“But this is a period in which everyone wants to read about ‘heroes’ who are consummately normal people. If they’re not, the readers don’t believe in them. I don’t like this. That’s how things are these days, but frankly speaking, I dislike it. Making heroes who are just like you or everyone else around you. I wanted to create a character who was not like that.”
I remember laughing aloud while reading this particular tidbit; the blunt candor of a master not afraid to speak his mind is always refreshing. Have we really grown to appreciate average joes over saints? I can see how ordinary characters can be more relatable and how great heroes and heroines can be reduced to bland and remote archetypes.
But I see that as an issue of characterization, not of character. Most of my favourite protagonists start and finish their journeys as extraordinary people, yet they are no less flawed, complex, or fascinating than any “consummate normal”. In this entry, I’d like to take a look at three superhuman protagonists. Each of them is, has been, or will be featured on Ekostories: Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Shevek from The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. Each of them gains strength and depth under repeat scrutiny and analysis; they endure well after other lesser protagonists and people are forgotten.
Extraordinarily Humane and Human
Each of these characters exemplifies the best humanity has to offer. Aang is the youngest and most powerful Avatar in his world’s history. Nausicaa excels at being an explorer, scientist, warrior, pilot, mediator, and mother. Shevek becomes the greatest physicist of the known inhabited worlds.
Yet I don’t admire them for their innate gifts or talents or wit. As the reader/viewer, I am more inspired by their willingness to try and fulfill their immense potential. Here are characters who are literally capable of doing anything. Endowed with that ultimate freedom, each chooses over the course of their journey to take on the responsibilities that freedom entails, along with all its moral and ethical implications. Aang uses his power to restore balance between the four nations of his world. Nausicaä acts as the bridge between the worlds of the insects and humans. Shevek braves exile to another planet in hopes of reconciliation and connection.
Each one of them possesses the size and strength of spirit to see the bigger picture and acts in service of humanity and to life, seeking always to transcend borders, nations, and pettiness. They are great humanists and humanitarians.
If you were an all-powerful spirit living on the top of some mountain…. you wouldn’t have much in common with an ordinary person. So the Avatar continues to take human rebirth. And with each life, learns what it means to be human
Yet their ambition and drive are tempered by their desire to root themselves in people and community. They do not seek escape through the pursuit of knowledge or truth, but instead immerse themselves in the complexities of ordinary life. Aang rejects his people’s philosophy of detachment to forge lasting transnational friendships. Nausicaa naturally seeks connection with every living thing she encounter. Raised in a society with no marital expectations, Shevek realizes lasting joy and fulfilment in his voluntary partnership with Takver. Each of these characters forms deep bonds that ground them in the enduring present, and by so doing, become kind, compassionate, and well-rounded human beings.
As capable as they are, they still falter and make mistakes. Aang runs away from his responsibilities. A naive Shevek succumbs to the temptations of the state. Nausicaä is overwhelmed by her burdens and resigns to give up on the world. Yet they always bounce back from these experiences, growing and maturing into wiser individuals without ever becoming jaded and cynical from life’s adversities. For me, it is this resilience that makes these protagonists worthy of being labelled heroes and heroines.
Revolutionary Forces of Change
Placed into pivotal points of history, each character has the courage and foresight to steer their world’s fortunes in defiance of the tyranny of individuals, the greed of the state, and cruel contempt for life. Aang ends a century long conflict by overthrowing a ruthless autocratic regime. Shevek’s work forever alters the nature of communication. Nausicaä touches and affects the lives of all whom she meets, setting many on a road towards personal redemption.
Each one of them accomplishes these sweeping changes while being open to change themselves. They are flexible and accepting of the experiences and insights of others. They are willing to self-query and question their own assumptions, constantly adjusting their worldview. This humility provides space for me as the reader/viewer. Even though they are far beyond me, they don’t have all the answers. They are simply doing the best that they can, because that’s the best any of us can do in the end.
“Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice – the power of change, the essential function of life. “
– The Dispossessed, p. 333
But ultimately they stand firm on a bedrock of core values, values founded upon universal ideals of balance, solidarity, and compassion, values that serve as the source of their incredible inner strength and moral authority. Aang restores peace to his world without violating his personal principles. Nausicaä is unflinching in her empathy for life, championing to all its intrinsic worth. Shevek freely offers his life’s work to all without expectation of reward or profit. I am drawn to each of these characters not because they are good and do good, but because they act in alignment of their values to affect change their own way; in the end, they answer to no one but their own formidable consciences.
Connected but Alone
This is by far my favourite piece of artwork by Miyazaki (and he’s done a lot). Evidently, it’s also one of his favourites as well. Throughout the manga, Nausicaä is surrounded by people and creatures who come to love and defend her. Yet in this image, she is alone, world-weary and lost in thought, unapproachable. The piece seems to highlight the fact that solitude is the price she pays for her uniqueness. The burdens she takes on willingly sets her apart, and the path she treads cannot be walked by anyone else.
“You are a ring-bearer, Frodo. To bear a ring of power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you. And if you do not find a way, no one will.”
– Galadriel, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Isolation is a part of the other two protagonists as well. Aang has his circle of close friends, but he accepts the fact that he is the sole survivor of his people and the sole Avatar in all the world. Despite growing up in a communal society founded upon brotherhood and mutual aid, Shevek has always known he saw things differently than others, eventually realizing the only way he could fulfill his role in the social organism is to journey alone to another world.
“It never occurred to (Shevek) that the reserve he met in Bedap and Tirin might be a response; that his gentle but already formidably hermetic character might form its own ambience, which only great strength, or great devotion, could withstand. “
-The Dispossessed, p. 56
Perhaps the writer in me is drawn to these characters because I identify with that sense of isolation. It’s invigorating to be a part of a writer’s community, to connect with people who have gone through similar struggles and joys. But ultimately writing is a solitary act, involving tiny tests of inner fortitude and small acts of self-courage. The individual journeys of these superhuman protagonists – gifted, wise, lonely souls – inspire me to reach for truth – my own truth, the writer’s truth, every time I put words on screen or paper.
- Who are your favourite protagonists?
- Are they everyday people or superhuman?
- What draws you to them?
- Avatar the Last Airbender: Balance and Moral Courage
- The Power of Vulnerability, by Brené Brown
- The Greatest Ekostory Ever Told: The Nausicaä Project
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974). The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, ebook edition, 2010.
Miyazaki, Hayao (1980-1996). The Art of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Watercolor Impressions. English Adaptation by Andrew Cunningham. Viz Media, LLC: San Francisco, 2007.
Saitani, Ryo. I Understand NAUSICAA a Bit More than I Did a Little While Ago – An Interview with Hayao Miyazaki. Retrieved from http://www.comicbox.co.jp/e-nau/e-nau.html.
Images of Avatar: The Legend of Korra © 2012 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.