magic or doing something freaky. And you know what, that's cool.

I believe a character's power shouldn't define them. Who they are – not what they can do – is what should count the most. Giaan's pain, his "normal" struggles, his personality, his choices in "normal" situations, etc, are the very essence of his humanity, and that's the part of him I want readers to empathise with.

I guess this is me revolting against the norm. There are too many YA books out there today where the biggest problem a protag faces is one she has to solve by utilising her paranormal gift, and said problem is the only problem capable of striking true fear in her heart. All other problems, though strong enough to trigger some minor distress, border on the mundane, and only exist to expand the book's pages: protag has a crush on a boy and worries whether he likes her back and if he'll ask her out; protag has to deal with bullies or mean girls; etc.

Romance and encounter with mean girls are not sufficient ingredients in creating believable, three-dimensional teenagers, especially when we know by the book's conclusion the protag will most likely end up dating her boy-crush and defeating the mean girls. If your character's only normal problems are boys/girls and bullies and homework, and their only biggest problem is defeating the mystical beast with magic or paranormal powers, then you risk your character falling victim to the Peter Petrelli effect.

Peter Petrelli is this dude from Heroes, a TV show, who had a lot of cool powers, and everyone wanted to be like him at some point in the show's first season. When he lost his powers he became the most boring ass dude in television history. Why, cos without his powers he had no purpose. He had no vision. He had nothing. I started to ask myself, who the hell is this guy? He became worse than one-dimensional. There was nothing interesting about his life, because he had no life to begin with. The only time he seemed to breathe was when he could shoot something from his hands or read minds or do some shit like that.

Separate your characters from their powers or abilities; render them "normal" and see how interesting they are without the ubiquitous, clich├ęd young adult problems: "I like a boy but I don't know if he likes me?", "Those girls at school are always picking on me", etc. Doing so could help you and your characters circumvent the Peter Petrelli effect.


  1. To be fair, Peter (though sexy--what can I say? I'm shallow) was pretty boring to start with. He seemed one-note: that note was empathy, which was his power, too. Which could have been interesting, but in practice, made for a pretty wishy-washy, wimpy character. Emotastic, so to speak.

    (But then, after loving the first season, I gave up on Heroes right quick, so maybe I shouldn't talk!)

    This is a great entry, though. I definitely agree that there needs to be more going on than supernatural abilities--characters need to be people, first. For me, supernatural abilities tend to be more of a problem for my characters to solve than an easy solution. After all, teenagers, especially, don't want to be weird. Even if their weirdness is, in some ways, awesome to a casual observer.

  2. Yeah, for me, even though a character having powers is a problem, I really don't see it as a big problem, except it's a power that's really weird - like talking to the dead, or something strange. If your character could fly, honestly, I don't think a lot of people at school would freak out. They'd probably worship him or her.

    Powers themselves aren't enough obstacles to help mould three-dimensional characters. There has to be something else, something that's grounded on reality and less to do with superpowers or paranormal stff

  3. I agree completely. Powers don't make three-dimensional characters. I think sometimes authors are so busy trying to develop the powers and getting the characters to get used to them and focusing only on this weird ability that they forget the character needs to be a person first and needs to have more to them than that. They worry about developing the ability more than they worry about developing the character, which is a very bad thing indeed.

    I do now remember that weird guy you had from way back in that teaser where he destroyed the neighborhood, I believe, and there was this line about this man's heart being shattered because his wife had been killed or something like that--so at least it's not the first ever mention of powers. I'm just really surprised Giaan has powers. That just makes him even cooler. So your revolting against the norm works!

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post!

  4. It's nice to know somebody out there sees supernatural gifts for what they are - 'gifts'! I think it's easy for people/authors to forget that there's a person hiding under that power, and that powers don't MAKE a personality.

    I watched Heroes as well, and thought the same thing. I wish they'd constructed Peter BEFORE making him all one-dimensional and powerless (literally).

    I love this post! :D

  5. Powers can sometimes be the biggest problem, but they have to present real problems. OMG, I have this awesome power, waah, it's making my life hard, can be pretty boring. OMG, I have this HORRIBLE power, what can I do about it, is far more interesting. Of course the characters should have more problems than that too. All characters should be three-dimensional, whether their main problem is related to powers or family or love or some off-the-wall situation.

  6. Yeah Sage, but maybe it's just me, but I've never really found the whole "my power is a HUUUUGE problem" believable. Yeah, it's a problem, but that BIG a problem? Nah. It must be bcos I don't know what it's like to have powers, and I don't know anyone who has powers, so it's hard to empathise with a character that says, my powers are big problems for me. But if they had HUMAN problems as their BIGGEST problems, that would actually work out fine

  7. I meant to comment on this post a few days ago, and then got busy. I think you're spot on, I can think of lots of characters that are blank slates without their powers (Edward Cullen, anyone?)

    I do think that how the angst over powers is dealt with can be affected by how long the character has been dealing with them. Were they born with an ability? Did they just get bitten by the radioactive spider a few days ago?

    I see a lot of stories where the character's powers or inherited abilities develop at the onset of puberty. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's just another reason for the character to whine.


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