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My Favourite Superhuman Protagonists

“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.”

– Hayao Miyazaki, Interview

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

Avatar Aang Memorial Statue

Avatar Aang Memorial Statue in Republic City.

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

– Avatar: Escape to the Spirit World

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

Shevek from The Dispossessed

Shevek of Anarres.

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

Nausicaa's Solitude

Nausicaa’s Solitude. (Watercolour Impressions, p.81)

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.

 Questions

  • Who are your favourite protagonists?
  • Are they everyday people or superhuman?
  • What draws you to them?

Related Ekostories

References

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.

9 Comments

  1. I have a fondness for both the superhuman and everyday protagonist. However, I must disagree with Miyazaki, I am more drawn to those who are considered “normal.” But Normal in the terms of not having superpowers, or not being the “chosen one,” because I think in a way, no one is really “normal.” Everyone has qualities that make them strong, and qualities that make them weak, and it’s these qualities that define the people more so than their physical/magical powers. I think it’s harder to relate to those who have super powers or are incredibly gifted.

    I’m particularly drawn to not the main characters, but the friends of the main characters. The people who give up all they have, their beliefs, their homes, lives, to trust in the protagonist. I like the side characters because it highlights the fact that things happen not only because of one person, but because of many people.

    I can’t think of any specific favorites at the moment, but if I do, I’ll let you know.

    • Hi Ethan,

      Really appreciate your thoughts. I should provide a bit of context to Miyazaki quote. He does mention later he has no problems creating more normal characters; he just needed someone superhuman specifically for the lead in Nausicaa.

      I do think he gravitates towards extraordinary people because he is extraordinary himself. No beating around the bush around it; to call him an ordinary joe is just wrong. Few people are as much of a perfectionist and a workaholic as he is, are masters of their craft as he is. I could never do what he does, make the sacrifices he makes, walk the path that he walks. While no one may embody the fictional “normal”, he is as far away from that medium as anyone can be. I think more than any other story he has created, he channels a lot of himself into Nausicaa the protagonist. Her journey is really his journey in a lot of ways, which makes for a fascinating read on that level.

      Personally, I don’t place that much emphasis on physical/magical powers either (Otherwise my list would probably be full of comic book heroes and wizards). As I wrote, I don’t admire these protagonists for their talent and gifts and prowess, but rather how they use those gifts to learn about themselves and their world and take action to address injustice. That mental and moral strength is cultivated, comes with the process of personal growth. The tools they are given are the starting point; it is their courage and skill to build something meaningful that matters.

      I love your comment on side characters. In the end, forged connections and relationships are what make the protagonists, even in their solitude and isolation. The surrounding cast makes or breaks any story. Thinking about your comment, I realize I love the foils and supports almost as much as the characters I wrote about: Katara from Avatar, Takver from the Dispossessed, Kushana from Nausicaa. They are all brilliant, deep, female characters in their own right, and I think you’ve inspired me to write a piece on them later on. So thanks!

  2. Great post!!! Love Aang (and the whole Avatar series) and Nausicaä. I sheepishly confess that I haven’t read Ursula LeGuin’s classic. I need to do so. Love this quote: “They are willing to self-query and question their own assumptions, constantly adjusting their worldview.” Yes!! That’s what I love about these characters. They also showed that humility doesn’t make you a doormat. Aang and Nausicaä acted for the good, even standing up to those in authority.

    • Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      I think it’s important to note where that humility and empathy comes from. In each case, their acts of kindness don’t emanate from a place of approval-seeking. They know who they are and can live with themselves. When they reach out to others, they are simply practicing who they want to be rather than needing others to reaffirm who they are. It takes a strong, confident person with a lot of self-awareness and inner peace to do that – the opposite of a doormat.

      Your comment about acting for the good is an interesting one that opens up a really big can of worms. I cut out a chunk in my piece because it was getting a little long, but I had noted that each of these characters (especially for Shevek) actually refuses to sublimate their will for a “greater good”. No self-sacrifices, no martyrdom. They do what they do because they want to take the risk and do the work. That’s why Nausicaa from the manga is a completely different character than the movie and is infinitely more interesting.

  3. I don’t particularly care to read about “everyman” characters. Why read a story at all if it’s going to be about someone who’s not much different than me?

    That said, by definition, a protagonist is meant to be better at “something” than most other people. That something needn’t be a superhuman skill – it might be as mundane as baking, or making people feel at ease – but whatever it is, I enjoy stories where the protag is head and shoulders above everyone else at his/her skill – to the extent that it’s not actually that far off from a superhuman trait.

    • I think sometimes I enjoy being able to completely immerse myself in another character and not feel intimidated. Different strokes for different folks? 🙂

      Upon further reflection, I don’t really have a preference between ordinary protagonists and superhuman ones. I listed my favourite gifted characters, but I can probably think of plenty who aren’t so gifted but still go on neat journeys. I don’t care where they start out as, just as long as they are active in the story and grow and change, either internally or externally.

      Even that rule can be subverted. There are tragedies where people refuse to grow and change, even when given the opportunities throughout the story, and that more than anything, breaks my heart. Those are pretty neat protagonists too!

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