Superhuman Fiction: The Juxtaposition of the Ordinary with the Extraordinary
My name is Samhain Corvus LaCroix. I am a necromancer. Now, if only I could say that with a straight face.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (2010)
Superhuman fiction is a subgenre of urban fantasy, where the young protagonist, who is almost always male, must separate himself from the support of his family and embrace his superhuman nature. This nature manifests itself with unusual, and often dangerous, powers as well as previously unknown threats to the protagonist and the wider world. There are strong elements of Entwicklungsroman, "novels of development" (Trites 2000), where the protagonist matures but does not yet reach adulthood by the end of the story. The protagonist struggles against external threats, as well as internal ones, and gains control of his world through practical and moral terms, understanding how the new world works as well as the repercussions of his own powers and actions (Levy 1999).
This genre presents a juxtaposition between the ordinary and the extraordinary, where the stories focus on protagonists "acting out their roles" (Clute 2012) in a world that is ultimately implied rather than fully developed. The worlds of Rick Riodran's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2008), Lish McBride's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (2010), and Pittacus Lore's I Am Number Four (2011), diverge from the readers' real world, but the extent of the collision between reality and fantasy varies. The action takes place in real cities, schools, fast-food restaurants and on the road, but beyond the protagonists' immediate environment it is never clear how widespread the superhuman influence is, or how much reality has been changed. For example, the Seattle of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, includes a shadowy supernatural community but beyond hints of similar communities in New Orleans, the reader is unsure about how far the supernatural influence reaches. The extent of influence is clearer in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, as Riordan connects the gods of Ancient Greece with modern day New York City, offering an explanation for the translocation and the implication that most of the mythological activity is centred in the 'new world', but the existence of other mythological creatures is left to the imagination of readers.
Despite some critics holding on to "fantasy literature ground rules" (Pennington 2002) where fantasy stories require a separation from reality, or a Secondary World, it is actually the imbedding of fantasy into the mundane world that serves as a foundation of urban fantasy and superhuman fiction (Clute 2012). Ironically, Pennington's criticism of the Harry Potter books is that "magic is defined by its relationship to the real" (Pennington 2002). It is this relationship which makes superhuman fiction more relatable to Young Adult and New Adult readers. While the protagonist has superhuman abilities, it is also the everyday problems which resonate with the reader, such as Percy Jackson's dyslexia and ADHD, Number Four's desire to fit in at his new school, or Sam LaCroix's dead-end job and state of ennui.
While urban fantasy allows all kinds of readers to enjoy the mix of magic and realism, there is undoubtedly a distinct type of lead character in these stories, and the homogeneity of these protagonists needs to be examined. Percy, Sam and Number Four are all single, white American teenage boys or young men. Even Number Four, who is an alien from the planet Lorien, takes on the physical attributes of an attractive, athletic all-American teenage boy. While Percy Jackson's father is a Greek God, he shows no trace of a Greek ethnicity in his appearance. And, although there are examples of ethnic characters in supporting roles, such as Ramon in Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, the main 'heroic' characters are reserved for young white men.
Seymour Chatman established a model of narrative structure to distinguish between the real author, implied author, narrator, narratee, implied reader and real reader (Trites 2000), and given the nature of the protagonist in superhuman fiction, it could be expected that the implied reader would be teenage boys. Sanderson (Day, George, Sanderson et al, 2010) suggests that a general rule of thumb in writing is to position the protagonist two years older than the targeted audience, or implied reader. Percy Jackson, at twelve years old in the first book, would have an implied reader around ten years. Number Four, at sixteen (mentioned in the sequel, The Power of Six) and Sam LaCroix at twenty years old would have older implied readers. Despite the age of the protagonists and the target audience, as Gilead suggests, the teenage or young adult characters "reflect the adult writer's intentions and satisfy adult readers' notions about children's tastes and needs." (Gilead 1991). So, while the teenage narrators of the books connect with their teenage audience, it is through the adult writer that the story is really told. Pittacus Lore, who is an amalgam of Jobie Hughes and James Frey, lends extra complication to this idea of the real author and implied author as Pittacus Lore is presented as a member of the Lorien race and keeper of the 'true stories' of the Lorien Nine.
Chatman's identification of narrator and narratee are another feature of superhuman fiction. In most cases the stories are told in first person, with the narrator/protagonist retelling the story in an almost confessional manner. This retrospective structure affords the reader some security knowing that the character will survive, and, as Sturm and Michel suggest, allows a "juxtaposition of comfort and anxiety" (Sturm & Michel 2009) which reinforces the general contradictions evident in adolescence (Battis 2011, Levy 1999, Sturm & Michel 2009). Percy Jackson narrates his story to other potential demigod narratees ("Don't say I didn't warn you." (Riordan 2008) ), while Number Four's story is presented to the reader as a record of actual events.
The protagonist is the central force in any superhuman fiction, and what sets them apart from the rest of humanity is the presence of superhuman powers. These generally begin to appear during adolescence and are previously inhibited by parents or guardians. Sam's powers are muted by his mother's herb bag and his uncle's magic. Percy's nature is hidden by a smelly stepfather. The discovery of their powers generally results in a separation from the security of family, as the protagonist feels betrayed when their secret nature is revealed.
As with many YA/NA novels, the role of parents is one of the "defining characteristics" (Trites 2000) of superhuman fiction, and they generally serve as "sources of conflict ... [more than] ... sources of support ... more likely to repress than to empower." (Trites 2000). Fathers are generally absent (Levy 1999) and the source of conflict and power in these stories, while mothers are characterised by "implicit deceptiveness" (Kaplan 2005), well-meaning but unable to understand their sons' desires, particularly the desire to know their father.
Percy Jackson and Sam LaCroix are both raised by their single mothers and the embellished stories of their absent fathers. Percy's father is the god Poseidon and Sam's father is the mundane Kevin. Both were only present for a short time after the birth of their sons, and both of them are responsible for passing on superhuman powers, as well as threats from other superhuman agents. As the son of one of the Big Three (Zeus, Hades and Poseidon), Percy is a violation of a treaty and his appearance threatens to open a new war between the gods. Sam's necromancer nature, passed to him by his father, means he has difficulty connecting with the living world and also threatens the power base of the local necromancer, Douglas, who plans to steal his powers and then kill him. Their fathers have, inadvertently or deliberately, put the protagonists' lives in danger.
The protagonists' mothers are also implicit in putting their sons in danger. The mothers are aware of their sons' natures but hide the fact from them for their own good. As a child, Sam noticed his mother hesitating before she touched him but only realised this was fear when his powers manifest. "I saw it. You're afraid of what I am." This fear is an interesting mirror to the contradictory nature of adolescence, where the mothers simultaneously love and want to protect their sons, but also fear what they are capable of.
Even when there are no actual parents, such as in I Am Number Four, the protagonist is compelled to "construct a parent to murder" (Trites 2000). Number Four is raised and protected by Henri who serves as the parent figure, in logos parentis, and restricts Number Four's freedoms, particularly his desire to lead a normal teenage life. Like the other protagonists, Number Four must circumvent Henri's control in order to gain his independence and identity.
The structure of superhuman fiction generally follows the Heroic Journey monomyth, with the protagonist beginning the story in the Ordinary World. Percy Jackson is a troubled teen living with his mother and horrible step father, struggling with dyslexia and ADHD. Sam LaCroix has dropped out of college and works in a dead end job. There are other types of openings, such as the prologue. In I Am Number Four, the action prologue begins with the deadly pursuit of Number Three through a jungle which quickly establishes the threat and hints at the superhuman elements of the world. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief offers up a confessional opening, introducing Percy as the narrator and warning that the world is not as mundane as the reader thinks. Whether the story begins with a prologue or a more direct connection between narrator and narratee, the importance of establishing interest in the superhuman world is paramount.
The prominence of the first person narrator in this genre is offset, to an extent, by the use of multiple perspectives in Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. The sections focusing on Sam are first person, but when the perspective shifts to other characters such as Douglas or Brid, the novel moves to a third person limited perspective. Koss identified several key benefits of using multiple perspectives, including young people "becoming more accepting of diverse populations and multiple perspectives on single events" (Koss 2009). However, it is likely the "synthesising [of] information" (Koss 2009) is most important in bringing together a complicated story where even the protagonist is unaware of events happening around him. In superhuman fiction, the protagonist is fallible and does not have all the answers. In fact, he is most often learning about himself, his powers and his world at the same rate as the reader.
As well as the central protagonist, superhuman fiction relies on a group of companions, especially as the parental figures are exiled early in the story. These companions are often made up of familiar tropes including the unattainable, clever girl (or sister) and the comedic guy (or brother). Percy Jackson is assisted by Annabeth, who, despite some flirtation, never becomes anything more than a rival and sister-figure; and Grover, the bumbling faun who eats metal cans and embodies the embarrassment of adolescence (acne, voice changes etc.). Sam is friends with the beautiful Brooke, but when she is murdered and reanimated as a talking head, any possible romance is removed and she is left as a wise-cracking, intelligent but disembodied sister-figure. Sam is also assisted by the streetwise and suave Ramon, who has been Sam's best friend for years (substitute brother); as well as Frank who is the ultra-normal new employee, always keen to have a go and make a good impression, but who is doomed to embarrass himself. Number Four meets his two companions in the same scene: Sarah, the beautiful girl who becomes his girlfriend but is left behind at the end of the story; and Sam, the conspiracy theorist and collector of UFO memorabilia who also happens to reflect the nerd stereotype, complete with glasses. The way in which the companions change over the course of the story is an important part of this genre, from their surprise (and consternation) at the displays of power by the protagonist to the fluctuating insecurities and confidences, which mirror that of the protagonist.
It's important to note that the stories follow mundane story arcs as well as fantastic ones, and that "seemingly 'empowered' teens ... still negotiate a set of barriers and marginalities as adolescents." (Battis 2011) Number Four is faced with the challenges of starting a new school, and then when his powers are discovered, he must face the threat of leaving the town and starting over with a whole new identity. Percy Jackson battles bullies in his mundane world as well as in Camp Half- Blood, and constantly struggles against his low self-esteem. One of the common sources of stress is a developing sexuality, but this is focused more on concerns "about their attractiveness to others" (Sturm & Michel 2009) and reflects the self- deprecating and modest personalities of the protagonists. In fact, there is generally a fusion of humour and sex in the stories, whether it be the throw-away flirtatious lines in Percy Jackson or in the layered innuendo between Sam and the fairy- werewolf Brid in Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, where the two find themselves locked in a cage. Sam's nervous Freudian slips and the naked Brid's no-nonsense responses acknowledge the sexual desires of the characters and readers, but never venture into explicit physical contact.
As the protagonists confront their emotional and physical hurdles, their moral judgement is also tested. Percy has the opportunity to kill his hated stepfather, Gabe Ugliano, but questions himself: "Did I have the right to send someone there?" (Riordan 2008). Percy had earlier witnessed his mother's death at the hands of the minotaur (although it is later revealed that death is not absolute). The confrontation with mortality is an important part of YA fiction, and Trite suggests death is considered a "threat" (Trites 2000) rather than a part of the cycle of life. Sam struggles with death and his ability to reanimate the dead from the very first moment he realises he is a necromancer. In times of stress he is able to call up the dead to save him, whether it be the corpse of a moose or the tortured bodies hidden in Douglas' cellar, but it is once the action has passed that Sam must truly learn about the responsibility of his powers. He acknowledges the selfishness of bringing back the dead and makes the decision to help his friend, Brooke, finally return to being dead even though he will personally miss her. Number Four is faced with the death of his de facto father, Henri, and reflects Trites' idea that teenagers "feel powerless because someone they love dies" (Trites 2000), but that strength (physical, emotional, moral) can sometimes spring from that sense of powerless.
Returning to Percy Jackson, however, and the very concept of death is challenged. While Sam is able to reanimate the dead, he can not bring them back without losing the spark of life. Percy, on the other hand, is able to venture into Hades and retrieve his mother. Death is not absolute in the Percy Jackson books, or at least, is open to not being absolute depending upon the author's requirements.
The author's ideology, their message and themes, are often brought to light in the protagonist's return (Gilead 1991), but superhuman fiction, and urban fantasy in general, does not seem to line up against Gilead's three styles of closure. The 'adventurers return home' suggests the fantasy world is left behind, but in all three examples of this genre, the protagonist remains in their world. Threats remain and more training is required. Likewise, Gilead's 'dreamers awake' and 'magical beings depart' styles are not appropriate. The protagonists do not "reject or deny the fantasy", nor do they "turn against fantasy" (Gilead 1991).
In all three examples, the protagonist finally comes to understand and accept his place in the world, which includes elements of the ordinary and the extraordinary. He is reunited with his mother and has taken steps to accept and possibly understand (if not forgive) his father. In the end, Sam, Percy and Number Four show themselves to be 'better' or 'more present and relevant' than their fathers. The stories certainly force the reader to see the "ambiguities and dualities of life" (Nilsen 2009) as well as being a "symbolic portrayal of many young readers' most cherished hopes for the future." (Levy 1999)
And while superhuman fiction empowers readers through the empowerment of the protagonists, there are certain areas which need to be addressed. All three examples have sequels. The Percy Jackson series currently has eleven books, as well as three books in The Kane Chronicles and other spin-off series which exist in the same world. One potential problem with the cross-media interest (films, graphic novel adaptations, sequels) is the potential for overload. Superhuman fiction exists on the edge between fantasy and reality, and over exposure to the magical worlds may take away elements of the everyman appeal. Certainly, in Lish McBride's sequel, Necromancing the Stone, there is the problem of having a large and superpowered cast, to the point where no character can be considered baseline normal. Ramon has been transformed into a werebear. Brooke has returned as a guardian angel. Even the ultra-normal Frank has become an adopted member of the Garden Gnomes. A balance is required between keeping the stories fresh and moving forward (further development along the Entwicklungsroman) and maintaining clear connections to the ordinary world.
The propensity for white American male protagonists also needs to be challenged in future to broaden the appeal but also reflect more of the real world. Multiple third person perspective allows for a wider range of insights into the story, so perhaps a move away from the first person narrator could assist with this. Certainly, the introduction of more main and supporting characters from different ethnic groups, gender and sexual orientation would be as empowering to readers as the stories themselves are to the protagonists. Riordan has tackled this with his Kane Chronicles, which focus on Carter and Sadie Kane: half-siblings who have Egyptian heritage, with Carter being dark-skinned and Sadie being lighter in complexion.
Whatever its future, superhuman fiction currently works as a genre which juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary. The protagonists are recognisably 'normal' as well as possessing superhuman abilities, and it is this universality of adolescence which ultimately allows readers to be empowered along with the characters.
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